The press conference on Wednesday, July 7 following the meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister and President Obama was nothing less than a love-fest. The President began by praising a ceremonial Fourth of July speech by his counterpart before coming to the U.S.:
“As Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated in his speech, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable. It encompasses our national security interests, our strategic interests, but most importantly, the bond of two democracies who share a common set of values and whose people have grown closer and closer as time goes on…”
The president praised progress, such as it is, in Gaza, but soon moved to Israel’s highest priority:
“… [W]e have instituted through the U.N. Security Council the toughest sanctions ever directed at an Iranian government. In addition, last week I signed our own set of sanctions, coming out of the United States Congress, as robust as any that we've ever seen. Other countries are following suit. And so we intend to continue to put pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations.”
Obama thoroughly deemphasized past tensions: “We’ve seen over the last year how our relationship has broadened. Sometimes it doesn’t get publicized, but on a whole range of issues — economic, military-to-military, issues related to Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge, intelligence-sharing, how we are able to work together effectively on the international front — that in fact our relationship is continuing to improve. And I think a lot of that has to do with the excellent work that the Prime Minister has done. So I’m grateful.”
Netanyahu cut to the chase: “The greatest new threat on the horizon, the single most dominant issue for many of us, is the prospect that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is brutally terrorizing its people, spreading terrorism far and wide. And I very much appreciate the President’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
He noted international sanctions followed by tougher U.S. ones, “And I urge other leaders to follow the President’s lead… to adopt much tougher sanctions against Iran, primarily those directed against its energy sector.”
In the question period the Prime Minister pressed the issue further: “I think the latest sanctions adopted by the U.N. create illegitimacy or create de-legitimization for Iran’s nuclear program, and that is important. I think the sanctions the President signed the other day actually have teeth. They bite.
“The question is — how much do you need to bite is something I cannot answer now.”
Then came a two-part impolite question, in an Israeli accent:
Q “Mr. President, in the past year, you distanced yourself from Israel and gave a cold shoulder to the Prime Minister. Do you think this policy was a mistake? Do you think it contributes to the bashing of Israel by others? And is that — you change it now, and do you trust now Prime Minister Netanyahu?
“And if I may, Mr. Prime Minister, specifically, did you discuss with the President the continuing of the freezing of settlements after September? And did you tell him that you’re going to keep on building after this period is over?”
President Obama played hardball with the questioner but softball with Netanyahu:
“Well, let me, first of all, say that the premise of your question was wrong and I entirely disagree with it… every public statement that I’ve made … has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, that our commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering. And, in fact, there aren’t any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that.
“And in terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there. But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected President, and have said so both publicly and privately.
“I think that he is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood. And what I have consistently shared with him is my interest in working with him — not at cross-purposes — so that we can achieve the kind of peace that will ensure Israel’s security for decades to come.
“And that's going to mean some tough choices. And there are going to be times where he and I are having robust discussions about what kind of choices need to be made. But the underlying approach never changes, and that is the United States is committed to Israel’s security; we are committed to that special bond; and we are going to do what’s required to back that up, not just with words but with actions.
“We are going to continually work with the Prime Minister … as well as the Israeli people, so that we can achieve what I think has to be everybody’s goal, which is that people feel secure. They don't feel like a rocket is going to be landing on their head sometime. They don't feel as if there’s a growing population that wants to direct violence against Israel.”
Netanyahu also did not like the question, saying, “I’ll have to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relations — relationship aren’t just premature, they're just flat wrong. There’s a depth and richness of this relationship that is expressed every day. Our teams talk. We don't make it public. The only thing that's public is that you can have differences on occasion in the best of families and the closest of families; that comes out public — and sometimes in a twisted way, too.
“What is not told is the fact that we have an enduring bond of values, interests, beginning with security and the way that we share both information and other things to help the common defense of our common interests — and many others in the region who don't often admit to the beneficial effect of this cooperation.
“So I think there’s — the President said it best in his speech in Cairo. He said in front of the entire Islamic world, he said, the bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable. And I can affirm that to you today.”
The President praised the slight loosening of the Gaza blockade in the wake of the flotilla disaster, evaded a question about freezing settlements, and all in all gave the impression of a man who had won 78 percent of the Jewish vote and hoped to do that again. Critics accused him of “going wobbly” on Netanyahu. He tried to make it sound like a win-win situation, but it looked like a victory for Israel and an American retreat.
For those who think Israel should have a free hand in all its dealings while being able to count on U.S. support, the meeting went well. For those looking for tough love from Obama to nudge Israel closer to peace with a future Palestinian state, it looked like a sweep for current Israeli policy, and Obama did look soft.
Some say Netanyahu is waiting for 2012, when he expects Obama gone. But American elections are notoriously hard to predict this far out. One strategy for Obama might be to bide his time, making nice until this November, but then come down hard on what he surely still sees as Israel’s intransigence in the face of an increasingly hostile world.