US-Israel relationship is as tight as ever, Obama and Netanyahu say

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Tuesday, Obama disputed that there is any coolness in the US-Israel relationship.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama walk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Netanyahu's car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday. Netanyahu has called the US-Israel relationship 'unbreakable.'

Yes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama appear to be getting along fine, for now. They sought to present a united front to the world on Tuesday following a White House meeting, with both emphasizing the shared values that underlie the US-Israel relationship.

“The bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Obama, for his part, disagreed with the premise of a questioner who asked about a perceived coolness between the White House and Israel.

“If you look at every public statement that I’ve made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” said the US president.

But how will these two new best friends feel about each other in the fall? That’s when the current Israeli moratorium on new settlement activity expires, among other things. Initial indications were that the White House did not get Netanyahu to promise to extend the ban.

Palestinians would almost certainly refuse to sit down to talk peace with Israel if settlement activity resumes. World eyes might then swivel back to Obama. With the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September, it might fall to the US president to try to sort out the resulting diplomatic mess.

“I think we are headed for a very rough patch in September,” said Robert Danin, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, during a conference call with reporters earlier this month.

That said, the White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu might be judged a success on several fronts. For one, there were photos – warm ones, with the pair shaking hands. As an account from the White House print-reporter pool noted, “President Obama laughed once or twice at things Netanyahu said, and each man initiated a protracted handshake in front of the television cameras.”

These images might make up for Netanyahu’s last White House visit in March, which included no press conference or photo opportunity. This was widely seen as a snub of the Israeli leader. Weeks earlier, Israel had infuriated the US administration by announcing new settlement plans for East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in the country.

With the atmosphere between the two back to a more normal, and warmer, level, Obama and Netanyahu also bonded over a call for a quick move to face-to-face peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Right now, US special envoy George Mitchell has been engaged in a sort of slow-motion shuttle diplomacy, carrying messages back and forth between the two sides as they engage in so-called proximity talks. The Obama team would much prefer the two sides to talk directly.

Direct talks would create an environment in which “everybody feels a greater investment in success ... so there ends up being more room created by more trust,” Obama said on Tuesday.

But he urged that such talks take place “well before the [settlement] moratorium has expired” – in other words, very soon.

The Palestinians have been reluctant to sit down for direct talks because their leaders do not want to get sucked into protracted open-ended discussions while Israel extends its territory by continued settlement construction. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas thus very well might demand an extension of the construction freeze as a precondition for direct negotiations.


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