There were no kiss-and-make-up photos after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two-hour meeting at the White House with President Obama Tuesday night, suggesting that differences between the United States and Israel – particularly over settlements in Arab East Jerusalem – are more than a passing misunderstanding.
The two leaders did not wave from the White House portico, make any post-visit statements to the press, or provide even a minimal handshake photo – portending a difficult road ahead for US efforts to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks moving again.
Prime Minister Netanyahu did not back down from his staunch defense of Israel’s right to build Jewish housing in the contested part of Jerusalem. If anything, he used his three-day Washington visit to put an exclamation mark on his settlement views, telling the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.”
Netanyahu’s Washington visit appeared designed in part to cement the Israeli perspective that Jerusalem is an indivisible city, and to pull any remaining wind from the sails of the Arab dream of a seeing East Jerusalem become the capital of a Palestinian state, some Middle East expert say. As if to drive home that position, officials in Jerusalem announced Wednesday yet another housing development, this time on land from which Palestinian families were evicted last year.
The US goal remains to resume “proximity,” or indirect, talks between the two parties in the conflict, to be followed as quickly as possible by direct negotiations that would take up a list of core “final-status” issues – including Jerusalem. But the Palestinians have said they will not return to talks until settlement activity is stopped, while Netanyahu has offered a “moratorium” only on new settlement construction in the West Bank.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu said Palestinian intransigence on the settlement issue risks putting off talks for a year, and he encouraged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume them now. But Palestinian leaders characterized Netanyahu’s unyielding stance in Washington as a sign that he has chosen settlements over the peace process.
US officials say Obama’s quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement through creation of a Palestinian state is at a crossroads. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Tuesday that the US faces a series of “pass-fail tests” that will determine if the effort succeeds.
“Our immediate pass-fail test is can we get the … parties into direct negotiations?” he said. “Then, pass-fail test No. 2 is very simple…. Do we get to an agreement that is in the Israeli interest and the Palestinian interest and the interest of the rest of the region and clearly in the interest of the United States?”
The US problem is that it cannot determine the outcome of this test. “Ultimately this is about what the parties themselves are willing to do," Mr. Crowley said. "We cannot want this more than they do.”