U.S. administration officials haven’t denied Prime Minister Netanyahu’s enthusiastic portrayal of his Monday rendezvous with President Obama but their sardonic smile gives them away. The conversation was “wonderful” and the meeting “the best ever”, Netanyahu claimed. “It was OK, ”, the officials acknowledged, “fine” when you raise your eyebrows, even “good” if you press us to the wall. If Netanyahu wants to describe the two leaders’ get-together as an event of cosmic proportions, they’re not going to quarrel.
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Perhaps Netanyahu truly expected the worst. Perhaps he had started to believe the dire predictions made in some of the newspapers that he supposedly never reads; his suspicions about Obama’s attitude to him in particular and to Israel in general, are deep and abiding in any case. Obama’s business-as-usual approach was quite possibly interpreted by Netanyahu as grand reconciliation, a cleansing of the slate. Perhaps he was truly relieved.
The White House was noticeably less excited. Obama didn’t forgive or forget, knowledgeable observers said, but his emotions take a back seat to his overarching objectives. There were several substantive issues to be discussed with Netanyahu, including Syria, which sits high on Obama’s agenda. And a bad meeting with Netanyahu, especially one leading to another public spat, would have invited headlines in the media and renewed criticism from Congress. “Netanyahu’s caused us enough headaches this year,” one administration confidante said.“ We don’t need any more.”
“But no one signed a check”, the confidante added, reacting to claims made by Netanyahu supporters that the positive atmosphere emanating from the White House proves that Israel isn’t paying a price for the summer’s harsh face-off over the Iran deal. The examination of Israel’s needs will take quite a while, they said; the administration will concurrently examine what steps Israel can or should be taking in order to shoulder some of the burden of its own demands.
Netanyahu’s supporters say it would have been no different if the prime minister had accepted Obama’s original offer to discuss a compensation package for Israel in the weeks before Congress failed to scuttle the Iran deal. It’s a claim that can’t be refuted. But there’s no doubt that Netanyahu held stronger political cards when Obama desperately sought his help. Now that Obama’s won the day and the deal is done, Netanyahu is forced to bargain, rather than naming his price.
The prime minister’s spinmeisters might also try to depict his welcome at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations as a virtual march of triumph. But just like the White House, the 3,000 GA delegates gave Netanyahu a suitably warm and respectable reception, no less but also no more. Netanyahu was greeted with warm applause but without the enthusiasm that previous prime ministers received, including Netanyahu himslef. There was certainly less gusto than what was recorded on Monday night when Netanyahu addressed the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
Netanyahu’s main headlines, so far, were in fact given in what was supposed to be his toughest gig, at the liberal Center for American Progress. But the questioning was tamer than what everyone expected, contributing perhaps to Netanyahu’s decision to declare that a solution for Jerusalem and the Temple Mount is impossible to achieve. Then, perhaps to sweeten the pill, he suddenly dangled the possibility that without a negotiated solution, he might be willing to look at a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
The problem is that Netanyahu’s word is worth far less than it used to be. After explaining that he didn’t really mean that Hitler didn’t mean it, and after apologizing even before his CAP audience for his election-eve statement about “Arabs coming out in hordes”, nobody knows anymore when Netanyahu is expressing his inner self and when he is “misspeaking”, as he called it. So it’s not clear whether Obama is truly the wonderful and steadfast ally that Netanyahu now describes or the dangerously naive Chamberlain who willfully endangered Israel’s existence only a few months ago.