In a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 that was less acrimonious than their last, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. For Netanyahu the most important part of the agenda was discussing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, while Obama remain insistent on the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and focus on his global coalition in the fight against terrorist organization, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The two sides were repetitive broken records, unable to reach “commonalty” regarding the continuing conflict with the Palestinians and Iran’s uranium enrichment; still the meeting was warmer than their last meeting in March, where tensions ran high over the Israeli-Palestinians peace talks.
Obama and Netanyahu delivered short remarks to the press prior to their nearly two-hour meeting. In their remarks, the difference in their priorities was quite evident. Obama was obviously more concerned with the global coalition in the fight against ISIS, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then the prospective Iran nuclear weapons deal, which was Netanyahu’s focus and issue that he wanted the most to discuss in their meeting.
The president started by noting that he has “met with Bibi more than any world leader during my tenure as President.” Obama also “reaffirm[ed] the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, and our ironclad commitment to making sure that Israel is secure.” Obama also patted the US on the back for the congressionally passed funding that helps keep up Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Obama acknowledged and praised Netanyahu for working so hard to keep Israel safe in “a very turbulent neighborhood.” Obama commended; “It’s challenging, I think, for an Israeli prime minister to have to work so hard during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But I know that the prime minister’s utmost priority is making sure that his country is safe during these difficult times, and we’re glad that the United States can be a partner in that process.” In his opening remarks, Netanyahu thanked Obama for the US’s “unflinching support” towards Israel during the Gaza War, aid for Iron Dome, and for “the continuous bond of friendship that is so strong between Israel and the United States.”
After the ingratiating remarks full with gratitude and admiration, their remarks became more serious and more conflicting. Obama emphasized Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 50-day war with Gaza this summer, expressing more concern for the civilian deaths, without mentioning Hamas role in them, then the constant attack on Israeli citizens. Obama expressed; “We have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes, and schoolchildren in their schools … but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well.” The president still pressed a peace agreement, stating they would “discuss extensively both the situation of rebuilding Gaza but also how can we find a more sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The most important items on either leader’s agenda for the meeting was a repetition of their United Nations General Assembly addresses. For Obama the fight against ISIS took a priority over other issues. Obama said; he would “debrief” Netanyahu “on the work that we’re doing to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” and “mobilizing a coalition not only for military action.” Additionally, Obama wanted to discuss bringing “about a shift in Arab states and Muslim countries that isolate the cancer of violent extremism that is so pernicious and ultimately has killed more Muslims than anything else.” Netanyahu guaranteed the president that “Israel fully supports your effort and your leadership to defeat ISIS. We think everybody should support this.”
For the Israeli prime minister, the prospective nuclear deal with Iran was his priority which Obama acknowledged, saying it is “obviously has been a high priority for not only Israel, but also the United States and the world community.” While Netanyahu expressed “even more critical is our shared goal of preventing Iran from becoming a military nuclear power.” With the P5+1 nations seemingly on the verge of a final deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program that will allow uranium enrichment at five percent. Netanyahu used part of his UN address on Monday, Sept. 29 to warn against any deal that allows Iran to continue enriching uranium. Netanyahu again issued the warning expressing “I fervently hope that under your leadership that would not happen.”
New on Netanyahu’s agenda is his bid for a rapprochement with Arab nations in the Middle East in the fight against “militant Islam” and to help create a peace with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu described would “build a positive program to advance a more secure, more prosperous and a more peaceful Middle East.” Netanyahu stated it is possible that “something… is changing in the Middle East, because out of the new situation, there emerges a commonality of interests between Israel and leading Arab states.” The Israeli prime minister concluded; “We should make use of the new opportunities, think outside the box, see how we can recruit the Arab countries to advance this very hopeful agenda.”
The two leaders acted friendlier to each other at least in front of the press then did at their last meeting; the Times of Israel noted their “warm body language, smiles and firm handshakes,” while Obama called Netanyahu by his nickname, “Bibi,” they also described the “display of mutual empathy and support,” and that they were both “relaxed.” Politico even used in for a headline “Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, best buds for now” to describe the amiable meeting. In his press briefing prior to the Obama -Netanyahu meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 30, White House Press Secretary John Earnest stated that “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit is a demonstration of the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel, and our close consultations on a range of regional issues.”
Their last meeting on March 3, 2014 came in the midst of American pressure that Israel and the Palestinians agree to a peace agreement framework, when there was only two left in the nine-month peace talks. Right before their meeting then Obama gave an interview to Bloomberg, where the president clearly puts all the blame on Israel if a peace deal failed to become a reality, threatening the country with economic and strategic isolation should they refuse the U.S.’s terms. Netanyahu had not been expecting such an animosity and a confrontation at the meeting and he responded with a coldness and condescension towards Obama visible for the press in their pre-meeting remarks. This was their worst public display, yet the two have always had a strained relationship mostly as Washington Post noted because of their vastly different political philosophies.
The Obama Administration has been highly critical of Israel, seeming to side and be more sympathetic to the Palestinians, especially during this past summer’s Gaza War, that saw 2,100 Palestinians killed even though Hamas launched “over 4,000” rockets into Southern Israel, and only with Iron Dome was Israel spared with just 72 deaths as a result. To counter this sympathy Netanyahu tried in his UN address to equate Hamas with the worst terrorist organizations and world threats, declaring, “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree….When it comes to its ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas.”
The US president and Israeli prime minister did not meet alone this time, they were joined by; “US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli negotiator Itzhak Molho, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen” who were also present. In addition to the issues, they discussed in their opening remarks, Obama wanted to discuss renewing the peace process, while Netanyahu intended to ask again for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is sick to be released from prison.
Adding to the tension between the two leaders was Israel’s perfectly planned announcement that they will be building 2,610 new homes for both Jews and Arabs in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos. The Obama administration consistently blamed Israel’s continued building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement for the failure of the peace talks.
Both State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki and White House Press Secretary Earnest condemned the new settlement plan and the timing of the announcement. Psaki said; “This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal and it would send a very troubling message if they proceed with tenders or construction.” Continuing Psaki promised it “will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere,” and “call into question Israel’s commitment to what they say is their goal…ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement.” Earnest’s comments were similar stating; “The US condemns the recent occupation of residential buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan by people whose agenda provokes tensions. It only serves to escalate tensions… It also would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
Right before Obama and Netanyahu’s meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sought from the UN unilateral recognition of Palestine as an independent state. The Palestinians submitted to the UN Security Council a request for statehood, asking that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 by November 2016. The resolution is expected to be vetoed down; still the Palestinians are lobbying for a vote.
What members of Netanyahu’s coalition government found the most faults with the White House meeting was Netanyahu declaring, “I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition and rock solid security arrangements on the ground.” Economy Minister and Bayit Yehudi Paryty chairman Naftali Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel denounced the statement. Bennett made it clear; “The idea of a Palestinian state flew airborne this past summer along with the missiles that were launched at Ben-Gurion Airport. It would be a good thing if we sobered up from the idea, and quickly.”While Ariel declared that Netanyahu was acting alone in those remarks, declaring; “Never has any official Israeli government institution, the Knesset, or the Likud approved the prime minister’s remarks regarding two states for two peoples. Therefore the premier’s remarks do not bind the State of Israel, and hence they will never be realized.”
- Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel Before Bilateral Meeting, Oct. 1, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.