debkafile lifts fog from the Obama-Netanyahu balance sheet
Almost a week after Israeli prime minister held his first talks with US president Barack Obama at the White House, last Tuesday, May 18, some of the fog obscuring their content is finally beginning to clear.
The White House was forced to rebut a major misapprehension, that the US president would use his June 4 speech in Cairo to launch a new Middle East peace plan.
There never was such a plan, debkafile‘s Washington sources confirm. Once that misapprehension was removed, some of the subjects really discussed by the two leaders hoved into sight – or proved false.
For instance, Obama did not demand the repartition of Jerusalem; neither was he keen to pursue the Palestinian issue at all at this time. Most of all, he was after space to engage in negotiation with Tehran without the threat of a surprise Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites hanging over the talks.
Who then had an interest in running the false hare of an Obama Middle East plan?
1. At some point, the White House preferred unclarity to an admission that the president had backed away from his pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state peace accord with the Palestinians. In fact, Obama was persuaded by his awareness that Palestinian divisions are too profound to hope for results. The “two-state” formula is applicable in the foreseeable future only to the Palestinians – Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip and Fatah which dominates the West Bank Palestinian Authority.
For now, the US president has decided practically that it would be better to stick to the less ambitious goals of developing the West Bank economy, its governing institutions and a security apparatus, exactly as advised by Netanyahu and special Middle East Quartet envoy former UK prime minister Tony Blair. If some day Tehran and Damascus decide to join forces with Washington – a diminishing prospect at present – the US president can go back to promoting a united Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But Obama is keen on developing an expanded road map to bring moderate Arab governments into the peace process with Israel and start introducing normal relations on a regional level.
It may be assumed that the US president and Israeli prime minister did not exhaust this burning issue in their initial, ice-breaking conversation and they will remain in touch. Furthermore, these moves remain to be hammered out in Washington and in follow-up talks with the Israelis. Meanwhile, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a pivotal figure in this initiative, is rumored to be very ill after cancelling his visit to Washington.
2. Jordan’s Abdullah II’s advisers at court were responsible for planting the tale of a new Obama peace initiative to be purportedly unveiled on June 4. Its provisions, such as making Jerusalem the twin Palestinian-Israeli capital, were to be imposed on Israel.
This fairy story was picked up by Israel’s often anti-Netanyahu media, although its source was dubious – the London-based Arabic al Quds al-Arabi, which is a platform for radical Muslim quarters such as Hamas. The fiction gained wings from the lack of authoritative information on the content of the face-to-face conversation between Obama and Netanyahu last Tuesday, May 18.
This forced White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to produce a damper. Friday, May 22, Gibbs said “I know there has been some conjecture that included in this speech will be some detailed comprehensive Mideast peace plan, and it is not the intention nor was it ever the intention of this speech.”
He made it clear that Obama’s words would deal with Washington’s relations with the Muslim world.
3. The Israeli prime minister himself felt the need to keep hidden his concession of a six-month time limit for Washington’s dialogue with Tehran. On the one hand, he persuaded Obama for the first time to accept a time limit for those talks; on the other, it is longer than Israel thinks safe,
debkafile‘s Washington sources note that Netanyahu convinced the president to agree to an Iranian deadline while standing by his refusal to endorse Obama’s “two state” solution of the Palestinian issue in return.
Still, he knew the deadline would be hard to sell at home, especially after Iran successfully test-fired its first accurate long-range surface to surface missile while he was still in Washington.
Obama and Netanyahu put a couple of safety valves put in place.
One of the two joint working groups they set up, headed by US national security adviser James Jones, will meet regularly to keep track of progress of the bilateral US-Iranian negotiations and report back to the White House and Jerusalem.
(The second team, headed by Middle East envoy George Mitchell, will be in charge of the Palestinian issue.)
It stand to reason that the US president and Israeli prime minister did not exhaust this burning issue in their initial, ice-breaking conversation and will remain in touch.
But Netanyahu may find it hard to explain why he promised no Israeli surprise attacks against Iran for six months – even though major disruptions loom: Lebanon’s pro-Western government may be overthrown by its June 7 election or thereafter, Iranian long-range missiles introduced to the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas’ new Palestinian government in Ramallah collapse, and Tehran will continue its shock tactics.
To shift the focus from his consent to US diplomacy with Iran, Netanyahu spoke passionately about Jerusalem upon his return although, according to our sources, its status was not under assault at his White House talks.
“The flag that flies over the Kotel is the Israeli flag… Our holy places, the Temple Mount — will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever,” he told yeshiva students.
And “Jerusalem was always ours, will always be ours, and will never again be divided,” he vowed at the annual Jerusalem Day state ceremony on Ammunition Hill, Jerusalem, honoring the soldiers who fell in the Six-Day War in 1967.