Analysis: Obama and Netanyahu smile for the cameras

Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama emerge from their 79-minute meeting at the White House this week

Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama emerge from their 79-minute meeting at the White House this week

The master of oratory was a bit off-form on Tuesday. President Barack Obama said all the right words at the end of his Oval Office meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but his heart obviously was not in it.

He stuttered slightly, repeatedly failed to make eye contact with the camera and almost fluffed his lines. Mr Netanyahu seemed much more at ease, but then he has a lot more practice than the president at glossing over compromise in public.

Going into the meeting, there was one issue that would obviously be at the top of the agenda - Israel's plans regarding the freeze on building in West Bank settlements, currently scheduled to end in two months.

But after the two leaders emerged from their 79-minute meeting to greet the press - such a contrast to the thieves-in-the-night atmosphere the White House imposed on the previous talks between the two leaders - the settlements issue barely got a mention. Mr Obama preferred to accentuate the positive.

"Once direct talks [between Israelis and Palestinians] have begun, well before the moratorium has expired," he said, "that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success."

For Mr Netanyahu, it was a perfect summit. He got American backing for Israel's demand that the Palestinians agree to direct talks, plenty of tough talk on Iran's nuclear programme and an assurance that the US administration would continue to give Israel blanket support in not revealing its own nuclear capabilities. In return, he was not even required to make any commitment to extend the settlement freeze. In public, that is.

Very few details have emerged from the closed session between the two leaders but it is almost impossible to believe that President Obama would have been so positive in front of the cameras if he had not just received some kind of assurances in private that Israel would not resume settlement building in September. To do so would spell the end of this round of negotiations, at the very least. But he understood that in order to preserve political stability for his new friend, he has to observe the omerta, or code of silence, for the present.

Whether Mr Obama is helping Mr Netanyahu because of his own looming midterm elections or whether we are seeing a genuine shift in attitude, the Israeli leader has merely bought a bit of time. In two months, he will not be able to prevaricate any longer. He will be faced with the stark choice: lose his much-sought-after cordiality with the White House, or face a rebellion within his coalition and own party.

    Last updated: 2:07pm, August 16 2010