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July 6, 2010: Behind Closed Doors

September 27, 2010

So we waited patiently — or impatiently, as the case may be — to hear what would come out of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting today.  We knew going in that it was going to be cordial: that was a given because Obama is trying to repair damage he’s done with his hostile attitude towards Israel.

Look how happy they appear to be as the photographers’ shutters click:

Israel news file photo 

But what did they actually SAY to each other?

Well, they met in the oval office for just under two hours and then had a “joint press availability” with a press pool.  Not quite a full-blown press conference. 

Netanyahu spoke about how any suggestion that the relationship between the two nations was failing was “flat wrong.”  And Obama said that Netanyahu had convinced him that he “wants peace” and is serious about moving forward to direct negotiations with the PA. 

My next question, then, is precisely what did Netanyahu do to “convince” the president?  This is what we don’t know.  Whatever it was, it was behind closed doors.

The president said a bit more: He expressed pleasure at the new rules established by Israel for goods permitted into Gaza via the land crossings (and I’ll get to that below).  And there was mention of Iran sanctions.

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The president also declared that “the US would never ask Israel to undermine its security.”  I consider this the biggest joke of all.  The US asks this of us all the time, in a dozen different ways.

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When questioned as to whether he would like Netanyahu to extend the freeze on construction in Judea and Samaria, he  avoided a direct answer and segued into a comment about how he hopes direct negotiations will begin before the freeze ends in late September. 

So, my final question here: Is there some linkage between an extension of the freeze and progress made in the talks by late September?

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The two heads of state then moved on to a (fully kosher) working lunch, also behind closed doors.  No further meeting of the two leaders with the press was scheduled. 

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Here in Israel, the issue of the freeze has been a major focus of concern.  As Netanyahu was preparing to take off for the US yesterday, the faction chairmen of Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas, UTJ, Habayit Hayehudi (all part of the coalition) and National Union (which is not) signed a joint declaration that they “strenuously oppose an extension of the building freeze past 18 Tishrei, September 26.

“Ending the freeze at the date that was set is the minimum needed for keeping Israel an independent state and for safeguarding its vital interests.  We will use all of the parliamentary tools at our disposal and the full extent of our political influence so that this commitment is honored and implemented.”    

Additionally, there was talk from Habayit Yehudi of quitting the coalition if the freeze was extended.  And Foreign Minister Leiberman has made a direct statement about our not paying for direct talks with an additional freeze.

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On the flip side, an attempt to push through legislation that would have required Knesset approval for any additional freeze after September was just defeated.  I was surprised, as were many — it had looked like a pretty sure thing at one point. 

The prime minister had pushed hard for its defeat.  His position was that this would have motivated Obama to lean even harder on him with regard to a freeze.  But I’m not sure I buy that: it might have provided Netanyahu with the perfect out — the ability to advance a freeze would no longer have been in his hands. 

His position did not inspire a great deal of confidence as to his readiness to hold tight on resuming construction.  But this does not necessarily mean that he did cave; he may have simply wanted the latitude to do bargaining on the issue. 

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A rumor was floated in the past couple of days with regard to a proposal that Netanyahu might offer Obama for a partial freeze:  Obama would “hint” at the fact that Israel would retain major settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, in line with the letter sent by (then) President Bush to (then) PM Sharon.

The letter stated:

“It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.

“It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

The sentiments expressed in this letter were endorsed by both houses of Congress, and there is solid legal opinion in at least some quarters that this is a binding executive agreement.

Enormous tension developed between Israel and Obama in the early days of his administration over this.  Obama — as well as his mouthpiece Secretary of State Clinton — denied that there was an obligation to honor what was perceived by Israel to be a commitment.  Obama was plugging for Israel to move back to the ’67 line, per PA demands.

You might like to see the JINSA Report (#1003) on this:

http://www.jinsa.org/node/1936

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At any rate, the proposal was that in return for a nod in the direction of this letter by Obama, Netanyahu would agree to freeze construction in all communities in Judea and Samaria outside of the major settlement blocs.  We may never know if such a proposal was advanced.  We simply know that to this point there has been no nod from Obama (which would have to be public), and no apparent reciprocal commitment from Netanyahu.

What particularly disturbed me with regard to how this proposal was structured in news reports is that it called for a “hint” from Obama.  A hint?  How easy to backtrack on a hint, to say that he was misunderstood.  Remember the statement by presidential candidate Obama, who declared to AIPAC that Jerusalem must be undivided (which is code for remaining under Israeli sovereignty), only to explain a day or two later that he was misunderstood — that what he meant was that the Israeli and Palestinian portions of Jerusalem should be open to each other.  With this man, very explicit clarifications are necessary.

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As to the new rules for goods into Gaza:

What Israel has done now is to shift from an official list of what can go in, to an official list of what may not be permitted in — items that might be used for building weapons, etc. 

A big deal has been made about all of the things that Israel had prevented from going in — things like potato chips. The point ostensibly being that Israeli officials were mean and hard-hearted and arbitrary.  But no.  Potato chips weren’t permitted in because of how the previous list was fashioned.  Officials had drawn up a list of what people reasonably needed:  meat, fish, dairy products, legumes, basic hygiene items, flour, cooking oil, fresh produce, etc. etc.  No one ever saw fit to include potato chips as a reasonable basic need.  I would bet potato chips were never discussed.  Now they can be brought in.

This new approach is what Obama was praising.

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So where are we?  My take, based on what I’m seeing and what I understand about how Netanyahu functions:

He is making the case that he really, really wants to proceed with seriousness in peace talks, and that this is only possible in face-to-face talks. This, hopefully, puts the onus on the PA: he is representing himself as the party more eager to proceed.

While he is doing this, he knows, knows full well, that Abbas will find reasons not to proceed, just as he will never  accept any deal that Israel would offer.  But all the while Israel’s desire to proceed must be apparent to the world, and most particularly to the president of the United States.

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Right now Abbas is saying that there has been no progress in the proximity talks.  The PA, actually, expressed bewilderment at the recent US statement that there had been considerable progress.  And, says Abbas, until there is progress (which he defines, at least in part, as an Israeli acknowledgement of the PA borders, up front), there will be no movement to face-to-face.

Then comes the next part of the PA plan.  They are still making the assumption that they don’t have to bargain and can use diplomatic means to get what they want, on the way to destroying Israel.  The PA declaration is that if there is no progress by September, then they will revert to the Saudi Peace Plan (otherwise known as a plan for destroying Israel), and take this to the UN Security Council and ask the Council to recognize a Palestinian state on all the land beyond the Green Line. 

I still have reservations as to how serious this is, and how much idle threat.  I also have doubts as to whether, according to international law, it is even possible for the Security Council to “recognize” a state.  There is no precedent for this.  What is more, this would require overturning of earlier Security Council resolutions that call very specifically for a setting of borders via negotiations.  So it is all a bit dubious.

Netanyahu’s plan, then, would seem to be two-fold. First, to be able to strongly make the case that we were ready to proceed with those negotiations, as required by earlier resolutions.  This would seriously call into question the legal propriety of seeking to overturn them.  And then, to be on sufficiently solid terms with Obama so that a US veto in the Security Council on this would be a sure thing. 

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I hasten to assure one and all that I am not advocating a caving to Obama’s demands by Israel so that we can keep him happy.  Never!  I advocate strength and a solid expression of our sovereignty.  I am speaking here of what may be Netanyahu’s approach.  He’s walking a fine line.  And as he typically tries to please both sides, his policies lack a certain clarity.

A position of clarity would be one in which our prime minister comes to the White House armed with well documented evidence of why the PA cannot be trusted: of how it supports terrorism and promotes incitement.  MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit HaYehudi), who is chair of the Knesset Education Committee, suggested, for example, putting PA textbooks, rife with incitement, on the president’s desk.  And then, following this, a position of clarity would require a statement about Israeli rights, coupled with a refusal to deal with the PA as a legitimate and trustworthy negotiating partner.

But this will never be Netanyahu’s style.

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Not for a moment do I minimize the difficulty of being the Israeli prime minister today.  I will not make specific criticisms of Netanyahu now.  Whatever the speculation, I do not know yet what went on behind those closed doors.  It’s possible that, mindful of domestic demands and the risk of a crumbling coalition, he held strong.

A great deal will yet emerge both via leaks, and actions that follow from whatever may have been agreed upon.  Then it will be time for further comment.

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