In meet with Netanyahu, Obama will raise, but not force, two-state issue

President will again critique settlements, but not planning ‘a new initiative at this point,’ says adviser Ben Rhodes, although the idea hasn’t been ruled out entirely

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

US President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meet on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the two leaders will most likely return to the complicated back-and-forth that has dogged US-Israel relations for much of the past eight years.

On one hand, the two are slated to discuss the security cooperation that has underpinned US-Israel relations over the past decade, most recently expressed in the completion of the $38 billion defense deal. But while Israel has never been – at least monetarily – as beholden to Washington as it is following the deal’s completion, the meeting will not be simply a victory lap for the leaders of both states to reassure their respective publics that the relationship is on course. It will also include the kind of tough talk that has fed into the now-legendary acrimony between the two leaders.

At the top of the list of tense topics is Obama’s very vocal opposition to Israel’s policies in the West Bank. On Tuesday, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, Obama warned that “Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land” — a message that the president, say his advisers, will reiterate to Netanyahu.

“I think that this will be a good opportunity — they haven’t in a while — for them to discuss the progress that’s been made, but also discuss some of these areas where we’ve had differences,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters Tuesday evening.

Ben Rhodes, right, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 10, 2014. (White House/Pete Souza)
Ben Rhodes, right, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 10, 2014. (White House/Pete Souza)

Rhodes said that during the Wednesday meeting, he was certain that Obama would raise the issue of “continued settlement activity, the potential viability of a Palestinian state in the face of that settlement activity.”

“This is an issue where I think we’ve, once again, in addition to the efforts to promote peace in the past, we’ve taken our concerns to the Israeli government as we’ve seen this uptick in settlement activity over the course of the last years or so,” he added.

Although the two have met on average two times per year during Obama’s tenure in office, the last time Netanyahu and Obama spoke face-to-face was almost a full year ago. In November 2015, following the completion of the Iranian nuclear deal – another source of tension in the relationship – the two seemed particularly concerned with broadcasting a return to business-as-usual.

During that meeting, too, Obama raised the issue of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, but unlike in previous sessions he only did so privately, not during what has proven in multiple instances to be the awkwardly public press appearance either just before or just after their closed-door talks.

In addition to discussing the $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding defense aid deal signed last week, and Israel’s policies in the West Bank, the two leaders are expected to talk over an array of what the White House terms “regional issues,” including Iran and the Syrian civil war.

What Wednesday’s meeting will not include, however, is a new US peace plan.

Rhodes downplayed reports that the Obama administration was actively preparing a last-ditch effort to broker talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He stressed that “in terms of our own plans going forward, we don’t have plans for the president to pursue a new initiative at this point.”

In recent weeks, speculations have circled that the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding would serve as leverage to bring Israel back to the negotiations table. The New York Times reported that Obama was considering making a final push toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, offering the prospect that the US president would either start the ball rolling at the UN General Assembly or in November, after the US presidential elections were completed.

But although Obama criticized both Israel and the Palestinians in his annual speech before the world governing body, his Tuesday remarks did not propose any new guidelines for resolving the decades-old conflict.

Still, Rhodes did keep the possibility of action — and thus speculation — open. “I don’t want to suggest that we’ve never discussed different things that the president could do to move the ball forward,” he said. “But we’re not coming to this meeting tomorrow or moving forward in the coming weeks with a plan for the president to take a particular action on this issue.”

“I just also don’t want to stand here and say we’re going to rule out the president speaking to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in any more detailed way before he leaves office because, ultimately, we’ll make a judgment based on whether or not he believes that that would be constructive in pursuit of the outcome we want to see, which is a negotiated two-state settlement,” added Rhodes.

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