Analysis 03-12-2016


What the Cancelled Netanyahu/Obama Meeting Means

A meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been canceled after the Israeli Prime Minister decided to scrap an upcoming trip to the United States, according to statements from both governments.

Israeli news reports on Monday initially claimed that the meeting was canceled after Obama decided not to hold a face-to-face sit-down with the prime minister. The reports prompted anger from the Obama administration, which immediately claimed that this was not the case. The Israeli prime minister’s office also set the record straight on Tuesday, saying that Netanyahu is unable to travel to Washington, D.C.

“The Israeli Government requested a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 17 or 18,” a White House official said in a statement provided to the press.  “Two weeks ago, the White House offered the Prime Minister a meeting on March 18th.  We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”

“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false,” the White House said.

The Israeli prime minister’s office offered a similar recounting of events on Tuesday.

During a meeting at the White House on Friday, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer informed the White House that “there is a good chance that the prime minister would not be coming to Washington and that a final decision would be taken on Monday after he had met” with Netanyahu, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu was tentatively scheduled to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington. Dermer also told AIPAC that Netanyahu was “unlikely” to make an appearance.

“On Monday news reports suggested that the PM would not be traveling to Washington and erroneously stated that the president was unwilling to meet with the PM,” the statement said.

Dermer “immediately” moved to correct these reports and “officially informed the administration that the prime minister would not be coming to Washington.”

Netanyahu, however, did meet with Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Israel this week on a visit.

The Evolving Israeli US relationship as Obama Enters His Last Months in Office

Despite the nice words from both Washington and Tel Aviv on the cancelled visit, it is apparent that Netanyahu is looking beyond Obama and towards the next president, who will be elected in just eight months.

One reason given for the cancelled visit was that Netanyahu didn’t want to interfere with the upcoming US elections. Netanyahu was to address the annual AIPAC meeting in person, but changed that to a televised speech this week. Some of the presidential hopefuls are slated to give speeches or otherwise attend the conference and while there, would undoubtedly seek an audience with Netanyahu. He therefore thought it best to avoid the appearance of interfering with the U.S. electoral process.

This may have very well been an intentional slap in Obama’s face as last year, while Obama was attempting to push the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu urgently sought a meeting with Obama, who promptly spurned the request claiming that the proximity of the meeting to Israel’s elections might influence the outcome of those elections.

That explanation doesn’t hold up when looking back at US/Israeli relations. Bill Clinton met with Shimon Peres just before Israel’s 1996 elections in an attempt to skew the result in favor of Peres.

Clearly, Obama had ulterior motives in spurning the meeting with Netanyahu last year.

The Obama/Netanyahu Feud

The current diplomatic row is but one in a series of confrontations the two leaders have had over Obama’s two terms of office. In one notable incident, a senior Obama administration official – possibly Ben Rhodes – referred to Netanyahu as “chicken sh*t.” No one was ever reprimanded by the administration for that diplomatic outrage. In another incident involving a meeting with French President Sarkozy and captured on a hot microphone, Obama implied that he viewed Netanyahu with disdain.

The current issue behind the diplomatic snub is a report by the Wall Street Journal that Obama may use the United Nations Security Council to impose a settlement with Palestine before he leaves office. His plan involves requiring Israel to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and require a major Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory.

France and Kerry have been pushing such a resolution. And, last year, Samantha Power told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Obama would not necessarily veto a statehood resolution.

The thinking in the White House is that any agreement ratified by the UN, will make it harder for a future pro-Israel president.

From Netanyahu’s point of view, any meeting with Obama would have been used to pressure the Israeli Prime Minister to capitulate. This left the Washington trip as a lose-lose proposition.

If Netanyahu had met with Obama without agreeing to a UN Security Council agreement, the White House would have called that a snub and an insult. If he had met with Republican candidates after refusing to work with Obama, he would have been accused of interfering in the election. Anything Netanyahu did would have been characterized as an attack on Obama. So Netanyahu chose to stay away and endure a few days of bad headlines in the US.

Netanyahu Looks to the Future

Netanyahu is well aware that on January 21st, 2017, he is most probably still the Israeli Prime Minister, while Obama will be gone. At this time, it is better to let US/Israeli relations coast until a new president is on board – one most likely to be more pro-Israel.

Of the potential US presidents, the one Netanyahu probably worries the most about is Hillary Clinton. She poses the biggest threat to continue the Obama policy and as someone partially responsible for the negotiations with Iran, is most likely to continue a push for closer relations with Iran.

An email sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Sidney Blumenthal was among a batch of emails from Clinton’s computer released Monday February 29, 2016 by the State Department. Carrying the subject line “RE: Netanyahu,” the Blumenthal email allegedly quoted Netanyahu as saying that “if we can’t sleep, Hillary is not going to sleep” while asking those at the meeting to pressure the US to be more aggressive toward Iran.

However, it isn’t totally clear that Clinton will completely continue the Obama policy towards Israel.   Clinton, unlike Obama, considers cooperation with the Security Council to be the wrong move. Her campaign’s foreign policy advisor, Laura Rosenberger, told the Jerusalem Post that the former secretary of state “believes that a solution to this conflict cannot be imposed from without.”

In an op-ed Clinton wrote for the Jewish newspaper the Forward, she claimed that “while no solution can be imposed from outside, I believe the United States has a responsibility to help bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table and to encourage the difficult but necessary decisions that will lead to peace.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Jews are looking favorably towards Trump. A new poll (late February – early March) by the Independent Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University reveals that Jewish Israelis prefer a Republican to be the next U.S. president — and that 61% say that Donald Trump is friendly to Israel.

While Trump’s candidacy has worried many in the GOP establishment, not to mention some of its Jewish voters, Trump has arguably the closest ties to the American Jewish community of any candidate, from his Jewish daughter and grandchildren to his deep ties to the New York Jewish business community.

Trump has not minced words when it comes to Obama’s handling of the Iran nuclear negotiations, saying, “Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran and I mean never.” He feels Iran got too much money, made no commitment to release American prisoners, and received lenient inspection terms. However, Trump says he would not disavow the deal on Day 1, but would be “so tough” in enforcing it.

In December, Trump expounded on the Middle East conflict in an interview with the AP. Trump said he was interested in making a “lasting peace,” and that required the commitment of both sides, something he wasn’t sure existed, adding: “I have a real question as to one side in particular.” He declined to specify which side that was, but some understood Trump to be questioning Israel’s commitment more than the Palestinians.

Trump has also opposed moving the Israeli capital to Jerusalem and favors Russia’s plan to keep Assad in power in Syria.

This position may explain why Dearborn, Michigan, largest home to Arab-Americans gave Trump a plurality of its votes (39% to Kasich’s 29%).

Of the likely presidential candidates, Netanyahu probably prefers Senator Cruz. On March 1st, Ted Cruz repeated his pledges to stand by Israel and to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal in his speech to supporters. These pledges drew some of the loudest cheers of the speech, from the crowd of supporters gathered in Stafford, Texas. At the same time, a senior advisor to Cruz called on Jews to support Cruz as the only candidate who can defeat Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump pledges to be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cruz said. “As president, I will not be neutral. America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel. Donald Trump says he will keep in place the Iranian nuclear deal to try to renegotiate it. I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal on the very first day in office.”

What’s Next?

Given Obama’s track record and the probably Middle Eastern policies of the top three presidential candidates (Clinton, Trump, and Cruz), it’s likely that Netanyahu saw little reason to meet with Obama in the sunset of his administration.

If the Republican nominee wins the election in November, the chances are good that there will be a meeting between the president-elect and Netanyahu in the early days of the new administration, if not between the election and inauguration. That meeting will mean a reassessment of the Iranian nuclear deal and a mending of relations.

Trump will likely not give as much up, but will be counted on to move dramatically from the Obama policies. Cruz may prove to be one of the most pro-Israel US presidents.

Clinton – Netanyahu relations will likely be prickly thanks to their past history under the Obama Administration. However, Clinton has a history of bending her policies towards generous donors and the Jewish-Democratic donor base will guarantee that her policies towards Israel will be decidedly friendlier than those with Obama.

Given these facts, there was no real need to go through with another meeting with Obama.




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