(Photo: Barack Obama)
As President Obama prepares for his meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a look at Netanyahu's track record on Jerusalem leaves one wondering whether Obama is dealing with a non-negotiator or a pragmatist.
President Obama will meet privately today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office dining room. This is Netanyahu's second closed meeting in a row, after his meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was moved at the last minute from the State Department with press availability to Netanyahu's hotel suite. The prime minister appears to be showing some distance from the United States, if only in photo-ops.
Netanyahu's meetings come on the heels of the annual American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, where both Netanyahu and Clinton spoke. AIPAC, with more than 100,000 members, refers to itself as "America's Pro-Israel Lobby" and is often considered to be one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States.
The meetings are ostensibly taking place in an attempt to repair the damage done when the Israeli government announced that another 1,600 Israeli settlements would be built in East Jerusalem on the same day Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel with US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell in an attempt to get both Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The diplomatic clash erupted when Biden responded to Israel's announcement in a released statement saying that "the substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."
Secretary Clinton echoed Biden's sentiment, saying during an interview on CNN that "the announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice president was there was insulting" and "I regret deeply that that occurred and made that view known," referring to the angry 45-minute phone call to Netanyahu where she reportedly called on Netanyahu to scrap the settlement plan and offer positive gestures to the Palestinians.
But almost as quickly as tensions flared, they were on the road to normalization.
Monday morning, Secretary Clinton, to intermittent and varying degrees of applause, reassured the audience at the AIPAC conference of the Obama administration's "commitment to Israel's security and Israel's future" as being "rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever."
Clinton also made it clear that "guaranteeing Israel's security is more than a policy position for me; it is a personal commitment that will never waver."
With the commitment, came a small dose of reality when Clinton said, "And yes, I underscored the longstanding American policy that does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlements. As Israel's friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed."
Realizing the short amount of time between Clinton's AIPAC remarks and the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attempted to move the ball down the field from where Clinton left it by saying, "Our goal in any of this is to create an atmosphere of trust and open dialogue, to bring these two sides together so that the discussions can be substantive in moving towards comprehensive Middle Eastern peace."
Gibbs also made it clear that the president has every hope that the meeting will result in not getting just back to the negotiating table, but "to the type of relationship that is necessary for those talks to bear fruit."
However, also on Monday, while addressing the AIPAC conference, an especially defiant Netanyahu did not give the impression that he was willing to budge on settlement building, especially regarding Jewish areas in East Jerusalem, which he considers "an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem."
Additionally, Netanyahu signaled that Jerusalem is not likely subject to negotiation. "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," said Netanyahu.
Netanyahu's comments abroad at AIPAC mirror his domestic comments, stating that building settlements in Jerusalem is the same thing as construction in Israel proper. Before departing for the US on Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "Our policy toward Jerusalem is the same policy of all Israeli governments in the past 42 years, and it has not changed. From our point of view, construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv."
The settlement announcement has been characterized in much of the mainstream media as one that was determined by the right wing of Netanyahu's coalition, and that Netanyahu was subject to it.
Netanyahu's statements in the past have given no indication that he would be a flexible negotiator on Jerusalem and the West Bank. He was particularly angered by Sharon's eventual willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians, summarized when he famously said in August 2005: "Sharon gave and gave and gave, the Palestinians got and got and got, and my question is, what did we get? Nothing and nothing and nothing."
At that same time, on the issue of Jerusalem, he said "There is a battle for Jerusalem. Sharon has frozen the building here and prevented the creation of a greater Jerusalem. Instead, he is enabling the creation of a greater Palestine."
However, the question as to whether Netanyahu is a right-wing ideologue or a pragmatist is still up for grabs, according to Joel Peters, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech.
"On one level, he's not a right-wing ideologue, but his rhetoric would lead you to believe he is," said Peters, who has been involved in many of the track II informal talks between Israelis and Palestinians to find solutions to the conflict. But at the same time, "[Netanyahu] has intentionally locked himself in with a coalition of right-wing parties, rather than selecting centrist parties who may be more willing to negotiate on these matters."
For Peters, it's highly questionable as to whether the US response to the 1,600 East Jerusalem settlement announcement was a response based on substance. The lack of escalation and the US action of "walking it back" was the result of lack of substance and, ultimately, "Neither side wanted a big fight, because neither side knew they could win."
But not all agree with the diplomatic nuances that Peters suggests.
Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," says that external forces were at work in the US change of heart.
"US officials rarely admit that they are doing something primarily to appease some interest group, because they are supposed to pursue the national interest and to admit that other factors are involved would make them look craven," says Walt. "The issue isn't why the US supports Israel's existence or wishes Israel well; the issue is why the United States gives Israel so much economic and military aid and gives it for the most part unconditionally."
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since its inception in 1948 and remained the largest annual recipient until the invasion of Iraq. Since 1985, Israel has received just under $3 billion annually from the United States.
"In fact, this 'special relationship' is no longer a strategic asset; it is a liability," argues Walt. "And Israel's forty-year occupation and brutal treatment of the Palestinians means there is no longer a compelling moral case for unconditional US support. The real reason, though of course Clinton can't admit it, is the political power of the [pro-Israel] lobby."
Walt suggests that Obama and Clinton are now trying to smooth things over, because they still worry that AIPAC can hurt them politically, the result of which is that "there won't be a two-state solution," according to Walt.
"Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both warned that [the lack of a two-state solution] would be a disaster for Israel," said Walt. "Unfortunately, AIPAC doesn't seem to realize this, even though Secretary Clinton did try to explain it to them."
At the moment, it is unclear exactly what role AIPAC had in getting the US to back down from its angry reaction to the East Jerusalem settlement construction announcement, but AIPAC immediately collected more than 50 statements and letters from members of Congress representing half of the states that reaffirmed the US commitment to Israel.
Francis A. Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, points out that "what Netanyahu has done is consistent with the Likud tactics" since the beginning of peace negotiations in 1991.
Boyle, who served as legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Negotiations from 1991 to 1993, says that what was likely intended by the settlement announcement was to stall the talks and delay further negotiation.
Boyle argues that "we've seen this pattern of behavior before - incremental escalation by Netanyahu, followed by Palestinian suicide bombings, which will lead to a clamp down and no peace talks until there is Israeli security."
"In essence, Netanyahu is trying to provoke a third intifada to get rid of any more negotiations," said Boyle.
"The bottom line is that Netanyahu wants all of Jerusalem and the West Bank," says Boyle. "Obama and Clinton could offer Netanyahu the moon, but he's not interested in the moon - only the entirety of Jerusalem and the West Bank."