What Shimon Peres told Barak Obama

By Nathan Guttman and Anshel Pfeffer, May 7, 2009
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Israel’s new right-wing government made its debut in the American capital his week, with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to convince the Obama administration that they are committed to the peace process.

Mr Peres, who met with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday and gave the keynote speech at the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby group, Aipac, assured his audience that Mr Netanyahu’s government will not renege on its roadmap commitments.

“Benjamin Netanyahu was at one time my political opponent. Today, he is my Prime Minister. He knows history. He wants to make history. And in our tradition, making history is making peace. I am sure that peace is his real and profound priority,” Peres said.

Mr Netanyahu stated that Israel is “prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions”.

Still, both leaders, reflecting the rightward shift in Israeli policy, refrained from using the term “Palestinian state”.

The potential for tension between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government rose after a series of public and private remarks by senior Israeli officials seeming to suggest that the new government would not seek a final-status solution with the Palestinians and that it does not see itself committed to the process launched in the November 2007 Annapolis Conference.

President Obama, who is hosting separate talks this month with all key Middle East players, told President Peres that he expects to have a good relationship with the new Israeli PM.

Despite the polite tones coming from the White House, the administration made clear it was concerned at the new government’s approach to the Palestinian issue.

Vice President Joe Biden went to the Aipac conference to tell pro-Israel activists that Israel must not forget its commitments. “Israel has to work towards a two-state solution,” Biden said. “You’re not going to like my saying this, but do not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement based on their first actions.”

Mr Peres’s visit to Washington was decided upon less than two weeks ago. Originally, Prime Minister Netanyahu was to have been the first senior Israeli leader to meet the new American president, but after scheduling difficulties and the invitation of both Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, it was decided that it would be best to take advantage of the Aipac conference and send Israel’s elder-statesman to Washington to calm the Obama administration’s fears.

Mr Netanyahu’s advisors fear that the prime minister has been branded in Washington as “an enemy of peace”, therefore President Peres, who is both a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and is greatly respected in Washington, was seen as the ideal emissary. “Peres is the only person who is guaranteed an audience at the White House,” explained one of Mr Netanyahu’s aides, “and we know that he is listened to.” An advisor to Mr Peres also confirmed that “he has been reassuring foreign leaders over the last few months that Netanyahu is not an obstacle to peace.”

    Last updated: 10:31am, May 8 2009