The Obama administration’s list of “actions” it wants to see from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is open to negotiation, not a hard list of demands as many believe, according to one Obama administration official close to the discussions.
The list was delivered to Netanyahu during his two-plus hours of meetings with President Obama last week. There has been a host of reporting about what the actions were that Obama sought from Netanyahu, none of it confirmed by a White House that sees it as crucial to keep the discussions private after the U.S.-Israel dispute over East Jerusalem construction blew up in a very public way last month.
A widely read report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed that the United States views a four-month settlement freeze as a way to induce the Palestinians to conduct direct negotiations with Israel, rather than the proximity talks Vice President Joseph Biden trumpeted in Israel just before the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 new housing units has been approved in contested East Jerusalem. Several administration officials declined to give any readout of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, saying they just don’t want to spell out what Obama asked of Netanyahu because they don’t want to be boxed into any specific perception of what a solution would look like.
Now, more than a week after Netanyahu’s return to Israel and with still no apparent break in the impasse between the two close allies, one administration official tells The Cable that the U.S. side is open to Netanyahu coming back to the administration with his own alternative ideas about how to satisfy U.S. concerns about Israel’s commitment to the peace process.
“The Israelis could propose something that wasn’t included in the specific actions we raised,” the official explained. “They could come up with other things that complement what we put forth … it’s possible for them to be creative.” The official was quick to point out that the U.S. is still putting pressure on Netanyahu to take specific actions to “improve the atmosphere” and demonstrate Israel’s willingness to repair what is perceived in Washington as a breach of trust.
“Whatever they do must meet the level of seriousness and magnitude of the specific actions we proposed, and be responsive to the issues we raised,” the official said.
Regardless, the Obama team is now in waiting mode. “The ball is more or less in their court at the moment,” the official said of the Israelis.
Some observers interpreted the official’s remarks as a sign the administration is backpeddling from its initially tougher stance by easing off its demand that Netanyahu agree to the U.S. requests as they were.
“They’re backing down,” one Middle East hand said of the Obama team. “There’s a recognition that they put themselves in a box and they are trying to find a way out of it. They are trying to find a way to move forward.”
“They’re not backing down,” said New America Foundation fellow Daniel Levy. “By keeping their demands private, by definition they are preserving a measure of flexibility.”
It’s somewhat unclear whether or not the administration’s flexibility is incongruent with what Obama told Netanyahu in their private meeting because the White House has been so tight-lipped about it. But one diplomatic source said that when Obama gave Netanyahu his list of requests, it was not open for negotiation.
The flexibility is certainly a step back from the list of demands that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially gave NetanyahuP.J. Crowley said that afternoon. in her angry March 12 phone call. “She did outline for Prime Minister Netanyahu some specific things that we wanted to see from the Israeli government,” State Department spokesman
Only time will tell if Obama will be compelled to further concede to whatever it is Netanyahu feels he can deliver on the issue.
“The backing down will have to be judged by what they ultimately accept from the Israelis,” said Rob Malley, Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and a former top advisor to President Bill Clinton.
Malley said that the underlying question — where the process goes from here and how to construct a lasting peace process that includes the Palestinians — is not even addressed by this back and forth.
“All of this just begs the question of where the process is going,” he said. “If and when we get over this crisis, it will not be a crisis resolved. It will be a crisis deferred.”
Meanwhile, Obama is projecting confidence. “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it,” Obama told the cable network MSNBC on Tuesday.
As for who is winning the battle of the wills between Obama and Netanyahu, most experts feel that the longer the dispute goes on, the worse it is for both sides.
“Both of them are losers, because neither has an effective strategy to manage the current tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship much less move forward the core interests shared between the two countries,” said former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller. “Until they find it, you can expect more dysfunction and soap opera.”