On Monday morning President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met face-to-face for the first time in over a year.
Considering the well-documented history of their mutual distrust and personal dislike of each other, all eyes were glued to both the obligatory photo-op session and, more importantly, to the body language and comments after their two-and-a-half-hour business meeting.
During the photographed session warm (if somewhat forced) smiles and handshakes were abundant while the frowns, stares and scowls we saw in previous meetings were kept to a minimum. It was clear that both leaders, in their respective “mutual admiration society” comments, tried to show that policy disputes are now behind them and that they are looking forward to cooperating on current burning Middle East issues. Obama reiterated America’s commitment to Israel’s security and Bibi said that he has not given up on a two-state solution between Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state of Israel.
They then went into a working meeting with aids and advisers. And that’s when, according to several Israeli participants, there was a slight change of tone. To be clear, the participants agreed that the extended meeting was cordial and businesslike, but it didn’t go exactly the way Bibi’s team had expected. Maybe that’s why there was no joint announcement at the end.
While there was no direct American request regarding construction or expansion of what the U.S. officially defines as “illegal settlements,” there was a hint as broad as the state of Texas.
The American team had prepared a very detailed and effective presentation about what they described as the situation on the West Bank, and showing how current and future Israeli unilateral actions, including within the “consensus” blocs (about 8 percent of the total West Bank, that include: the Jordan Valley and the mountains to its west; areas around Jerusalem and the Western hills of Judea that overlook and can strategically threaten the entire greater Tel Aviv metroplex and Ben-Gurion Airport), were “harming” any possible future negotiations or resolution.
The “consensus” blocs are the absolute minimum that most Israelis, from both the left and the right, agree must remain in Israel for security reasons.
The presentation essentially laid out a snapshot of the problem, perhaps to make future negotiations more focused on details and specifics. But even President Obama conceded that the peace process will probably not be concluded during his presidency.
Several other items were discussed by the two leaders and their teams during the meeting:
- The Iran nuke deal. Both agreed that Iran must never have nukes, but continued to completely, if respectfully, disagree on whether the P5+1 nuke deal was the way to do it. Iran has not yet signed it, and statements this week by senior Iranian leaders claim that the Supreme Leader is demanding even more concessions from the U.S. before Iran starts to fulfill any of its obligations.
- The situations in Syria and Iraq with Russian and Iranian growing involvement.
- The war against ISIS and global Islamist terrorism. According to one report the president or vice president thanked Bibi for sharing the highly sensitive message Israel intercepted between the small but dangerous group “Islamic State in Sinai” (formerly “Ansar Beit al-Maqdis”) and the ISIS commanders in Rakkah, Syria, bragging about how they downed the Russian airliner by putting a bomb in or near its tail section, and asking if this qualifies them for “full membership” in the Islamic State, which would give them supplies of heavy weapons, ammunition, mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft missiles (which they don’t have now), training, etc.
- The ongoing “Knife Intifada” in Israel (the U.S., reportedly, fully supported Israel’s actions to protect its citizens, especially in the wake of the attack that killed American soldiers in Jordan this week).
- The Israeli request, as detailed in this column last week, to increase the annual military aid agreement from $3.1 billion a year to $5 billion a year for the next 10 years. This is to enable Israel to purchase:
- A squadron of highly advanced, generation-4.5 F15SE (Screaming Eagle) fighters
- More Arrow 2 anti-intercontinental ballistic missile systems
- A squadron of V22 helicopter/plane Osprey troop carriers, capable of reaching Iran
- More advanced technology.
Finally — Netanyahu made a personal request for Obama to use his executive powers to wave the five-year “travel restriction” on Jonathan Pollard, who is being released from prison next week after serving 30 years, and enable him to travel and live in Israel with his wife.
So what was agreed? On most of the items it was decided to set up specific joint work groups that will prepare working papers for the discussion and eventual decision of the two leaders.
Regarding the expanded military request, President Obama said that he hopes to sign it before his presidency ends in 2017, which coincides with the expiration of the current military aid agreement.
Regarding allowing Jonathan Pollard to move to Israel next week, according to my sources the president’s answer was an unequivocal “No!”
So either there was much more going on during those two-and-a-half hours that we don’t know about yet … or all previous meetings Bibi had at the White house were really, really bad.
That’s the only way I can explain Bibi saying Monday, just before getting into his limousine outside the West Wing, that this sit-down with U.S. President Barack Obama was “one of the best meetings I’ve had with him.”
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.