Friday, 26 March 2010

The Obama-Netanyahu story

Benjamin Netanyahu has been remarkably unfortunate. On both occasions that events have propelled him to the premiership in Israel, he has had Democratic presidents in the White House to deal with - and let's be honest about it, Netanyahu is a born Republican.

Back in the 1990s Netanyahu's relationship with Bill Clinton was a disaster. The two men never got on. After meeting him for the first time, Clinton is reported as remarking: "he thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires." One of Clinton's aides categorised Netanyahu's performance in the White House as "nearly insufferable". And later, in 2000, Netanyahu was vehemently opposed to Clinton's Camp David peace initiative during which the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat appeared to come close to an agreement that would have given a sovereign Palestinian state by far the greater part of the West Bank, and also East Jerusalem as a capital.

Now Netanyahu is heading a fragile coalition, held together through the support of right wing religious parties who are unyielding in their support of the West Bank settlers and the indivisibility of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, under pressure from the Obama administration, he succeeded last June in persuading his Cabinet to agree to his supporting a two state solution, and in November to vote in favour of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. So lessons in realpolitik appear to have been learned.

One might hope also that Netanyahu has learned just a little more in the way of diplomatic niceties in the intervening decade-and-a-half, but there was little sign of a meeting of minds between him and Barack Obama this week. Hours of discussion between the two failed to result in an agreed media statement, and Netanyahu actually postponed his return to Israel by an extra day in the hope of achieving some form of common position that will enable the proximity talks to get going. He and the President have spoken long and earnestly, not once but twice; Israeli officials have had discussions with their opposite numbers; there have been meetings with the President's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell – but a common position on building in East Jerusalem cannot be hammered out.

Just before boarding a plane back to Israel yesterday, Netanyahu said that progress had been made towards resolving the diplomatic crisis, but this optimistic spin was not echoed by the White House spokesman who commented on the Israeli prime minister's visit. All he allowed himself to say was: "I think we're making progress on important issues. But nothing more on substance to report than that."

So the deadlock remains on the substantive issue of the current and future status of Jerusalem. And yet, while the Israeli prime minister was still in Washington, ducking and weaving as the Obama administration threw punches at him, it is reported that the Pentagon and Israel's defence establishment were finalising a large arms deal, details of which will be announced very shortly. Israel, we are told, is to "purchase" three new Hercules C-130J airplanes designed by Lockheed Martin at a total cost of a quarter billion dollars. The aircrafts were manufactured specifically for Israeli needs, and include a large number of systems produced by Israel's defence industry.

And where is the money coming from? American foreign assistance funds.

It looks as though there might be more to the Obama-Netanyahu relationship than meets the eye.

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