A surprisingly gentle run-up to the Netanyahu-Obama meeting

After a tense summer, and a rocky history, Yom Kippur spirit of reconciliation appears to have settled on the two men

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — After a summer of bitter recriminations and messy diplomatic discord, US President Barack Obama will hold his first face-to-face meeting in Washington with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians in April and this summer’s 50-day Israel-Hamas war.

Although both nations frequently reiterate the depth of their alliance and their ironclad friendship, the two leaders are infamous for the bad body language on display in each other’s presence, along with the rhetorical barbs they have traded. But in the run-up to Wednesday’s meeting, the opposite behavior was on show, with discreet signs of support exchanged in the days before the talks.

Last Friday, the US sprang to Israel’s corner following Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s incendiary “genocide speech.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a severe condemnation of the comments – an unusual move in response to a UN speech in general, and especially in response to one made by a leader Psaki described as a “friend.”

Less than a week later, it was time for Netanyahu to tip his hat to Washington. In his UN speech, Netanyahu mentioned the American leader twice, first noting that at the UN “many of the countries represented here rightly applauded President Obama for leading the effort to confront ISIS,” and later saying that “President Obama deserves great credit for leading the diplomatic effort to dismantle virtually all of Syria’s chemical-weapons capability.” While both comments were made in the framework of highlighting how the international community should relate, respectively, to Hamas and Iran, their complimentary tone stood in stark contrast to Abbas’s belittling of US-brokered peace efforts.

It also contrasted sharply with the discourse of the past summer, when Psaki said that the US was “appalled” by Israeli shelling near a UNRWA school in Gaza and Netanyahu allegedly told Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro “not to ever second-guess me again” on Israel’s response to Hamas.

This not to say that all is well between Jerusalem and Washington. There is growing concern in Israeli policy circles that the US is going to acquiesce to a nuclear deal with Iran that falls short of Israel’s demands that Iran cease uranium enrichment and dismantle the infrastructures that would give Tehran the capacity to produce nuclear weapons in the future. The next round of P5+1 nuclear talks will be held in around two weeks, and the period before a November 24 deadline for a deal is likely to be critical in determining whether an agreement will be reached and what it would look like.

Netanyahu has made it clear that Iran is among the top issues he intends to raise during his late-morning meeting with the president. The list – as far as the prime minister is concerned – also includes his recent push for the engagement of Arab states in paving the way for renewing the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as well as the perennial call for the release of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

The White House’s list of key priorities seems relatively similar. The White House noted Tuesday evening that “the President looks forward to discussing with the Prime Minister Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, including the situation in Gaza; developments related to Iran; and the international effort to combat ISIL,” an acronym for the Islamic State group.

The same scheduling note also included a brief reminder of the fact that “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit is a demonstration of the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel, and our close consultations on a range of regional issues.”

In any event, Netanyahu’s visit to Washington will likely be brief and businesslike, a striking contrast to the meals held Monday and Tuesday welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – another leader with whom the administration has had a chilly relationship in the past — on his first visit to Washington. Although Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden are both expected to join the meeting with Netanyahu, the prime minister’s face-time with the president is scheduled to be over before Biden and Obama adjourn for lunch together.

Still, surprises might pop up. Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington, in March of this year, was marked by the release of an Obama interview seen as highly critical of the prime minister’s policies. The article, which was published with Netanyahu in the air en route to Washington, cast a pall over a meeting at which the tension between the two leaders was on clear display.

Netanyahu will not be sticking around to find out how long it’ll take to overstay his welcome in the US capital – he is expected to leave shortly after the meeting, which follows three days of speeches, briefings and meetings in New York.

Although it is unlikely that any major policy change will emerge from the brief get-together, perhaps — given the track record between the two leaders — even having the conversation run smoothly, without putting too much tension on public display, will be enough of an achievement for both in one morning.

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