Obama, Netanyahu to Meet in Washington Tuesday


obama-netanyahuPresident Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet Tuesday in a bid to quell a diplomatic row that has left the U.S.-Israeli relationship at its lowest point in decades.Mr. Netanyahu paved the way for the White House visit, said U.S. and Israeli officials, by offering Washington a series of concessions aimed at underpinning a Middle East peace process that Mr. Obama has placed at the center of his foreign-policy agenda.

Specifically, Mr. Netanyahu agreed that the indirect peace negotiations with the Palestinians the U.S. is brokering could deal with the conflict’s core issues, such as borders, refugees, and the status of Yerushalayim, said government spokesman Mark Regev. Previously, Israel had insisted indirect talks would only address procedural issues.

Mr. Netanyahu also pledged to take steps to strengthen the political position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s principal partner in any future peace talks. Israeli security forces will begin easing a blockade of the Gaza Strip, said Israeli officials, as well as release some prisoners from Mr. Abbas’s Fatah Party.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu appeared unwilling to back down on the issue that sparked his government’s current diplomatic standoff with Washington: Israeli construction in disputed East Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the building of 1,600 new Jewish homes in an East Jerusalem neighborhood. The White House said it viewed the announcement as direct challenge to U.S. foreign-policy interests, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Mr. Netanyahu and demanded a cessation of the construction, according to U.S. officials.

“Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the 42 years, and it has not changed,” Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday at his weekly cabinet meeting. “As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv.”

Mr. Netanyahu did, however, pledge to put in place mechanisms to ensure that there would be no more embarrassingly timed announcements about building projects in East Jerusalem, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s prime minister conveyed these initiatives during a phone call Thursday night with Mrs. Clinton and through a meeting today with Washington’s Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell.

It is unclear if Mr. Netanyahu promised Mrs. Clinton more than the series of goodwill gestures that have been made public. The crisis was handled by Mr. Netanyahu and one or two close aides, a senior Israeli official said.

U.S. officials today appeared pleased with Mr. Netanyahu’s concessions and backed off earlier suggestions that the Israeli leader might not get a meeting with Mr. Obama. Just days ago, at the height of the diplomatic spat, reports circulated in Israel that Mr. Netanyahu was considering canceling his trip to Washington to avoid the embarrassment of a potential White House snub.

Mr. Netanyahu is speaking Monday night before the U.S.’s most-powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, along with Mrs. Clinton. Aipac and other Jewish groups have sharply criticized the White House’s handling of its diplomatic standoff with┬áIsrael.

Mr. Netanyahu now heads for Washington having secured meetings with virtually all the administration’s top officials, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. In addition to President Obama, Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Mrs. Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Vice President Biden.

The senior Israeli official called the series of meetings “a grand slam” for Mr. Netanyahu. “After what was described as the worst crisis in 35 years, after what Clinton herself described as an insult, Netanyahu will be welcomed by everyone in Washington. That’s really something,” he said.

Despite the public show of goodwill, however, the spat has amplified the Netanyahu administration’s distrust of Mr. Obama, said a source close to the Netanyahu administration.

“These guys are certain that this was all Obama,” the source said. “It was clear that Biden was willing to forgive and move on, but the president had another idea.”

Mr. Obama is facing intense pressure from Congress to mend ties with Israel. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have sent letters to the White House and State Department in recent days charging that the U.S. overreacted to Israel’s building announcement and placed the onus on the Palestinians for the failure of new peace talks.

“We must never forget the depth and breadth of our alliance and always do our utmost to reinforce a relationship that has benefited both nations for more than two decades,” reads a letter written by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D.,Ca.) and Johnny Isakson (R.,Ga.) to Mrs. Clinton.

Still, it is uncertain if Mr. Netanyahu’s concessions will be enough to revive the peace process. A spokesman for the Palestinian government said Mr. Abbas will meet Monday with Mr. Mitchell and decide then what steps to take.

“It’s still early to make judgments,” said Ghassan Khatib. “Netanyahu seems to be saying something to his people different than what he’s telling the Americans….For us, it’s very simple, if he continues building, then that will be a problem, if he stops building then that will allow talks to move forward.”

{Wall Street Journal/Noam Amdurski-Matzav.com}