Netanyahu and Obama: is the Big Chill setting in?
11/11/2009 - 00:00
James Besser
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009 Like most other analysts, I’m still trying to figure out the real meaning of Monday’s Obama-Netanyahu tete a tete and the bizarre events leading up to it, including the fact the administration reportedly wouldn’t agree to a meeting until Obama was in the air. In a Jewish Week story posted yesterday I cited the views of a number of analysts, but  there are still a lot of unanswered questions. In part that’s a function of the unusual lid of secrecy covering the meeting. Usually, the most private meetings quickly become public because one or all participants have a vested interest in leaking and spinning what happened. This time, both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem to have a strong interest in keeping their lips sealed. An educated guess: that’s because President Obama wanted more from Netanyahu, didn’t get it and is now offering up a tamer version of Tom Friedman’s “call us when you’re ready to start talking seriously” policy, laid out with Friedman’s usual clarity in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend. But neither leader wants to be seen acknowledging that what was optimistically called the peace process is, for now, going into official hibernation. Both will continue going through the motions – Netanyahu saying “My goal is to reach a peace treaty, and soon,” as he did at this week’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, Obama continuing to send special envoy George Mitchell on scouting missions to the region without any real hope of progress on the big issues and without much top-level administration involvement. It’s unlikely Washington will punish Israel by wielding the aid bludgeon, and strategic cooperation between the two countries is likely to be unaffected. I’m guessing they will work hard to maintain a facade of normalcy in the relationship; neither side wants the public impression of a breach. But I think there’s little question  a real chill is setting in between the two governments, even as both sides continue to insist everything’s peachy. I don’t see much sympathy in Washington for the Palestinian leadership, either – but then, there isn’t a “special relationship” there that can be put on ice. Sam Lewis, the former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, disagrees that the administration is going to quietly pull back from direct involvement. Obama has made an active peace process “a matter of U.S. national interest,” he told me today.  “Once that happens, it’s very difficult to walk away.” Lewis sees the administration hunkering down for “a 15 round prizefight” instead of looking for a quick peace process knockout. The real problem with that scenario is “whether the Palestinian side will hold together – and whether Bibi’s government will,” he added. And Gadi Baltiansky, a former Israeli diplomat who now serves as Israeli director general of  the Geneva Initiative, said he still believes Netanyahu will bend if he sees U.S.-Israel relations in jeopardy. That alliance is a “pillar in Israel’s foreign policy,” he said in an email, “and Netanyahu is fully aware of it, maybe more than others. He will not risk this relationship which time and again is proven as essential to Israel. Therefore, if ‘encouraged’ in the right way and on the right issues, he will be ready to do things that are not part of his ideology just because the relations with the US are more important to him.” But looking at the growing list of other woes facing the Obama administration, foreign and domestic, and at the dismal progress for peace progress even if Netanyahu does bend to Obama’s will, I’m still betting we’re going to see a U.S. pullback from active involvement, a facade of normalcy in U.S.-Israel relations and a pretty chilly atmosphere beneath that facade.

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