Back from DC, PM made inroads with charm offensive, though not all objectives met

WASHINGTON — So did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeed in his mission? He flew to Washington on Sunday with great expectations, aptly emblemized by the bigger-than usual plane he traveled on (the prime minister’s entourage usually rents a Boeing 767, but since El Al had no such machine available it provided a 777 for the same price).

The agenda for Netanyahu’s first meeting with US President Barack Obama in more than a year was a daunting one: Fix relations with the administration after a bitter feud over the Iran deal. Reestablish bipartisan support for Israel, which had taken a severe hit especially when Netanyahu lobbied in Congress against the president’s landmark foreign policy project. Secure a significant increase in American military assistance to Israel. Start to heal the rift that the Iran deal has caused within the American Jewish community and the damage it has done to the Israel-Diaspora Jewry relationship.

But in many respects, Netanyahu can be pleased. The public part of his sit-down with Obama on Monday in the Oval Office went smoothly, with both leaders carefully avoiding bickering over policy disagreements. There was no lecturing or posturing, unlike in previous meetings. Both sides respectfully pledged to look forward, and to engage in substantive discussion and cooperation on Iran, the Palestinians, Syria and more.

The private conversation that followed was, according to Netanyahu, “wonderful.” It went nearly an hour over the allotted time, members of the Israeli entourage gushed. Indeed, it was “one of the best meetings” they ever had, Netanyahu announced soon after he left the White House. US officials, speaking off the record, later said that the prime minister’s enthusiastic characterization of their conversation was a little exaggerated, but acknowledged that the discussion was substantive.

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

On Tuesday, Netanyahu continued with his charm offensive. Addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, hepublicly buried the hatchet, saying that Israel and America “can and should work together now to ensure Iran complies with the deal.”

In the speech, Netanyahu also pledged support for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, a shift in policy greatly desired by the vast majority of American Jews.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara board their Boeing 777 in Washington en route to Tel Aviv, Wednesday, November 11, 2015 (GPO)

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara board their Boeing 777 in Washington en route to Tel Aviv, Wednesday, November 11, 2015 (GPO)

Netanyahu further scored points with the Democrats, submitting himself to an interview at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. He admitted that he should not have made his infamous election day comment about Arabs coming out in droves to vote, reiterated his support for a two-state solution and his readiness to enter peace negotiations, and vaguely entertained the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

On Wednesday, before making his way back to Israel, the prime minister had a “constructive” meeting about possible Israeli steps to calm tensions in the West Bank with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Later on, he visited Mount Vernon to show respect to America’s first president, George Washington, in what he called a “very moving” visit.

To American ears, Netanyahu said all the right things. The administration, too, made an effort to show that the bitter disputes of the past months were history. Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security is “not just another element of his foreign policy,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Jewish leaders at the GA minutes after Netanyahu had left the stage. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a solemn commitment… It’s sacrosanct.”

He also forcefully condemned recent terror attacks against Israelis as “inexcusable,” saying they achieve only “more death, more heartbreak, more suspicion and more resentment.” Palestinian leaders must oppose incitement, he said.

To be sure, McDonough also made plain that the administration has serious policy differences with the Israeli government. While the president had avoided uttering the word “settlements” during his public remarks, his chief of staff — who called himself Obama’s shamas, a Yiddish term denoting a rabbi’s assistant — demanded that both sides take concrete steps to demonstrate their commitment to peace. This includes, he said, “reversing current trends on the ground, where settlements and demolitions are dangerously imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.” He also mentioned that any agreement should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

But overall, the administration went relatively easy on Netanyahu, for several reasons. First of all, Obama has resigned himself to the fact that a final-status agreement is currently not achievable. Try as Kerry has and would, Obama realized, it’s the two sides that need to agree on a deal, and that is not in the cards.

Two years ago, Obama declared at the General Assembly of the United Nations that he had two key foreign policy objectives: “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Well, one out of two isn’t so bad, Obama is probably saying to himself these days.

And since a permanent accord is out of the question, he likely reasons, there is no point in pushing Israel too hard on the Palestinian front. He can’t first force the Iran deal down Jerusalem’s throat, then coerce it into another settlement freeze or make other such Palestinian-related demands, and then leave would-be president Hillary Clinton to try to explain why the Democrats are good for Israel.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace will not be one of his legacies, but Obama wants to make sure that his successor is not a Republican, who would challenge the things he actually did accomplish, such as the Iran deal, the rapprochement with Cuba, and the health care reform.

So in a way there is linkage between the Iran deal and the Palestinian question. Having achieved his goal in of the two, Obama feels less pressured to push for the other.

That is not to say Netanyahu got everything he wanted in Washington. He brought up Israel’s wish for the US to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, but received no answer. He likely also sought a promise of an American veto against Palestine-related resolutions in the UN Security Council, but walked away empty-handed.

As with the president, however, he’ll likely have landed back in Israel Thursday afternoon with the sense of a job fairly well done.

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