Obama-Netanyahu meeting followed by near-silence

A congressional aide said, "No news is bad news."

Yesterday's meeting between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended in a thunderous silence. In contrast to the flood of briefings, interviews, and statements that have been an inseparable part of visits to the White House by Israeli prime ministers in years gone by, this time the White House issued a terse, 52-word statement about the meeting. There was not even a hint about hope for resumption of the peace process.

In contrast to previous meetings, there were no TV cameras present, nor was there even a photo-op at the start of the meeting. Netanyahu's entourage twice cancelled a briefing for Israeli correspondents. An Israeli spokesman who tried to expand a bit on the brief White House statement, could only add, "Unfortunately, we have nothing to add."

In view of the blackout, great importance is being attached to a speech that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel is due to give today in Washington to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly the UJC). Emmanuel is filling in for Obama, who cancelled his appearance in order to attend a memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.

The statement reads, "The President and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed a number of issues in the US.-Israel bilateral relationship. The President reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel’s security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues. The President and Prime Minister also discussed Iran and how to move forward on Middle East peace."

Of the hour and fifty minute meeting, one hour was one-on-one. Parts of the meeting were described as tense, according to sources in Washington. The sources said that the meeting was held in the shadow of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' (Abu-Mazen) threat to resign because of the deadlocked peace process. His resignation could effectively result in the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. Given this fact, the utter silence of the press release about progress in the peace process stands out. The word "Palestinian" does not even appear.

An aide to a Member of Congress, who is cognizant of US-Israeli relations, told "Globes", "No news is bad news." He added that the White House statement was chilling; "Brrr" is how he described it. The statement unquestionably testifies, first and foremost, to the US administration's attitude about the lack of progress in the peace process. The aide added, however, that on the basis of conversations with administration officials, that Israel is not solely blamed for this situation, but that the Palestinian Authority is blamed equally.

"The Wall Street Journal" today quotes US officials as saying that the White House had held off until late Sunday finalizing Obama's meeting with Netanyahu, in an effort to pressure the Israeli leader to take a more conciliatory line.

It appears that Netanyahu believed that his meeting with Obama would be tough, and he sought to be conciliatory and soften in advance, during his speech to the General Assembly a few hours before he met Obama. Netanyahu praised Obama, possibly in response to criticism leveled in Israel at the White House for the unusual delay in approving the meeting. In an effort to prevent the impression of a strain in relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Netanyahu made sure to present Obama as a good friend of Israel.

"I salute President Obama for his solid support for Israel's security," said Netanyahu at one opportunity. He also called for the Palestinian leadership to "stop talks about talks" and to sit down "immediately" for serious discussions about the peace process.

It seems that Netanyahu's warm comments did not help him in the chilly reality of Obama's questions during their meeting. Cable news reports said that Netanyahu lifted his opposition to Obama's demands for a total halt in construction in the settlements. Nonetheless, there are hints that the low profile of the meeting was intended to camouflage important decisions of harsher measures against Iran, which was why the White House statement minimized references to the peace process.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 10, 2009

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2009

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