A Difficult Meeting in the Oval Office


Virtually every meeting between an American president and an Israeli prime minister over the years has been described as a “summit” meeting or given some special importance. And so it has been.

But the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday was truly important and could well have ramifications for years to come.

Certainly, the issues on the agenda will include Palestinian terrorism, the renewal of the 10-year military aid package for Israel, and regional developments, especially in Syria.

A point of contention that will not make it into the headlines concerns the question of priorities of national security.

Senior security officials in Israel have been asking the civilian leaders: Who do they define as “the enemy”?

“As long as they don’t tell us who the enemy is, we find it difficult to formulate a response,” security officials are saying, and there is a lot of truth in that.

In the IDF, they have stressed repeatedly that it is not their responsibility to determine whether Mahmoud Abbas is the “enemy,” the one who stands behind the current wave of terror, or whether he is a moderating influence, as some insist.

Should Hamas be marked for special treatment as an implacable foe, or are there really ongoing negotiations for a long-term ceasefire, and therefore a compelling reason not to target them?

This internal debate was surely reflected in the discussion between Obama and Netanyahu. Obama said that he would ask Netanyahu what he could suggest to build a pathway to peace. Netanyahu expected the question, but whether his response satisfied the president is another matter.

Before departing for Washington, Netanyahu vetoed several far-reaching proposals by the military for dealing with the terrorists, including closure of Palestinian towns and harsher treatment in areas like eastern Yerushalayim, from where many of the recent terrorists have come.

Obama wanted to hear from his guest what exactly he intends to do to advance the two-state solution. It is possible that in the absence of any progress toward it, Obama hinted, the U.S. will have a problem when it is asked to stand by Israel in international forums.

Presumably, Netanyahu didn’t tell his host that this is something that he prefers to discuss with Obama’s successor in the White House. But it is likely that from the answers he gives, Obama will understand very quickly that that is the direction Israel is going.

Not surprisingly, all were hoping for a meeting that could be termed good and productive; but the meeting that actually took place was in fact complex and difficult, and not one whose outcome will be easy to foresee.