Why Netanyahu Decided to Stay Home

Close observers of the always tense relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama were speculating over the motives behind Netanyahu’s curious decision to cancel a visit with Obama on March 18, two days before the president was to leave for a trip to Cuba. The decision which was leaked by an Israeli newspaper apparently caught the White House by surprise.

Some wondered whether Netanyahu’s decision to refuse Obama’s invitation might be related to a story the White House leaked to the Wall Street Journal that same Monday stating Obama’s planned effort to make one last try before leaving office to reset the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It suggested the US might introduce a UN Security Council resolution laying out concessions demanded from both sides in order to jump start the long-stalled talks. Israel has long rejected such proposals, which typically favor the Palestinians, as unwarranted outside interference in the bilateral peace negotiations.

Netanyahu was expected to come to the US to address the annual Aipac policy conference in Washington, DC, scheduled for March 20-22. Such visits are routine for Israeli leaders, and are often accompanied by a diplomatic courtesy call at the White House.

Because Obama had announced a few weeks ago his intention to make a historic visit to Cuba, symbolizing a renewal of relations between the US and the Castro regime after 55 years, the Israeli government, according to the White House, requested an alternative date for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting on March 18 or 19. The White House says that it notified Israel two weeks ago that a March 18 visit could be arranged, and assumed that the meeting was set.

Curiously, the prime minister’s office remained silent about the meeting until Monday, when Haaretz published the report saying that Netanyahu had canceled his US visit because Obama wouldn’t see him.

Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, expressed surprise at the report that Netanyahu had decided “to cancel his visit. . . rather than accept our invitation” for a March 18 meeting, and seemed more than a little annoyed that the administration had to learn of Netanyahu’s decision through the media instead of direct communication from the Israeli government. Price added that the White House had been “looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting.”

CONFUSING EXPLANATIONS

The confusion deepened when the prime minister’s office issued a statement confirming that Netanyahu had been invited to visit the White House, but that he decided to decline for fear that he would be confronted by presidential candidates from both parties at the Aipac conference and he did not want to be accused of meddling in the US election.

The explanation raises the obvious question of why possibly objectionable encounters with presidential candidates at Aipac, which could easily be avoided, would prevent Netanyahu from accepting an invitation from the president of the United States to meet with him at the White House.

The prime minister’s office also claimed that Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, had informed the White House last Friday that there was “a good chance that the prime minister would not go to Washington.”

Israeli officials then claimed that since the White House visit had never been publicly announced and was never definite, there was no need to announce or send a formal notice of its cancellation.

That explanation immediately brought to mind the very difficult circumstances of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last March. Through Dermer, Netanyahu had accepted an invitation tendered by Congressional Republican leaders to speak to a joint session of Congress to warn of the dangers in the emerging Iran nuclear deal. The invitation was issued over the public objections of the White House, which also claimed that Israel had violated protocol by not clearing the visit directly with them.

The White House then announced that it could not schedule a meeting between Obama and Netanyahu because Netanyahu was running for re-election at the time, and it was against policy for the administration to meddle in the politics of another country. To make sure that its message was clear, the White House announced that Vice President Biden and other high administration officials would also be unavailable to meet with the visiting prime minister.

PARALLELS TO NETANYAHU’S VISIT LAST MARCH

Observers were struck by the parallels in the circumstances surrounding the deliberate snubbing by the White House of Netanyahu’s visit a year ago, and the prime minister’s puzzling rejection of its invitation to visit almost exactly a year later. This prompted some commentators to suggest that it was a deliberate effort at payback by Netanyahu, while others felt that such a move would be too reckless, and sought a more rational explanation.

Others suggested that Netanyahu wanted to put off the meeting with Obama until negotiations for renewing the ten-year US arms aid package for Israel had been concluded. But those talks have been stalled for a while over Israel’s demands that the aid be increased from the current $3 billion a year to $5 billion, in part to compensate Israel for the additional costs of defending itself against a strengthened Iran, thanks to the nuclear deal the US signed last summer.

They also pointed out that Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel and the West Bank this week, and that he would likely discuss the outstanding issues surrounding the military aid package with Israeli officials while he was there.

WHY NETANYAHU DOESN’T WANT TO TALK TO OBAMA NOW

By far the most reasonable explanation is that Netanyahu did not want to meet with Obama because he knew that Obama would press him to agree to revive the peace process based on the two state solution, which is totally inappropriate and too dangerous for Israel given the current situation in the region. This includes the rise of ISIS and al Qaeda, and the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian forces just across the border with Syria, in addition to Iran’s post-nuclear deal resurgence.

Under the circumstances, Netanyahu apparently concluded that it would be better to avoid the meeting with Obama altogether rather than be forced to say no to his request in the Oval office.

That was not an easy decision for Netanyahu to make, given his long history of friction and mutual distrust with Obama, and he obviously had hoped to find a more diplomatic means of letting the White House know he wasn’t coming. However, the publication of the news story in Israel forced the prime minister to come up with any excuse, no matter how flimsy, to justify his decision to stay home, rather than admitting the real reason, which would just make relations with the White House even worse.

Israel has seen similar efforts by previous US presidents during their last days in office to go out with a flourish by trying to force a last minute Israeli-Palestinian deal.

PREVIOUS PRESIDENTS TRIED THE SAME THING

In the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, he put forward his own “bridging proposals” to a group of high level Israeli-Palestinian negotiators who then met at the Egyptian resort of Taba as Clinton was about to leave the White House, in January 2001, but they still fell short of a comprehensive peace agreement.

Towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, he convened an internationally sanctioned round of direct peace talks in 2008 between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Even though, according to Olmert, they made substantial progress on settling the borders of the new Palestinian state, Abbas rejected pleas from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to announce their agreements when the talks ended so that they would be binding on future negotiations.

The Obama administration appears to be engaged in setting up a similar last minute peace process. The Wall Street Journal story describes “internal discussions” at the White House aimed at offering “a blueprint for future Israeli-Palestinian talks,” presumably along the lines of the infamous “roadmap” to peace that was suggested by US and “Quartet” peace negotiators in 2002, which turned out to be an endless road to nowhere.

The proposed Security Council resolution was described as the “strongest element on the list of options under consideration,” which included a presidential speech, and a joint statement from the Quartet, which is group of parties interested in a Middle East peace agreement comprised of the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

A “senior administration official” insisted that nothing has been finalized yet, but the White House is well aware that the end of Obama’s presidency is already in sight.

The story said that Obama realized that the effort would be “an uphill climb” that would require immediately support from both sides in the wake of the breakdown in 2014 of the last round of talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.

It said that Obama “wants to put the issue on a more promising trajectory before his successor takes office in January” and noted that “the recent increase in tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians. . . raised concerns within the White House that the situation could further deteriorate without any platform for negotiations.”

REPEATING OBAMA’S OLD FORMULAS

The story claimed that the details of the administration draft resolution were “in flux,” but then mapped out a scenario which very closely followed previous Obama prescriptions for a peace agreement.

It began, of course, with a demand for “ Israel to halt construction of settlements in the Palestinian territories” [note, their ownership is taken as a given] and recognition of east Yerushalayim as the capital of the new Palestinian state.

It also repeats Obama’s call for adopting the pre-1967 borders as the basis for the new map, with recommended “land swaps to account for Israeli settlements built since 1967.”

The story says that the resolution would also call on the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, a Netanyahu demand which Abbas has consistently rejected, and end claims to a right of return for Palestinian refugees, presumably in return for some kind of financial compensation.

Palestinian Authority officials, of course, welcomed the White House proposal, which is largely based upon their demands, while Netanyahu’s office refused to comment.

REVIVING AN OLD THREAT

Supporters of Israel recall that last year, Obama threatened to propose a very similar resolution in the Security Council requiring Israeli concessions unless Netanyahu retracted his statement just before the Israeli election that it was no longer feasible, from the standpoint of Israel’s security, to try to implement the two-state solution. Netanyahu made the retraction, and the White House threat was dropped, but apparently not forgotten.

The Wall Street Journal story also came with the usual caveats to protect the White House in the event the proposal flops. It noted that Obama and his aides “have expressed deep skepticism about the likelihood of a return to peace talks before January 2017. The efforts under discussion aren’t likely to improve those prospects.”

It also noted the French proposal to unilaterally “recognize a Palestinian state if a last attempt to bring the two sides together through an international conference fails.”

The broader message the White House was sending through the story seemed very clear: Obama’s latest UN Security Council proposal might be Israel’s last chance to avoid the French alternative.