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Seemingly, little of substance in Obama-Netanyahu meeting

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–As expected, the White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was an occasion for mutual admiration and pledges of cooperation. It was much different from the image conveyed by their previous meeting, when the White House had blasted the timing of an Israeli planning committee’s announcement about construction in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, ranking officials were talking about Israel’s insults, and endangering American troops.

Rather than being at the center of concern, Israel’s settlements and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem were barely discernible in the President’s most recent comments.
A Washington Post commentator began his article about the most recent meeting by reference to Obama’s surrender.

A blue-and-white Israeli flag hung from Blair House. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.

The author emphasizes the influence of the Israel lobby for the turnaround. The fright of Democratic candidates as they approach the November election may have something to do with the President’s accommodation with Israel’s sensitivities.  However, it is too simple to follow the conventional route of crediting American Jews for White House support of Israel. The Washington Post journalist also notes that the President’s efforts to attract Muslim support were not bearing fruit. He reports survey data showing a decline of public confidence in Obama among both Egyptians and Turks. 

It is also the case that Obama was not alone in making efforts at accommodation. Prime Minister Netanyahu played his part in expressing a serious commitment to searching for a way to make peace with the Palestinians.
Both leaders have reiterated their pledge of cooperation since the meeting. The Prime Minister praised the President in an interview with Larry King. President Obama praised the Prime Minister during a lengthy interview by the anchor of a prime time Israeli news program. He emphasized his commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, sought to minimize the tensions deriving from his middle name (Hussein), his outreach to Muslim countries (for the sake of Israel as well as the United States), and what he described as erroneous perceptions of his earlier meeting with the Prime Minister (not a snub but a long working session).
Both the President and the Prime Minister have given impressive performances, but time will tell if the theme is closer to William Shakespeare (sound and fury signifying nothing) or to serious politics. The President himself, in the interview with the Israeli media personality, noted that Israelis were justifiably skeptical in light of Palestinian rejections of previous concessions. The trial balloon mentioned by some Palestinians leaders, but shot down quickly by others (Israeli control over the Western Wall and part of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City) is so far from something Israel can accept as to suggest that the warmth of Washington will produce no fruit worth tasting.
More of the same is what usually prevails in politics, despite the efforts of elected officials to appear innovative. The most recent Obama appearance on Israeli television was more subdued by far than the Obama we saw in his presidential campaign. Rather than proclaiming Change, he now says that he will be trying, and feels that the time is right for a deal between Israel and Palestine. However, he cautions that it will take efforts from Palestinians as well as Israelis, and that there are no assurances of success.
Israeli commentators are more pessimistic than either the President or the Prime Minister. They note that Obama has gotten nothing from Palestinians or other Muslims for his efforts. They speculate that he may have learned about the Middle East, and has decided that there are more pressing concerns domestically and further east in Afghanistan. His current warmth toward the Israeli leadership and population may represent one more effort to breath life into his efforts in behalf of peace, or be little more than a gesture to help Congressional Democrats in November. 

On the evening that we saw the President’s interview we also were seeing the conclusion of a march toward Jerusalem in behalf of the prisoner held in Gaza. His parents and other organizers were demanding that the government pay the price necessary to obtain his release. 10-15,000 were at the conclusion in a Jerusalem park, and many more had participated in events along the way. However, some of the politicians who attached themselves to the final steps of the march indicated that they shared the sentiments of the family, but could not accept the principle of “paying any price,” or the deal demanded by Hamas.

Less than a month ago, 100,000 ultra-Orthodox men marched in Jerusalem in support of the continued segregation of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in an ultra-Orthodox girls school, against the mandate of Israel’s Supreme Court. In 1982, when the national population was only 55 percent of its current size, an estimated 400,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the failure of the IDF to prevent the massacre of Palestinians by Christian militiamen in Beirut. By those standards of comparison, 10-15,000 people in a Jerusalem park will not be enough to change the government’s rejection of Hamas’ list of prisoners as its price for the Israeli captive.

Sound and fury, in Washington and Jerusalem, but not enough to assure that something will happen.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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