MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem
ISRAELI GOVERNMENT ministers yesterday expressed satisfaction with the warm reception given to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu by President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday. Palestinians, though, were sceptical and some Israeli commentators derided the carefully staged photo-ops as “soap opera”.
It was Mr Netanyahu’s fifth meeting with Mr Obama in little more than a year and marked a stark contrast to their last encounter, when the Israeli prime minister was left cooling his heels during an Obama family dinner and then hustled out a back door.
Officials travelling with Mr Netanyahu indicated that Israel had agreed to an unofficial extension of a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements to pave the way for direct peace talks with the Palestinians. “I think that the success of this meeting expresses the depth of the basic relationship between us and the US, and between us and the Obama administration, and of the importance of this special relationship on the subject of Israel’s security,” said defence minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. “There were more things discussed than have been published in the media,” he said. “I don’t want to delude us – there will be ups and downs and difficult moments throughout the process, but I believe and hope that we, in the next few weeks, will be in the middle of direct talks that will promote the chances for peace and will ensure the security and interests of Israel.”
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in the settlement of Nokedim near Bethlehem that is likely to be evacuated or destroyed in any peace deal, was uncharacteristically upbeat about the White House meeting, to which he was not invited.
“It’s important to conduct direct negotiations and it’s important to keep the diplomatic process alive. This dialogue . . . is important in itself.” Mr Lieberman warned, however, that it was “unrealistic” to expect the two sides to settle all their differences in the two-year timeframe that Mr Obama has proposed.
He said Mr Netanyahu told him after the meeting that the settlement issue was not central to the agenda but he indicated he would support a slowdown in construction for the sake of diplomacy.
Palestinian officials wondered if Mr Obama’s extravagant welcome for Mr Netanyahu that included a cheesy fireside chat between wives Michelle and Sara didn’t have some connection with shoring up Democratic support among Jewish voters in the crucial mid-term congressional elections.
“How can you conduct meaningful negotiations when Israeli bulldozers are digging up the land where we hope to establish the Palestinian state?” asked Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. “The whole world and the US administration knows that the one who is blocking the door to direct negotiations is Netanyahu,” he said.
Israeli commentator Aluf Benn said Mr Obama’s hardline approach had failed to shift Mr Netanyahu. “Obama is changing his tactics. Instead of punishing Netanyahu with sticks, he is trying to entice him with carrots,” Mr Benn wrote in the Haaretz daily.