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Obama's About-Face To Netanyahu

Obama-Netanyahu Meeting Lays Groundwork For Direct Talks Between Israel & Palestinians

Defense Minister Ehud Barak: "Important Step Forward.... Other Understandings At White House Meeting Not Revealed"

 After being humiliated on former visit to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received a remarkable red carpet welcome this time by President Barak Obama. Not only in words but also in deeds. IsraCast analyst David Essing sees President Obama's about- face as having two main objectives: he is signaling the Israeli public that he is not the enemy and showing Netanyahu the benefits of extending the current ten month settlement freeze in Judea and Samaria. But as Americans say 'there are no free lunches' and the Israeli leader will be expected to reciprocate. This is will likely spark a political firestorm by Netanyahu's Right- wing coalition partners.

 There is more to that cordial, almost gushing, Obama-Netanyahu meeting than meets the eye - it appears the U.S. President now has an Israeli and Palestinian green light to proceed to face-to-face negotiations. Obama spoke of a 'whole new set of confidence building measures', apparently by Israel, that will pave the way. Prime Minister Netanyahu, basking in Obama's new cordiality, has responded with a package of good-will gestures to West Bank President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader has demanded progress in the current proximity talks before moving on to direct negotiations but Abbas was also given the red carpet treatment by Obama recently. It's a sure bet that Abbas will also opt for direct talks with Israel, after some Netanyahu concessions and after understandings he also received from Obama in the White House. Defense Minister Ehud Barak who has recently returned from Washington described Netanyah's meeting with Obama, as a 'significant step forward even if there are difficulties and differences still remaining '. Barak called it a 'ray of hope' and and hoped the Palestinians would now come to face-to-face talks.

The extent of the red carpet treatment extended the Israeli leader was remarkable even though administration officials had signaled that this time it would be different from the previous cold shoulder. It has been startling in both word and deed. The President heaped praise on Israel's leader: "I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace, I think he's willing to take risks for peace". There were concrete steps as well in vital Israeli concerns.

After recently supporting the move to put Israel's nuclear capabilities on the agenda of a Middle East Nuclear Conference set for 2012 Obama put Netanyahu at ease: "There has been no change in U.S. policy on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East". ( The traditional U.S. policy for decades has been that the U.S. does not question Israel's 'ambiguous ' nuclear policy). Moreover, Obama added;" Israel has unique security requirements ... and it's got to be able to respond to threats or nay combination of threats in the region. And that's why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel's security". And there was more to come. Within twenty four hours, the U.S. was ready to supply the Jewish state with nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes although Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty that obligates member states to open their nuclear facilities to international inspection. President Obama was said to have approved the supply because Israel was a responsible and serious state. After Netanyahu met with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it was also reported that Washington was to sell Israel an advanced weapons system to cope with the Iranian threat. What does all this mean.

Some Israeli pundits are of the view that President Obama has realized that his 'get tough' policy toward Israel had not delivered the desired results and the U.S. sponsored proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians had gone nowhere. Moreover with Israel's ten month settlement freeze about to expire on September 26th, a new approach was now required. So after chastening Netanyahu with sticks, Obama has now reverted to the proverbial carrots. Another factor could be the upcoming U.S. Congressional elections this fall and the Jewish vote. But does this explain the sudden about-face by the Obama administration? First of all, no matter which side one takes on settlement building, the fact of the matter is that Obama did force Netanyahu to impose a ten month freeze that even includes east Jerusalem. For the first time, the principle of an Israeli settlement freeze is in force.

Now after the successful Netanyahu visit, does anyone really think that the Israeli Prime Minister will start a new building boom and risk his new found relations with Washington that apparently includes support on nuclear issues, including the sanctions on Iran, weapons and political backing at a time the legitimacy of the Jewish state is being bombarded in many international forums? For some time now Defense Minister Barak, perhaps Netanyahu's closest support in the government, has been urging the Prime Minister to launch a peace initiative that will improve Israel's relations not only with the U.S., but also with the Arab world that is just as concerned as Israel about a nuclear Iran. It is hard to imagine that Obama would have waxed so effusively toward Netanyahu without the Israeli leader having responded in kind. In other words, Obama may have taken a page out of Netanyahu's own book on the Palestinians - 'If they give, they'll get!' For Netanhyahu to resume a full blown building in settlements after September 26th would be a slap in Obama's face. Yet the Israeli Prime Minister leads a coalition with most of its members champing at the bit to rebuild in the settlements after September 26th. On this score, Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor of the Likud has suggest a solution. Meridor, whose portfolio covers the intelligence services, proposes that Israel build only within those settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion, Givat Zeev etc. that Mahmoud Abbas has already offered to Israel as part of a land swap. Then again, it is reasonable to assume Obama must have already wrapped up a previous deal with the Palestinians before lavishing such largess on Netanyahu. To have done otherwise, would have outraged not only the West Bank Palestinians but also the Arab states which Obama says are so important for making an Israeli- Palestinian peace accord stick.

So what is the explanation? It may be that American peace making is indeed based on the premise that Israeli settlement building must stop as was stated by Obama in his Cairo speech. Netanyahu has now accepted the two state solution although many of his Right-wing partners do not.. But Obama argues that if Israel builds on the land destined for Palestine, this runs counter to the two state solution. A settlement 'suspension' beyond September 26th could be Obama's lever, an imaginary 'Archimedean Point' not for moving the earth, but for advancing Israel and Palestinians toward peace. For solving all the questions of borders, security arrangements, refugees, Jerusalem and the other core issues. But the Prime Minister would face fierce opposition inside his own Likud party as well as his coalition partners if he does resume full settlement building and would have to wage an uphill battle to persuade them to accept the Meridor solution. It is hard to envisage Netanyahu being able to embark on such an initiative without bringing the Kadima party into the government. This may all be a political pipe dream, no less than Archimedes' illusion. Obama may be signaling the Israeli public that he will be Netanyahu's side if the Israeli leader chooses such a course in the weeks ahead. By comparison, the Prime Minister's convincing of his cabinet to accept the current ten month freeze will have been child's play by comparison.

David Essing

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