* At least for now, Israel’s Prime Minister is no longer a White House pariah.
* Obama: “The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable” . . . “I commended Prime Minister Netanyahu” . . . “Our two countries are working cooperatively” . . . “Unwavering in our commitment” . . . “Our relationship has broadened” . . . “Continuing to improve” . . . “We are committed to that special bond, and we are going to do what’s required to back that up.”
* The new body-language coming out of Washington is remarkable, and seems to be an almost complete reversal of Obama’s policy over the last 18 months. But is it real and will it last?
* When Netanyahu visited the White House in March, Obama refused to even be photographed with him. Now his body language could hardly have been warmer.
* In March, Obama refused to eat a meal with Netanyahu. Yesterday’s meal for Netanyahu and his delegation, attended by a whole range of senior American officials (including Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones, Joe Biden, Susan Rice and George Mitchell), was said to be highly enjoyable.
* Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama met with Sarah Netanyahu at the White House, in what they described as a warm encounter. The scheduled half-hour meeting turned into an hour-long friendly chat, according to sources.
Above: PM Netanyahu with President Obama at the White House yesterday.
1. Extra note: CNN’s Octavia Nasr regrets Fadlallah tweet
2. The Obama-Netanyahu love fest
3. A remarkable public turnaround by Obama
4. Video of Obama-Netanyahu news conference in Oval Office yesterday
5. Transcript: Remarks by Israeli PM Netanyahu and U.S. President Obama
6. “When Bibi met Barack (Take Four)” (Editorial, Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2010)
7. “Netanyahu hears no discouraging words from Obama” (Washington Post, July 7, 2010)
EXTRA NOTE: CNN’S OCTAVIA NASR REGRETS FADLALLAH TWEET
In the 24 hours after I drew attention to it on Sunday, dozens of media who subscribe to this list, including Fox News, reported on the twitter comments by CNN’s Senior Editor of Arab Affairs Octavia Nasr praising Hizbullah leader Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist.
Octavia Nasr has now posted a note on the CNN website “deeply regretting” her words of praise for Fadlallah.
Nasr admits she was wrong to praise a man who she said “regularly praised the terror attacks that killed Israeli citizens. And as recently as 2008, said the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust were wildly inflated.”
Octavia Nasr should be commended for her swift response, unlike those journalists at the BBC and elsewhere who have said worse things in praise of terrorists and yet refused to apologize.
To see her original controversial and offensive tweet, please scroll down here to item 5)
-- Tom Gross
UPDATE July 7, 2010
In spite of her apology, Octavia Nasr has been asked to leave CNN. According to an internal memo, CNN senior management says “we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised.”
CNN might now like to take a look at some of their other Middle East correspondents, who are far more biased against Israel than even Nasr was.
UPDATE July 8, 2010
The New York Times website now confirms Nasr has been asked to leave CNN.
[All notes below by Tom Gross]
THE OBAMA-NETANYAHU LOVE FEST
Since many prominent newspapers, such as The International Herald Tribune (which bills itself on its masthead as “the Global Edition of The New York Times”) have today woefully misreported the positive Israeli-U.S. events of yesterday (the IHT instead filled up 3 of its 6 news pages today with pieces slandering Israel concerning other matters), I attach below an unedited transcript and video of the remarkable hug-in yesterday in the Oval Office between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After that I attach an editorial on their meeting from today’s Wall Street Journal, and a report on it from The Washington Post.
But first some thoughts on the news conference yesterday between Obama and Netanyahu…
A REMARKABLE PUBLIC TURNAROUND BY OBAMA
* President Obama’s public display of support yesterday for Israel’s democratically-elected leader was remarkable when one compares it to the incredibly frosty way he treated and shunned Netanyahu on his last trip to Washington in March, which I wrote about at the time.
* Obama’s reaffirmation of the policy of nuclear ambiguity towards Israel, given what Obama said were Israel’s unique security concerns, is very significant. This is especially so in light of the fact that some Obama administration officials had been hinting at abandoning Israel on this matter, which would be potentially catastrophic for Israel’s national security deterrence. Obama said yesterday that the U.S. will work to see that Israel is not singled out at the September meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Obama also made clear that Iran having nuclear weapons is what concerns America and the world, not Israel’s perhaps having them.
* Obama’s call on the Palestinian Authority to begin direct talks with Israel before the expiration in September of Israel’s 10 month freeze on settlement expansion, is also important. (The BBC and other media are completely misreporting this, suggesting that it is the Palestinian Authority that wants direct final status negotiations and Netanyahu that is refusing to enter into them – a complete reversal of the truth.) Of course, if the Palestinian Authority agree to direct talks, they will eventually have to make some actual compromises, as Israel has already repeatedly done, which is why the PA is trying to avoid such talks. (Predictably, within hours of the Obama-Netanyahu news conference yesterday Saed Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, ruled out the possibility of a return to direct peace talks with Israel. This has been widely reported throughout the Middle East but not by certain prominent Western news outlets who seem to want to blame Israel alone for everything wrong in the region.)
SHARED STRATEGIC INTERESTS
* It was important that Obama explicitly affirmed at the beginning of his comments yesterday that Israel and the U.S. share “national security interests” and “strategic interests.” This comes after several months of senior U.S. officials hinting that Israeli and U.S. strategic interests were diverging. Some Obama administration officials had even gone so far as to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was somehow responsible for the actions of the Taliban against NATO troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
REMEMBERING WHO ONE’S FRIENDS ARE
* For the first eighteen months of his presidency, Obama spent much effort making overtures to America’s enemies and ignoring or even insulting (in the case of Israel and some other countries) America’s friends. Now he appears to have realized that this has gotten him nowhere (indeed America’s position is in many ways weaker internationally than when he took office) and it appears he has instead decided to improve relations with one of America’s closest allies, Israel.
THE IRANIAN THREAT
* Obama appears to realize that it would be catastrophic for America and the world to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and realizes that he may have to call upon Israel’s help to keep this from happening, and this may be a factor in his decision to mend fences with Israel.
* It could well be that Obama’s motives in suddenly publicly supporting Israel have nothing to do with a strategic rethink by the president and everything to do with his domestic problems. Obama is concerned about what could turn out to be a very poor showing for the Democratic Party at the mid-term elections in November and realizes that he and his party need to stop alienating and attacking Israel, a country that enjoys strong across-the-board support among Americans of left and right. (During the presidential campaign in 2008, Obama also made pro-Israel comments only to retract them shortly afterwards.)
THE WORLD’S BIGGEST NEWS BROADCASTER
*At any rate, after yesterday’s performance, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, who wrote in an article for the BBC website two months ago that it was “enjoyable” that Israel and the U.S. governments were not getting along, will no doubt be disappointed.
VIDEO OF OBAMA-NETANYAHU NEWS CONFERENCE IN OVAL OFFICE YESTERDAY
Tom Gross adds:
Netanyahu appeared this morning on Good Morning America, and is due to appear later today on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and will give an extended interview to Larry King on CNN (the American version) tonight, which will be broadcast on CNN International tomorrow mid-morning European time.
Videos for these media appearances will be posted here on this website after they happen.
In order not to report on Obama’s positive approach to Israel yesterday, the Israel-obsessed British newspaper The Independent plastered its entire front page today with a dubious “expose” about highly unreliable accusations of Israeli “wrongdoings” the paper said it was revealing. But in fact far from being new “news,” The Independent was just repeating a story that The Independent had first run in May 2007, as the media monitoring group “Just Journalism” has pointed out.
Any informed observer of the Middle East knows The Independent is a laughing stock when it comes to the truth in its reporting about Israel. Unfortunately some British MPs and BBC-types actually believe what they read in the paper.
REMARKS BY ISRAELI PM NETANYAHU AND U.S. PRESIDENT OBAMA
Official transcript supplied by the White House:
President Obama: I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I want to welcome him back to the White House. I want to first of all thank him for the wonderful statement that he made in honor of the 4th of July, our Independence Day, when he was still in Israel.
It marked just one more chapter in the extraordinary friendship between our two countries. As Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated in his speech, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable. It encompasses our national security interests, our strategic interests, but most importantly the bond of two democracies who share a common set of values and whose people have grown closer and closer as time goes on.
During our discussions in our private meeting, we covered a wide range of issues. We discussed the issue of Gaza. And I commended Prime Minister Netanyahu on the progress that’s been made in allowing more goods into Gaza. We’ve seen real progress on the ground. I think it’s been acknowledged that it has moved more quickly and more effectively than many people anticipated.
Obviously, there are still tensions and issues there that have to be resolved, but our two countries are working cooperatively together to deal with these issues. The Quartet has been, I think, very helpful as well. And we believe that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs in not allowing missiles and weapons to get to Hamas.
We discussed the issue of Iran. And we pointed out that as a consequence of some hard work internationally, we have instituted, through the U.N. Security Council, the toughest sanctions ever directed at an Iranian government.
In addition, last week, I signed our own set of sanctions coming out of the United States Congress - as robust as any that we’ve ever seen. Other countries are following suit. And so we intend to continue to put pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations and to cease the kinds of provocative behavior that has made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community.
We had an extensive discussion about the prospects for Middle East peace. I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace. And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal not just of the two principals involved, but the entire world; and that is two states living side-by-side in peace and security.
Israel’s security needs met, the Palestinians having a sovereign state that they call their own: those are goals that have obviously escaped our grasp for decades now. But now more than ever I think is the time for us to seize on that vision. And I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do so.
It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be hard work. But we’ve seen already proximity talks taking place. My envoy, George Mitchell, has helped to organize five of them so far. We expect those proximity talks to lead to direct talks. And I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks. And I commend the prime minister for that.
There are going to need to be a whole set of confidence-building measures, to make sure that people are serious and that we’re sending a signal to the region that this isn’t just more talk and more process without action.
I think it is also important to recognize that the Arab states have to be supportive of peace, because although ultimately this is going to be determined by the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, they can’t succeed unless you have the surrounding states having a greater investment in the process than we’ve seen so far.
Finally we discussed issues that arose out of the nuclear nonproliferation conference. And I reiterated to the prime minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against it that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.
So I just want to say once again that I thought the discussion that we had was excellent. We’ve seen over the last year how our relationship has broadened; sometimes it doesn’t get publicized but on a whole range of issues - economic, military-to-military, issues related to Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge, intelligence sharing, how we are able to work together effectively on the international front - that in fact, our relationship is continuing to improve.
And I think a lot of that has to do with the excellent work that the prime minister has done, so I’m grateful. And welcome, once again, to the White House. Thank you.
PM Netanyahu: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you. Thank you.
The President and I had an extensive, excellent discussion in which we discussed a broad range of issues. These include of course our own cooperation in the fields of intelligence and security. And exactly as the President said, it is extensive. Not everything is seen by the public. But it is seen and appreciated by us. We understand fully that we will work together in the coming months and years to protect our common interests, our countries, our peoples against new threats and at the same time we want to explore the possibilities of peace.
The greatest new threat on the horizon and the single most dominant issue for many of us is the prospect that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is brutally terrorizing its people, spreading terrorism far and wide. And I very much appreciate the President’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That has been translated by the President into his leadership at the Security Council, which passed sanctions against Iran; by the U.S. bill that the President signed just a few days ago. And I urge other leaders to follow the President’s lead and other countries to follow the U.S. lead, to adopt much tougher sanctions against Iran, primarily those directed against its energy sector.
As the President said, we discussed a great deal about activating - moving forward - the quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We’re committed to that peace. I’m committed to that peace. And this peace I think will better the lives of Israelis, of Palestinians; and certainly would change our region.
Israelis are prepared to do a lot to get that peace in place, but they want to make sure that after all the steps they take, that what we get is a secure peace. We don’t want a repeat of the situation where we vacate territories and those are overtaken by Iran’s proxies and used as launching ground for terrorist attacks or rocket attacks.
I think there are solutions that we can adopt. But in order to proceed to the solutions, we need to begin negotiations in order to end them. We’ve begun proximity talks. I think it’s high time to begin direct talks. I think with the help of President Obama, President Abbas and myself should engage in direct talks to reach a political settlement of peace, coupled with security and prosperity. This requires that the Palestinian Authority prepare its people for peace in schools, textbooks and so on.
But I think at the end of the day peace is the best option for all of us, and I think we have a unique opportunity and a unique time to do it. The President says that he has a habit of confounding all the cynics and all the naysayers and all those who preclude possibilities. And he’s shown it time and time again. I think I’ve had my opportunity to confound some cynics myself. And I think if we work together with President Abbas, then we can bring a great message of hope to our peoples, to the region and to the world.
One final point. Mr. President, I want to thank you for reaffirming to me in private and now in public, as you did, the long- standing U.S. commitments to Israel on matters of vital strategic importance. I want to thank you too for the great hospitality you and the first lady have shown Sarah and me and our entire delegation.
And I think we have to redress the balance. You know, I’ve been coming here a lot. It’s about time you -
President Obama: I’m ready.
PM Netanyahu: - and the first lady came to Israel.
President Obama: We look forward to it.
PM Netanyahu: So (anytime ?).
President Obama: Thank you.
PM Netanyahu: Anytime.
President Obama: Thank you very much.
PM Netanyahu: Thank you.
President Obama: Thank you. Good.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. As far as the steps which need to be taken to move possibly - (off mike) - direct talks, do you think it will be helpful for Israel to extend the - (off mike) - settlement moratoriums set to expire in September? And if I could briefly ask the prime minister, with regards to the sanctions measures, do you think that these measures will contain or halt Iran’s nuclear program - (off mike)?
President Obama: Well, let me first of all say that I think the Israeli government, working through layers of various governmental entities and jurisdictions, have shown restraint, over the last several months, that I think has been conducive to the prospects of us getting into direct talks.
And my hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment and success, not every action, by one party or the other, is taken as a reason for not engaging in talks, so there ends up being more room created by more trust. And so, you know, I want to just make sure that we sustain that over the next several weeks.
I do think that there are a range of confidence-building measures that can be taken by all sides, that improve the prospects of a successful negotiation. And I’ve discussed some of those privately with the prime minister. When President Abbas was here, I discussed some of those same issues with him.
I think it’s very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement, that they are not engaging in provocative language; that at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel.
At the same time, I’ve said to Prime Minister Netanyahu - I don’t think he minds me sharing it publicly - that, you know, Abu Mazen working with Fayyad have done some very significant things, when it comes to the security front. And so us being able to widen the scope of their responsibilities, in the West Bank, is something that I think would be very meaningful to the Palestinian people.
I think that some of the steps that have already been taken in Gaza help to build confidence. And if we continue to make progress on that front, then Palestinians can see in very concrete terms what peace can bring that rhetoric and violence cannot bring.
And that is people actually having an opportunity to raise their children and make a living and, you know, buy and sell goods and build a life for themselves, which is ultimately what people in both Israel and the Palestinian territories want, so.
PM Netanyahu: I think the latest sanctions adopted by the U.N. create illegitimacy or create delegitimization for Iran’s nuclear program. And that is important. I think the sanctions the President signed the other day actually have teeth. They bite. The question is, how much do you need to bite, is something I cannot answer now. But if other nations adopted similar sanctions, that would increase the effect.
The more like-mined countries join in the American-led effort that President Obama has signed into act - into law, I think, the better we’ll be able to give you an answer to your question.
Q: Mr. President, in the past year, you distanced yourself from Israel and gave a cold shoulder to the prime minister. Do you think this policy was a mistake? Do you think it contributes to the bashing of Israel by others? And because of the changes now, do you trust Prime Minister Netanyahu?
And if I may, Mr. Prime Minister, specifically, did you discuss with the President a continuing of the building of settlements after September? And did you tell him that you’re going to keep on building after this period is over?
President Obama: Well, let me, first of all, say that the premise to your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it. 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; that our commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering. And in fact, there aren’t any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that.
And in terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and Stateside, enjoys, you know, seeing if there’s news there. But the fact of the matter is, is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected President, and have said so both publicly and privately. I think that he is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood.
And you know, what I have consistently shared with him is my interest in working with him, not at cross-purposes, so that we can achieve the kind of peace that will ensure Israel’s security for decades to come.
And that’s going to mean some tough choices, and there are going to be times where, you know, he and I are having robust discussions about what kind of choices need to be made. But the underlying approach never changes, and that is, the United States is committed to Israel’s security, we are committed to that special bond, and we are going to do what’s required to back that up, not just with words but with actions.
We are going to continually work with the prime minister and the entire Israeli government, as well as the Israeli people, so that we can achieve what I think has to be everybody’s goal, which is that people feel secure. They don’t feel like a rocket’s going to be landing on their head sometime. They don’t feel as if there’s a growing population that wants to direct violence against Israel. That requires work, and that requires some difficult choices and both at the strategic level and the tactical level. And this is something that the prime minister understands and why I think that we’re going to be able to work together not just over the next few months but hopefully over the next several years.
PM Netanyahu: Thank you.
The President and I discussed concrete steps that could be done now, with the coming days and the coming weeks, to move the peace process further along in a very robust way. This is what we focused our conversation on. And when I say the next few weeks, that’s what I mean, and the President means that too.
Let me make a general observation about the question you forwarded to the President - and here I’ll have to paraphrase Mark Twain - that the reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relationship aren’t just premature: They’re just flat wrong.
There is a depth and richness of this relationship that is expressed every day our teams talk. We don’t make it public. The only thing that’s public is that you can have differences, on occasion, in the best of families and the closest of families. That comes out public, and sometimes in a twisted way, too.
What is (natural ?) is the fact that we have an enduring bond of values, interests, beginning with security and the way that we share both information and other things to help the common defense of our common interests and many others in the region who don’t often admit to the beneficial effect of this cooperation.
So I think there’s a - the President said it best in his speech in Cairo. In front of the entire Islamic world, he said: The bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable. And I can affirm that to you today.
President Obama: Thank you very much, everybody.
“FOLLOWING MR. NETANYAHU’S DISASTROUS MEETING WITH MR. OBAMA EARLIER THIS YEAR …”
When Bibi met Barack (Take Four)
At least Israel’s Prime Minister is no longer a White House pariah.
Wall Street Journal
July 7, 2010
Of all the diplomatic noises heard during Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting yesterday with President Obama, the most significant may have been the clicking cameras of the White House press pool. Unlike at their last two encounters – both closed to the media – the Israeli Prime Minister is at last being accorded the ordinary courtesies granted to visiting foreign leaders.
It’s good to see Mr. Obama finally treating a key American ally as something other than a pariah. The President even went one better, calling America’s bond with Israel “unbreakable,” cautioning Palestinians to avoid seeking “opportunities to embarrass Israel,” and rejecting suggestions that there had ever been any strain in his relationship with his Israeli counterpart.
“If you look at every public statement I have made,” he declared, “it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel.” Note the lawyerly use of the word “public.”
The reality is nearly the opposite, which goes far to explain why this Administration has been able to make so little progress in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israel’s willingness to take the “risks for peace” invariably demanded of it has always been anchored in a sense among Israelis that whatever they might cede in territory the U.S. would make up for in security, as well as diplomatic and economic backing.
That was the case when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005: It received nothing from the Palestinians but got a written commitment by President Bush that the U.S. would not expect Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders (themselves the product of a 1949 armistice agreement) in any future settlement with the Palestinians. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disavowed that commitment last year, saying Mr. Bush’s pledge “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.”
The same goes for the Administration’s surprise decision in May to support a U.N. resolution that demanded Israel’s nuclear disarmament while making no mention of Iran, a vote that contravened a decades-old understanding regarding Israel’s nuclear posture.
And it was no less true in March when the White House reacted with bullying fury to the news that an Israeli bureaucrat had approved a step in a planning process for a new housing project in north Jerusalem that could only be considered a “settlement” in the most expansive (and pro-Palestinian) sense of the term.
No wonder, then, that so many Israelis look askance at the prospect of making further concessions to the Palestinians. Israel is a democracy, and Mr. Netanyahu cannot simply deliver a “peace” on his own. So far, Mr. Obama’s actions have only made the political prospects of selling any prospective deal to Israel’s public – to say nothing of its fractious ruling coalition – that much more difficult.
Mr. Obama’s tilt against Israel has also been noticed by the Palestinians, who take it as reason to hope that they can hold out for even better negotiating terms. The Administration’s overwrought reaction to the March housing announcement sparked some politically opportunistic rioting by Palestinians that might have led to a third bloody intifada. As it is, since Mr. Obama came to office the Palestinians have retreated to “proximity talks” mediated by U.S. emissary George Mitchell instead of dealing directly with the Israelis, a retreat from the practice of the previous 16 years. The Palestinians are no fools: They know how to push a friendly U.S. Administration to push Israel.
Now the question is whether the 18 months that Mr. Obama has wasted will have longer-term consequences. Yesterday, Mr. Netanyahu spoke optimistically of returning to direct talks with the Palestinians in the coming weeks, and perhaps that will happen. But it’s difficult to see what progress can be made so long as Palestinians continue to insist on the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to Israel, which contravenes the point of a two-state solution and would mean the demographic annihilation of the Jewish state. Mr. Obama could help if he continues to make it clear as President – as he did as a candidate – that there is no such right.
Overhanging all of this is the threat of a nuclear Iran, a country sworn to Israel’s destruction if it can acquire the means to accomplish it. We find it hard to imagine how Israel could live alongside a Palestinian state if that state were destined to become, under the leadership of Hamas, the tip of an Iranian nuclear spear. Mr. Netanyahu had warm words yesterday for the recent U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Iran. The trouble is that even CIA Director Leon Panetta publicly conceded two weeks ago that these sanctions are unlikely to deter Iran from its drive to acquire an atomic weapon.
Following Mr. Netanyahu’s disastrous meeting with Mr. Obama earlier this year, we noted the Administration’s habit of squeezing America’s friends while coddling its enemies. It’s good to see at least one of those friends no longer getting the squeeze. Now Mr. Obama has to get serious about the enemies.
“WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS MIGHT HAVE INSTEAD FLOWN THE WHITE FLAG OF SURRENDER”
Netanyahu hears no discouraging words from Obama
By Dana Milbank
The Washington Post
July 7, 2010
A blue-and-white Israeli flag hung from Blair House. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.
Four months ago, the Obama administration made a politically perilous decision to condemn Israel over a controversial new settlement. The Israel lobby reared up, Netanyahu denounced the administration’s actions, Republican leaders sided with Netanyahu, and Democrats ran for cover.
So on Tuesday, Obama, routed and humiliated by his Israeli counterpart, invited Netanyahu back to the White House for what might be called the Oil of Olay Summit: It was all about saving face.
The president, beaming in the Oval Office with a dour Netanyahu at his side, gushed about the “extraordinary friendship between our two countries.” He performed the Full Monty of pro-Israel pandering: “The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable” . . . “I commended Prime Minister Netanyahu” . . . “Our two countries are working cooperatively” . . . “unwavering in our commitment” . . . “our relationship has broadened” . . . “continuing to improve” . . . “We are committed to that special bond, and we are going to do what’s required to back that up.”
An Israeli reporter attempted to summon the effusive American back to reality: “Mr. President, in the past year, you distanced yourself from Israel and gave a cold shoulder to the prime minister. Do you think this policy was a mistake? . . . Do you trust Prime Minister Netanyahu?”
Obama assumed an amused grin. “Well, let me first of all say that the premise of your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it,” he said. He said he had always engaged in “a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship” with Israel, and “I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president.”
So that business about Hillary Clinton calling Israel’s settlement action “insulting” and the State Department accusing Israel of a “deeply negative signal” that “undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests”? You must have imagined it.
Obama came to office with an admirable hope of reviving Middle East peace efforts by appealing to the Arab world and positioning himself as more of an honest broker. But he has now learned the painful lesson that domestic politics won’t allow such a stand.
On Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on Tuesday, liberal activists protested what many of them see as a betrayal. “We want to appeal to Obama to stand up for once, to get a little vertebrate in his invertebrate back and speak to Netanyahu in no uncertain terms,” protester Ray McGovern shouted into a bullhorn. Obama, he added, is “a president who by all indications is what we call in the Bronx a ‘wuss’: a person who will not stand up for what he knows is right.”
Even before Obama’s surrender to Netanyahu, Muslims were losing faith that he would be the transformational figure who spoke to them from Cairo last year. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in Obama fell from 41 percent to 31 percent in Egypt and from 33 percent to 23 percent in Turkey.
Obama snubbed Netanyahu at their last meeting, shortly after Israel’s announcement during a visit by Vice President Biden that it would build new housing in a disputed area of Jerusalem. No statement or photograph of the meeting was made public. But Israel didn’t back down, and neither did it heed administration pleas to use “caution and restraint” before the deadly raid by Israeli commandos on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza.
Netanyahu arrived at the White House to see bulldozers and piles of rubble along the West Wing driveway from a construction project on the North Lawn. Inside, he found more construction underway: Obama feverishly rebuilding the U.S.-Israel relationship. The president’s opening statement in front of the cameras contained not a word of criticism of the Jewish state.
“Well, I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he began. For those tuning in late, he added at the end: “So I just want to say, once again, that I thought the discussion that we had was excellent.”
Netanyahu was pleased with the pandering. “Mr. President, I want to thank you for reaffirming to me in private and now in public, as you did, the long-standing U.S. commitments to Israel.”
Obama didn’t even mention Israel’s settlements until a reporter inquired -- and then he declined to say that Israel should extend a moratorium on settlements that expires in September. Avoiding any criticism of Israel, he instead directed Palestinians not to look for “excuses for incitement” or “opportunities to embarrass Israel.”
Netanyahu celebrated victory. “To paraphrase Mark Twain,” he said, “the reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relationship aren’t just premature, they’re just flat wrong.”