Winston Churchill once said that the British and Americans are two nations separated by a common language. This is precisely what Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu can say about themselves in the wake of their meeting in Washington.
After the meeting ended, Netanyahu wished to demonstrate to us, the journalists who covered the event, how easy it was for him to communicate with Obama. “Both of us were educated in Boston,” he said. “We both speak the same language. The same language, but a different mentality.
Meetings between foreign leaders and the president are held partly in the presence of advisors from both sides, and partly as a tête-à-tête. Netanyahu asked in advance to extend the one-on-one part as much as possible. The goal was to create intimacy, and no less so, to steer clear of top White House officials, who have unfavorable memories of him from the Clinton era. Most of all, Netanyahu wanted to keep his own aides away. He did not want them to hear his exact promises to the president. If they’ll know, they’ll become outraged, and if they become outraged, they’ll leak it.
Obama brought up the question of why the Israeli government evades its obligation to freeze settlement construction and evacuate 26 unauthorized outposts. Netanyahu explained that there is natural growth. Obama said that as far as he knows, the pledge was to freeze construction regardless of natural growth. Netanyahu promised to remove West Bank roadblock. Obama said that roadblocks should indeed be removed, and that this would certainly help, yet noted that the removal of roadblocks is one thing, and freezing construction for Jews is a different matter.
Pushed into a corner, Netanyahu hinted that should Obama be able to convince Saudi Arabia to undertake steps of normalization towards Israel, he will make sure to freeze settlement construction and remove the outposts. Obama promised to act in an effort to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. He has great aspirations on that front. But normalization is one thing, and settlements are a different matter.
Bibi arrived empty-handed
Netanyahu knows the confrontation has not ended yet. Bush administration spokespeople used to respond to any settlement activity by saying that “it’s not helpful” and moving on. The Obama administration intends to utilize a wholly different vocabulary. Democratic leaders in Congress and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reprimanded Israel in a way that has not been done for many years. And this is only the beginning. Administration officials are talking about harsher statements. Possibly even financial penalties. And what the Americans will fail to say or do will be done by the Europeans.
Netanyahu did not engage in more settlement activity than his predecessors. The opposite is true: At this time, the settlement enterprise is mostly feeding off plans approved by previous government. The problem is the diplomatic horizon.
When Barak was asked to freeze settlement construction, he told Clinton: I’m about to offer the Palestinians a comprehensive deal that will require the evacuation of massive numbers of settlers. There is no point in wasting efforts and political assets on the evacuation of one outpost when we are about to face the grand evacuation.
Olmert convinced Bush using similar arguments: He was in the midst of negotiations on a comprehensive agreement with Mahmoud Abbas. His government embarked on its term in office with a violent clash with settlers in Amona. Should additional clashes ensue, Olmert said, the only ones to gain would be objectors to the agreement. They will exhaust the government.
Netanyahu came to Obama empty-handed: The moment he rejected the two-state solution, he took away the president’s ability to advance negotiations. And in the absence of negotiations, the issue of the settlements reemerged in full force.
Obama just tried to remind Netanyahu of a short and useful American dictum: There are no free lunches. Netanyahu is good at using this dictum when it’s about others. Regrettably, he is not as good when it comes to hearing what others say.