My late editor at The Economist, Peter David, once inserted into an article this reporter had written about Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu the words “too mellifluous” before his name.
At several appearances during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week, the four-term prime minister lived up to that description as he defended Israeli policies in dulcet tones, seeking to move beyond a bitter quarrel with President Barack Obama and many American Democrats.
One would hardly have known that for the past two years the Israeli leader had waged a fierce public relations campaign against a sitting U.S. president over his top foreign policy priority — a nuclear agreement that the United States and other top world powers were negotiating with Iran.
Instead Netanyahu, who appeared Tuesday before a Democratic Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), said he and Obama had agreed to “hold Iran’s feet to the fire” to implement a deal that the Israeli leader insisted until just a few months ago would “pave Iran’s path” to nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu added, “I deeply appreciate” the many times Obama has met with him. “We have no disagreement now about what we need to go forward,” the Israeli leader said.
Good politicians are good actors. Both Netanyahu and Obama deserve awards for their performances as they met in the White House for the first time in more than a year.
While reporters were present, Netanyahu listened respectfully as Obama noted all that his administration has done to shore up Israeli security and promised continued assistance.
Meanwhile, the U.S. president, chin in hand, assumed a thoughtful, sympathetic mien as the Israeli leader expressed gratitude for U.S. support.
Netanyahu is seeking an increase in annual U.S. military aid from more than $3 billion a year to $5 billion. The United States and Israel are negotiating a long-term memorandum of understanding that would also guarantee that Israel maintains its so-called qualitative military edge over America’s Arab allies.
Obama refused to see Netanyahu the last time the Israeli leader was in the United States in March, just before Israeli parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu, invited by then House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress, used that coveted venue to attack the Iran agreement and urge members of Congress to block it. But the deal, which was finalized in July, survived congressional scrutiny. It never even came to a vote.
Now Netanyahu is fending off more immediate threats to Israelis from angry young Palestinians, while at the same time, trying to insulate the Jewish state from mounting chaos in Syria along with anti-regime violence in Egypt and Jordan. With the Middle East on fire all around him in addition to tensions at home, Netanyahu had little choice but to try to patch up differences with Israel’s best friend.
Meanwhile, Obama, in office for scarcely more than another year, does not want to jeopardize the chances for another Democrat – most likely Hillary Clinton – to succeed him by continuing a public quarrel with the Jewish state.
At the end of Netanyahu’s visit, however, there was scant evidence of forward thinking on the issue that most concerns Democrats, especially Jewish Democrats: how Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
U.S. officials say Obama has given up trying to mediate a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians after two failed attempts.
Before Netanyahu’s arrival, Robert Malley, the senior director for the Middle East on the White House National Security Council, told reporters that a peace deal “is not in the cards for the remainder” of the Obama presidency.
Netanyahu insists he is still interested in peace, and that he is ready to sit down at any time with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. But the criteria Netanyahu outlined are unlikely to lure Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
According to Netanyahu, Palestinians must not only recognize that Israel is the Jewish homeland, but accept the “long-term” presence of Israeli security forces in their state. In effect, Netanyahu is asking Palestinians to accept the status quo of Israeli occupation, but be willing to call it independence.
Netanyahu also refused to commit to restricting the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, arguing that this was not the main obstacle to peace even as formation of a contiguous Palestinian state becomes ever harder to envision. He went so far as to suggest that Jewish settlers could remain in a Palestinian state, a proposal that would certainly require a massive continued Israeli security presence.
The Israeli leader conceded that Palestinians are unlikely to agree to his formula, but suggested that unspecified other Arab countries might be amenable, and even pressure Abbas or his successor to accept such a deal.
Asked by David Makovsky, a former U.S. negotiator, if he had a plan B in case this strategy failed, Netanyahu spoke vaguely of possible unilateral action, but added that the notion of a continued Israeli security presence in the West Bank must be injected “into the international bloodstream” after the failure of previous Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and southern Lebanon to end anti-Israel violence.
Asked by Morton Halperin, chairman of the board of the progressive Jewish organization J Street, to give a sense of possible future Israeli and Palestinian borders, Netanyahu complained about Palestinian rejection of prior Israeli offers. Of Abbas he said, “I can’t get this guy to sit down and talk.”
After the meeting. Makovsky told this reporter that Netanyahu’s remark that “‘unilateralism is possible’ opened the door to the idea that it does not have to be all or nothing. When he said it would have to win broad international support, this suggests it is not a throwaway line, and now we have to see how it would be elaborated upon if current paralysis continues.”
Halperin was less willing to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt.
Noting that he and J Street had supported the invitation to Netanyahu to speak at CAP, something that caused controversy among organization members still chafing over Netanyahu’s attacks on Obama and the Iran agreement, Halperin said, “It was disappointing that the prime minister said nothing that would lead one to believe that he was genuinely seeking a path to peace or that he understood the urgent need for peace.”