During Meeting With Obama, Netanyahu to Unveil New Gestures Toward Palestinians

The Palestinian issue is expected to be a major focus of the White House meeting; Obama believes the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is leading to a one-state solution.

Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will unveil a series of confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians during his White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday, National Security Adviser Joseph Cohen said last week.

Cohen, who made the comment at a meeting with European ambassadors to Israel last Monday, said the measures will relate to both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to several diplomats who were present.

Senior Israeli officials confirmed Cohen’s statement and said he had briefed his American counterpart, Susan Rice, on Netanyahu’s intention during their meeting in Washington last Thursday.

Cohen didn’t specify what steps would be taken, stressing that no final decision had yet been made due to opposition from several cabinet ministers. It’s not clear whether the series of terror attacks in the West Bank last Thursday and Friday will alter Netanyahu’s plans.

Last Sunday, Netanyahu convened the diplomatic-security cabinet to discuss his visit to the United States. He asked the ministers for their suggestions on the issues he will discuss with Obama and briefed them on the defense requests he will present as part of the ongoing negotiations with Washington on upgrading Israel’s military capabilities following the nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu also told the forum he wants to present Obama with a package of confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians that would help stabilize the West Bank. The measures were suggested by the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and the head of the army’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa.

The package will include steps to reduce friction between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, such as removing checkpoints and easing movement restrictions on Palestinians. It will also include steps to improve the Palestinian economy – like approving infrastructure projects or approving master plans for Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank under full Israeli control – and the situation in Gaza.

A senior official who attended the meeting said Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) both opposed some of the measures Netanyahu proposed. They argued that the Palestinian Authority is inciting to violence against Israel and, therefore, these measures should be conditioned on an end to the incitement.

Nevertheless, the official added, they understood that Netanyahu would have to present some gestures to the Palestinians at his meeting with Obama.

Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and other ministers all argued that, aside from the hope that such gestures would help calm the West Bank, it made sense for the prime minister to come to the White House with a package of confidence-building measures, as this would demonstrate Israel’s goodwill to both the U.S. president and the international community.

The package apparently won’t include the announcement of a freeze, or even restrictions on settlement construction. Netanyahu evidently prefers to stick to the existing de facto freeze, which applies to nearly all planning and building in the settlements and East Jerusalem, as he fears a formal announcement could lead to a coalition crisis and the collapse of his government.

Netanyahu will fly to Washington on Sunday, immediately after the funeral of former President Yitzhak Navon, and meet with Obama on Monday at 5:30 P.M. Israel time.

The meeting will be preceded by a joint statement to the press, and Netanyahu may use this opportunity to comment on the planned gestures.

The Palestinian issue is expected to be a major focus of the White House meeting. Though Obama sees no chance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement before he leaves office in January 2017, he believes that what is currently happening on the ground – especially settlement construction – is leading de facto to a one-state solution. Consequently, Obama plans to use his meeting with Netanyahu to urge the premier to take steps to avoid this development, the president’s advisers said in a briefing for reporters.

Rob Malley, who heads the Middle East desk at the U.S. National Security Council, said at the briefing that Obama doesn’t see a final-status agreement happening before the end of his term and doubts the possibility of even restarting direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. Therefore, the president expects Netanyahu to tell him what he is willing and able to do to produce progress even in the absence of talks, Malley said.

In particular, Malley added, Obama wants to hear what confidence-building measures Netanyahu is willing to take to ensure that the door to the two-state solution remains open. He said the measures in question must make it clear that Israel still sees the two-state solution as the only option.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes similarly told the briefing that even if negotiations are impossible, Obama considers it urgent to make progress toward a two-state solution.

Neither said explicitly that Obama expects Netanyahu to announce a settlement freeze. But both stressed that settlement construction is incompatible with a two-state solution.