The optics were perfect, but the meaning was elusive.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat together Tuesday, joshing and smiling, trying to project a clear message: The rift was over. Israel and the United States are on the same track again.
Read the transcript of the meeting here.
“In terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately.”
The meeting capped months of tensions sparked by Israel’s announcement in March of a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
The image of a friendly encounter between the two leaders was almost tainted in the lead-up to the meeting when it was leaked that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had warned in a private conversation of a “tectonic rift” between the two countries. Oren later explained that he had been misquoted: “Shift,” he said.
Story continues after the break.
In any case, U.S. officials said in a rare on-the-record call last Friday, there is no fissure.
“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in the conference call.
Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official who runs the Israel desk, said he “can certainly underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels.”
Officials were brimming with superlatives. Details, however, were lacking, and in some areas there was evident disagreement.
The leaders agreed, for instance, on the need to go to direct talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority has resisted pending a full settlement freeze.
Obama, however, set a deadline of sorts when he made clear that he wanted such talks to start before September, when Netanyahu’s self-imposed 10-month settlement freeze lapses.
“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.
Israeli officials, speaking on and off the record, made it clear that they were not confident the Palestinians were ready for direct talks and would not commit to a deadline.
The sides also spoke of confidence-building measures. Pressed for specifics, Obama cited the need for the Palestinians to further inhibit incitement, and called on Israel to “widen the scope” of Palestinian security responsibilities in the West Bank, given the advances that a U.S.-led team has had in training Palestinian security forces.
In the meetings before and after lunch, however, Netanyahu and his team suggested that the Israelis were not confident enough in the Palestinians to assume greater security control in areas outside their current purview of a handful of cities.
Most tellingly, Obama administration officials said the peace process and moving to direct talks was reason No. 1 for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.
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