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Analysis

In Netanyahu-Obama powwow, what wasn’t said as important as what was

PM steps back from chiding president over Iran nuclear deal, in sign that he has conceded defeat, though body language shows two aren’t yet buddy-buddy

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

WASHINGTON — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama met Monday, what wasn’t said seemed almost as important as what was.

It wasn’t just the body language, which made it plain that neither leader was particularly fond of the other, but also the harsh rhetoric on the Iran nuclear agreement that Netanyahu left out of his remarks.

Not too long ago, he had termed the pact a “very bad deal” and a “historic mistake.” But on Monday, Netanyahu almost skipped the Iranian topic altogether, making only a brief reference to “terror by Iran’s proxy [and] by Iran itself.”

In a March 2014 meeting in the White House — which took place before the deal was signed and before Netanyahu attacked it in Congress against the administration’s expressed will — the prime minister spent a considerable amount of time dwelling on the matter.

Sitting next to the president, he said then that the only way to make sure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons was by preventing it from enriching any uranium and fully dismantling its military nuclear installations.

“Now, Mr. President, if that goal can be achieved peacefully and through diplomacy, I can tell you that no country has a greater stake in this than Israel,” Netanyahu told Obama at the time. But, he added, Israel “just cannot be brought back again to the brink of destruction. And I, as the prime minister of Israel, will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state.”

In Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu steered far away from such rhetoric, in a sign that he conceded defeat and wishes to move on.

Indeed, both sides seemed to be visibly trying to let bygones be bygones.

It was all there: the obligatory handshakes and the assurances of a mutual friendship (though, oddly, the keywords “unbreakable” or “unshakable” weren’t uttered during the public statements in the Oval Office that preceded their private meeting).

US President Barack Obama, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. AFP/ SAUL LOEB)
US President Barack Obama (right), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. AFP/Saul Loeb)

But from the two leaders’ body language it was quite evident that, although they attempted to appear professional and put the interests of their countries first, neither was very happy about having to spend the next few hours with the other.

Netanyahu tried hard to sound upbeat, but looked rather uneasy in his chair. Obama seemed as if he had a hard time looking interested in what his Israeli guest had to say.

During their meeting in the White House Monday — their first get-together in over a year, and the first since the Iranian nuclear deal further extenuated an already bad crisis — both leaders made an effort to appear friendly and businesslike. They’re not pretending to like each other or trust each other.

But they said the right things: Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and his willingness to consider “practical ways in which we can lower the tension, increase stability and move towards peace.” He profusely thanked the president for the “generous assistance” his administration has provided to Israel and expressed his personal “appreciation” of Obama’s commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Obama, for his part, declared Israel’s security to be among his “top foreign policy priorities” and stressed that the bilateral military and intelligence cooperation is closer than it was under any other president.

He did mention the nuclear deal and the bitter dispute he had with Netanyahu over it, but quickly added that “we don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon” or about the need to counter Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region. We’ll be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”

 

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