There was only one reason that yesterday was the first meeting between Netanyahu and Abba since the Israeli Election, President Obama’s screw-up. What the President and his advisers perceived as a minor concession, a settlement freeze, was not perceived by Israel as a minor one. This was a major error by Obama. And when he added Jerusalem to his demands it just compounded the situation. His insistence for a freeze and the constant public berating of the Jewish State has turned the Israeli population against Obama, and increased the support of Prime Minister Netanyahu even with the Israeli left, no fans of Bibi, but who the President would look to help him pressure Bibi from Israel.
The President’s demand for a settlement freeze was a gift to the Palestinians. They twisted his pressure for the freeze and made it a pre-condition for negotiations, giving the Palestinians an excuse to avoid negotiations and the other Arab nations an excuse to avoid making the “gestures” for which the President is looking.
Yesterday the President took back his gift to Abbas. And his body language and tone of voice indicated he was not please that he had to take it away. The POTUS realized that it was his anti-settlement declaration holding up talks. Oh, he still wants Israel to stop with the natural growth in settlements, but he told the Palestinians that it should not be a pre-condition to talks. Abbas want to avoid those talks at all costs because he either doesn’t want to make peace, or doesn’t have the political capital to make it. Either way, Israel dodged the first of Barack Obama’s anti-Israel bullets.
By BENNY AVNI
THE Israelis feel they emerged victorious from yesterday’s much-antici pated trilateral meeting with the Palestinians and President Obama. You could tell, because they felt magnanimous enough to say they didn’t.
“I don’t think there are winners or losers,” Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu told me yesterday during a press briefing. “The renewal of negotiations is good for us, it’s good for the Palestinians and it’s good for the Americans.”
Entering a meeting with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (a first), Obama chose not to repeat the US demand for a total Israeli “freeze” of building construction in the West Bank. Instead, he talked (another first) of Israeli progress in steps to “restrain” settlement activity. When Obama then called on all sides to resume negotiations — effectively abandoning his past demands — Netanyahu felt somewhat vindicated.
Ever since taking office in February, Bibi has called on Abbas to conduct direct peace negotiations with him. But Obama officials raised the bar, demanding that Israel first end all settlement activity. Abbas ran with that mantle, turning a demand for settlement freeze all over the West Bank into his own precondition for talking with Bibi.
That left two sides not talking to each other — so Obama, who has spoken endlessly of his “personal commitment” to advancing Israeli-Arab peace, had little to show for his trouble.
Last week, administration officials ratcheted up the pressure on Abbas to come to yesterday’s first face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader, whose hold on power depends on America, had little choice.
“Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations,” Obama said yesterday. “It is time to move forward.”
Bibi agreed: “We wasted six months,” he said in his briefing.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well from past talks. “The Americans were surprised at the intimacy” of the men involved, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. Entering yesterday’s meeting, the Palestinians declined to shake the hand of Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in front of the TV cameras. But then, as they entered the room, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said to Lieberman, in Hebrew, “Shana Tova” — congratulating him on the new Jewish year — according to the foreign minister and to Bibi.
But diplomacy is a tricky business. Despite yesterday’s handshakes, Abbas still demands that Israel announce a total settlement freeze before the restart formal talks. Such a freeze, including in Jerusalem, is an Israeli “obligation,” the Palestinians say
As for America, “We’re not announcing today the relaunch of negotiations at a specific date certain,” Obama’s czar for Arab-Israeli diplomacy, George Mitchell, told me yesterday. Instead, the United States is aiming to create the conditions for success of the diplomatic effort, once talks are renewed. “We don’t favor negotiations for the sake of negotiations,” Mitchell said. “We want more peace and less process.”
None of Obama’s demands so far amounted to a “precondition,” Mitchell argued. Instead, America wanted to create “a context favorable to the successful completion” of negotiations. And even though the demand to “freeze” settlements is now replaced by the verb “restrain,” there’s no change in US policy, he added.
As Obama noted, there’s much improvement on the ground. Israel has removed West Bank road blocks, thereby helping to spark an economic mini-boom in Palestinian cities. Security for West Bank Arabs has improved, leaving them less inclined, for now, to infringe on Israel’s security.
Nevertheless, regardless of Mitchell’s efforts, if and when formal talks resume, a “process” is much more likely than “peace.”
But at least then Bibi can tend to what he (and many in the Arab world) really cares about: his attempt to alert Obama and the West to the danger of allowing a nuclear Iran. Changing the focus to the real issue, Iran, would be a serious gain for Israel.
And what does Bibi Netanyahu say about the meeting with Abbas and Obama? This is what he told Bret Bair of Fox News: