Why Obama and Bibi wanted to make up for the camera

November 24, 2016 23:21

It was, said Benjamin Netanyahu after the two-and-a-half hour meeting with Barack Obama in the White House on Monday, the best meeting yet between the two leaders.

As they had not met for more than 13 months, and the intervening period had been one of the most difficult for the Israeli-US strategic relationship, the bar had been set quite low.

However, the meeting did seem to achieve its main objective: it put ties back on track and set a more cordial tone for the last year of Mr Obama's presidency.

No one is expecting the two men to become the friends they have failed to be for the past seven years, but each of them at least said what was required.

Senior US officials said that while they no longer believed there was any prospect of a peace treaty with the Palestinians during Mr Obama's term, they expected Israel to take steps to ensure that a two-state solution is still viable.

Mr Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting: "I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples: a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state," delivering on a rhetorical level at least.

For his part, Mr Obama said: "As I've said repeatedly, the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities," adding that "it is my strong belief that Israel has not just the right but an obligation to protect itself".

Much of the meeting was devoted to addressing their joint concerns over the deteriorating situation in Syria.

However, it would be premature to interpret the bonhomie as a sign that the issues between the two countries have been settled.

For Israel, life after the Iran deal means actively checking that the Islamic Republic confirms to all the limitations on its nuclear programme.

The Obama administration will demand from the Israelis more concrete steps on the Palestinian front and probably some evidence to show that Israel is still committed to the two-state solution. Even on the non-contentious issue of preserving Israel's "qualitative military edge", it is still unclear how much cash the US is willing to put towards new weapons systems for the Jewish state.

Israel has requested that the military aid, currently an annual payment of $3.1 billion, be expanded by as much as $2 billion. Administration officials have hinted that Israel will have to make do with a much smaller rise.

The main message coming out of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, however, is more about tone than substance.

It was above all a clear indication that in his last year of office, Mr Obama is not planning any new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, not while he has Syria to deal with. Nor is he interested in more tension with his Israeli counterpart. It is now officially election year in the US and he does not want to harm Hillary Clinton's campaign with a crisis with Israel. In a column for the Forward last week, Mrs Clinton wrote that if elected, she would invite Mr Netanyahu to Washington in the first month of her presidency. He is already counting down the days until he meets a new president in the Oval Office.

● There was a good reason why Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama sidelined their well-known antipathy in this meeting: ultimately, Israel and the US share critical strategic interests in the Middle East.

In a briefing hosted by Bicom, Dr Jonathan Rynhold, senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University said that “despite the bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, intelligence co-operation between Israel and the US has never been more intimate and I expect that to continue”.

For this reason, he said, everybody wanted this to be a good meeting “in which the public message which goes out is that the special relationship between the US and Israel remains as robust and as strong as ever”.

Mr Rynhold explained: “In part that will be to do with Israel’s capabilities in being able to monitor the Iran deal; it will also be about regional co-operation against Iran’s support for terrorism and for funding terror. The Americans will want Israel’s help and there’s agreement in a broad sense on trying to combat Iranian efforts to destabilise the region.”

Two issues that remain more open to debate, he said, are what to do about Syria and the terms of Israel’s insurance policy regarding the Iran deal.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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