x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama and Netanyahu meet after dark

If an Israeli prime minister visited Washington and didn't go to the White House it would not be unprecedented. It happened once in 2005. But last week, only days away from a long-scheduled visit, Benjamin Netanyahu was more than uncomfortable about such a prospect. By the time the Israeli prime minister arrived in the US on Sunday, a meeting with Mr Obama had been arranged for the following evening.

If an Israeli prime minister visited Washington and didn't go to the White House it would not be unprecedented. It happened once in 2005. But last week, only days away from a long-scheduled visit, Benjamin Netanyahu was more than uncomfortable about such a prospect. Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote: "For days the White House has refused to set a date for a meeting. It was embarrassing and humiliating. Netanyahu was angry. Not mildly angry. He was incensed." By the time the Israeli prime minister arrived in the US to give an address at the Jewish federations' General Assembly on Sunday, a meeting with Mr Obama had been arranged for the following evening. The White House indicated that the two leaders would not be available to the press, there would be no photo opportunity and no statements would be issued. The Wall Street Journal said: "The brinksmanship over a one-on-one meeting between the two leaders represents a rare display of pique by the White House toward Israel. Mr Netanyahu had long been scheduled to visit Washington to speak at the assembly of Jewish groups. While he had no confirmed plans to meet Mr Obama, it would be rare, but not unprecedented, for an Israeli prime minister to visit Washington without meeting the US president. "Mr Obama had already canceled plans to speak at the same assembly, in order to attend a memorial at Fort Hood on Tuesday [following last week's shooting massacre]. He was being replaced by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel. "Israeli officials in Washington and Jerusalem on Sunday said they couldn't comment on discussions surrounding Mr Netanyahu's trip. A senior Israeli official downplayed reports of friction in the relationship with the US, saying day-to-day relations remained strong. But the Israeli press has been filled in recent days with leaked grumbling by Netanyahu aides over the White House's delay in agreeing to meet." In a further indication that the Middle East peace process has broken down to a point where it might be beyond repair, The New York Times reported: "The possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's negotiating partner, loomed Monday, as several aides to its president, Mahmoud Abbas, said that he intended to resign and forecast that others would follow. " 'I think he is realising that he came all this way with the peace process in order to create a Palestinian state, but he sees no state coming,' Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, said in an interview. 'So he really doesn't think there is a need to be president or to have an Authority. This is not about who is going to replace him. This is about our leaving our posts. You think anybody will stay after he leaves?' "Mr Abbas warned last week that he would not participate in Palestinian elections he called for, to take place in January. But he has threatened several times before to resign, and many viewed this latest step as a ploy by a Hamlet-like leader upset over Israeli and American policy. Many also noted that the vote might not actually be held, given the Palestinian political fracture and the unwillingness of Hamas, which controls Gaza, to participate. "In the days since, however, his colleagues have come to believe that he is not bluffing. If that is the case, they say, the Palestinian Authority could be endangered." Elliot Abrams, one of the chief Middle East policymakers in the Bush administration, wrote in The Weekly Standard: "Israelis and Palestinians when I visited in October had two main questions: Who is making this Middle East policy, and do they not realise by now that it is a disaster? At least in this, one can say the administration has produced Israeli-Palestinian unity. They are also united in watching warily as the president seems unable to make a decision about Afghanistan. For the Palestinians, this suggests he'll never really take on the Israelis for them, as they thought he might back in January. For the Israelis, it means he'll never take on Iran, and that they may in the end face the Iranian nuclear threat on their own. "They all wonder whether to blame [George] Mitchell or [Hillary] Clinton or Dennis Ross or National Security Adviser Jim Jones or the State Department's Near East bureau, and each individual Israeli and Palestinian has a favourite target. But the answers to their questions seem obvious: It is the president's policy, and no, he does not seem to be aware that it has already failed." In a commentary for CNN, Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations, suggested that all might not be lost if Mr Obama learns the right lessons from what has become a foreign policy misadventure. "The chances right now of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the big issues are slim to none. "America is facing a marathon slog, a thousand days of excruciatingly painful diplomacy, which offers no easy prospect of success. And yet Arab-Israeli peace is critically important to US national interests. "So, Mr President, before you embark on another round of diplomacy, ask yourself one question: Am I prepared to be tough and reassuring, cracking heads when required - and it will be required - and to take heat from Israel, the Arabs and the pro-Israeli community in the United States? If the answer is yes, go for it; if the answer is no, then don't bother. Find another conflict to mediate. "Because without a strong, steady serious strategy, your next foray into the wonderful world of Arab-Israeli diplomacy may prove to be even more feckless and embarrassing than the last." In a speech delivered in Washington shortly before his meeting with Mr Obama, The Wall Street Journal said: "Mr Netanyahu didn't offer any new policies on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - which the Palestinians have demanded be fully stopped as a precondition for peace talks - or list any specific terms for holding new negotiations, as some US officials had hoped he would. "He also appeared to resist US pressure to give stronger support for discussions on an independent Palestinian state - the so-called 'two-state solution'. He said he was committed to two states living side by side, but offered no specifics on the terms for talks on the issue. "Palestinian and Arab leaders on Monday discounted the speech, saying it didn't differ substantively from past addresses by the Israeli leader. Palestinian Authority officials reiterated that negotiations with Israel couldn't resume without a complete settlement freeze."

pwoodward@thenational.ae