See those protesters outside the White House?
It's the welcoming committee for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
. Bibi is in meetings today at the White House and Blair House with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It sounds routine -- after all, this is the fifth time the two leaders have met since they both assumed office last year. Except that the last time Netanyahu tried to get here, his trip was scuttled at the eleventh hour by the disastrous handling of the Gaza flotilla
, which left nine activists dead and dozens wounded on both sides. And the last time Netanyahu actually walked in the door at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the White House never even released a photo
, a move that some Middle East commentators saw as a slight.
So observers may be forgiven for wondering if there is some unfinished business between Barack and Bibi. Ruffled feathers? Bruised egos?
"There's absolutely no rift
between the United States and Israel," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told the press on Friday.
Dan Shapiro deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, added: "This is a very close relationship, a special relationship, a strategic alliance with one of our closest partners in not just the Middle East but the entire world. And it's quite fitting and quite expected, I think, that these two leaders would see each other regularly for very deep and detailed discussions on a whole range of issues that we work on together."
On the docket is a conversation expected to range from Iran sanctions to Israel's decision to soften the Gaza blockade
, to the latest news about moving from proximity talks
between the Israelis and Palestinians to direct conversations. George Mitchell
, the special envoy to the Middle East, just returned from his fifth round of backroom machinations, an effort made necessary because of an unwillingness to start up direct talks that might fail.
"Direct talks is an Israeli desiderata," says James Dobbins
, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND's National Security Research Division. "I think Obama would like to see some convergences on issues of substance, not just form. I think he would like to see enough convergence to allow him to present a settlement proposal, which would embody the views and offers of the two sides. [Israel needs to] begin to define what West Bank territory they want, and what Israeli territory they are ready to provide in return."
Never meant to last forever, the proximity talks are hemmed in not only by their limited efficacy but also by a hard and fast deadline in September, which is rapidly approaching. That's when the freeze on settlement growth in the West Bank is due to end. It's also when Arab League Chairman Amr Moussa
has said he will take up the issue of Palestinian territorial sovereignty with the U.N. Security Council. It's also the end point, most observers agree
, for Palestinian patience with President Mahmoud Abbas' ability to wrest concessions from these talks.
But it's not just Palestinians searching for a solution. In today's Ha'aretz, an editorial urged Netanyahu to see the Oval Office meeting as a way forward.
"Having declared that the creation of a Palestinian state is a foremost Israeli interest, Netanyahu is now obligated to seize any opportunity to reach that goal," the paper's editors wrote. "The prime minister must not squander the occasion presented by his meeting with Obama by haggling over a settlement freeze; he must present objectives that are both courageous and realistic."
Over at the Jerusalem Post
, a more conservative editorial board tendered a more reserved note about the day's events. David Horovitz, the editor-in-chief, notes that Abbas, "doubtless with U.S. encouragement," had made "conciliatory comments" in "meetings with Jewish leaders and interviews with the Hebrew media," but noted that he had failed to do the same in Arabic. "Given this critical and fundamental difference of assessment, given Washington's conviction that Israel should want to extend a settlement freeze in order to bolster the momentum of negotiations, and given Netanyahu's reluctance to maintain the moratorium beyond September, parts of the Hebrew media are predicting another difficult, even openly nasty meeting on Tuesday," Horovitz writes.
"Its clear the Americans and Israelis are more interested in sending the signal that all is well in the bilateral relationship than making substantive progress towards a two-state solution today," he said. "The shame of the last 18 months is that so much time was spent around the symptoms -- the settlement-building -- rather than the disease -- the ongoing occupation and the lack of a two-state resolution to the conflict. Without turning to hard questions, then it is wasted time wasted energy. The time has come to ask the hard questions. "
When this reporter asked if Netanyahu's conservative government wouldn't be a stumbling block, Ben-Ami rapidly answered: "He has the option of changing his coalition. If Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to end the conflict, [and put] a real peace initiative on the table, which his defense minster [Ehud Barak] is urging him to do, he can bring in Kadima [a more centrist party] and form a true unity government in Israel. He has options."