No breakthroughs were promised and none were delivered at the meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday.
Obama reiterated his commitment to keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and told reporters ahead of the meeting that he believes Netanyahu is committed to peace and that a two-state solution is still possible.
Netanyahu, for his part, said that “no country has a bigger stake in [stopping Iran] than Israel” and called once again on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and to cease their incitement.
Leading up to the summit, the two leaders had declared that backing down on vital issues was not on the agenda for either.
As he boarded his flight to the U.S. on Sunday, Netanyahu said that Israel knew how to resist pressure and that he intended to stand firm on what he termed his country’s “vital interests.”
In an interview with Bloomberg View published the same day, Obama said he would personally urge Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians.
“When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?” Obama, using Netanyahu’s nickname and borrowing from the Talmudic sage Hillel, said in the interview.
“I believe that [Netanyahu] is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it,” Obama. “If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
Bloomberg’s interviewer, veteran journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, described Obama “as blunter about Israel’s future than I’ve ever heard him. His language was striking, but of a piece with observations made in recent months by his secretary of state, John Kerry who, until this interview, had taken the lead in pressuring both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to a framework deal. Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s.”
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama said. “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”
While pledging “undying” friendship with Israel, Obama also issued what Goldberg took to be a “veiled threat: The U.S., though willing to defend an isolated Israel at the United Nations and in other international bodies, might soon be unable to do so effectively,” Goldberg wrote.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama said. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace adviser to presidents from both parties, told The Associated Press that the tension sparked by the nuclear negotiations will probably force Obama to tread carefully as he presses Netanyahu on the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians.
“It’s very hard for the president right now, having created a negotiation with the Iranians that the Israeli prime minister hates, to then push hard on the other issue,” said Miller, now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.
Yoaz Hendel, an ex-communications director for Netanyahu, said his former boss is well aware of the dangers of a binational state and is far more pragmatic than many believe.
But he said Netanyahu will delay all tough decisions for as long as possible, and that his pragmatism has limits. He said Netanyahu will never agree to return to the 1967 lines due to ideological and security concerns. He also said that Netanyahu would be constrained by opposition from the Israeli right wing, his base of support.
Hendel described Netanyahu’s goal as trying to keep “maximum land and minimum Palestinians” under Israeli control. He said Netanyahu would eventually try to reach an interim deal that falls short of a comprehensive peace.
“I know that he’s trying to figure out how to get out of this dead end,” Hendel said. “He’s not talking about a peace agreement. He’s not selling dreams. But he’s also not talking about the status quo.”