A Blow to Bibi

Dear Folks,

Well, I made it back to Brussels in one piece. I am still bleary-eyed from jet lag, but I feel revived from my Washington trip. I truly loved the AIPAC experience, and boy was it an experience. For a European, it is a cross between the Oscars, a sport’s event and a party conference. It is spectacular, as it sets the mood of US/Israeli relations for the year. However, it took place amidst the backdrop of a growing rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Relations could not be more chilly between these two leaders.

The London Times reported on the  recent flare up in detail: 

For a head of state to visit the White House and not pose for photographers is rare. For a key ally to be left to his own devices while the President withdraws to have dinner in private was, until this week, unheard of.

Yet that is how Binyamin Netanyahu was treated by President Obama on Tuesday night, according to Israeli reports on a trip seen in Jerusalem tonight as a disastrous humiliation.

After failing to extract a written promise of concessions on Jewish settlements, Mr Obama walked out of his meeting with Mr Netanyahu but invited him to stay at the White House, consult with advisors and “let me know if there is anything new”, a US congressman who spoke to the Prime Minister said today.

“It was awful,” the congressman said. One Israeli newspaper called the meeting “a hazing in stages”, poisoned by such mistrust that the Israeli delegation eventually left rather than risk being eavesdropped on a White House phone line. Another said that the Prime Minister had received “the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea”.

Left to talk among themselves, Mr Netanyahu and his aides retreated to the Roosevelt Room. He later spent a further half-hour with Mr Obama and extended his stay for a day of emergency talks aimed at restarting peace negotiations, but left last night with no official statement from either side. He returns to Israel dangerously isolated after what Israeli media have called a White House ambush for which he is largely to blame.

Sources said that Mr Netanyahu failed to impress Mr Obama with a flow chart purporting to show that he was not be responsible for the timing of announcements of new settlement projects in east Jerusalem. Mr Obama was said to be livid when such an announcement derailed Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel this month, and his anger towards Israel does not appear to have cooled.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, cast doubt on minor details in Israeli accounts of the meeting but did not deny claims that it amounted to a dressing down for the Prime Minister, whose refusal to freeze settlements is seen in Washington as the main barrier to resuming peace talks.

The Likud leader now has to try to square the demands of the Obama Administration with his nationalist, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who want him to stand up to Washington, even though Israel desperately needs US backing in confronting the looming threat of a nuclear Iran.

“The Prime Minister leaves America disgraced, isolated and altogether weaker than when he came,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz said.

In their meeting Mr Obama set out a number of expectations that Israel was to satisfy if it wanted to end the crisis, Israeli sources said. These included an extension of the freeze on Jewish settlement growth beyond the 10-month deadline next September, an end to Israeli building projects in east Jerusalem, and even a withdrawal of Israeli forces to positions that they held before the Second Intifada in September 2000, after which they re-occupied most of the West Bank.

Newspaper reports recounted how Mr Netanyahu looked “excessively concerned and upset” as he pulled out a flow chart to show Mr Obama how Jerusalem planning permission worked and how he could not have known of the announcement that hundreds more homes were to be built just as Mr Biden arrived in Jerusalem.

Mr Obama then suggested that Mr Netanyahu and his staff stay on at the White House to consider his proposals, so that if he changed his mind he could inform the President right away. “I’m still around,” the Yediot Ahronot daily quoted Mr Obama saying. “Let me know if there is anything new.”

With the atmosphere so soured by the end of the evening, the Israelis decided that they could not trust the phone line they had been lent. Mr Netanyahu retired with his defence minister, Ehud Barak, to the Israeli Embassy to ensure the Americans were not listening in.

The meeting came barely a day after Mr Obama’s landmark health reform victory. Israel had calculated that he would be too tied up with domestic issues ahead of the mid-term elections to focus seriously on the Middle East.

Well, there you have it folks. It seems that Netanyahu has no choice but to act swiftly, otherwise Israel and the US could face a future of frosty diplomacy. Obama is not afraid to give Netanyahu the cold shoulder, and thus Netanyahu has to shake things up on the home front in order to appear credible as a peace partner to the outside world.

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