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Netanyahu, Obama's stand-off White House meeting after harsh Bloomberg interview

In a meeting more frosty than the Washington snowstorm around them, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama met in the White House Oval Office on Monday afternoon, March 3, 2014 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Iran's nuclear weapons capability. Their meeting comes hours after new website Bloomberg released an interview with President Obama, where the president clearly puts all the blame on Israel if a peace deal fails to become a reality, threatening the country with economic and strategic isolation should they refuse the U.S.'s terms. Netanyahu had not been expecting such an animosity and a confrontation at this meeting. According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's comments last Thursday, Obama was not intending to pressure Netanyahu to accept the US's terms for a peace framework during the Monday meeting between the two leaders and the President was only looking at the progress. Netanyahu however, dressed down the President in a condescending tone during their remarks prior to the three-hour meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry and the administration's national security team.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama met in the White House Oval Office to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, March 3, 2014; their meeting comes a day after a scathing interview Obama to Bloomberg about Israel
Israel Government Printing Office

Well prepared after President Obama's Bloomberg interview was released Netanyahu made sure the Obama Administration would no longer be pushing around Israel anymore and the country will not cower to the US's threats. In his remarks prior to his meeting with Obama delivered Netanyahu specifically responded to Obama's comments with condescension, giving the US president a history lesson of both Israel, and the failed attempts at peace, where Israel gave, the Palestinians took and terrorism was the result.

Netanyahu began by taking aim sarcastically at Kerry's overzealous role in the peace talks, expressing; "I want to thank you and Secretary Kerry for when I say tireless efforts, I mean tireless efforts that he has put into this quest, as you are."

The rest of his remarks were a history lesson for Obama, Kerry, Biden and the media about the challenges and sacrifices Israel has faced since the peace process. Netanyahu told Obama that "The 20 years that have passed since Israel entered the peace process have been marked by unprecedented steps that Israel has taken to advance peace…. we vacated cities in Judea and Samaria. We left entirely Gaza. We've not only frozen settlements, we've uprooted entire settlements. We've released hundreds of terrorist prisoners, including dozens in recent months."

All of these sacrifices Netanyahu emphasized have only resulted with the Palestinians taking, but doing everything to harm Israel afterwards. Netanyahu recounted; "When you look at what we got in return, it's been scores of suicide bombings, thousands of rockets on our cities fired from the areas we vacated, and just incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel. So Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven't."

Netanyahu rebutting Obama's claims, he stated the Palestinians are the obstacle to a peace deal and always have, not Israel; "What we all want fervently is peace. Not a piece a paper -- although that, too -- but a real peace; a peace that is anchored in mutual recognition of two nation states that recognize and respect one another, and solid security arrangements on the ground."

Zeroing on the Israel's most basic demand that the Palestinians staunchly oppose, Netanyahu recounted to Obama Israel's bond to the land from biblical times, and reminded Obama of his own past comments, pointing out; "I think it's about time they recognize a nation state for the Jewish people. We've only been there for 4,000 years."

Making sure to emphasize that Abbas has responsibilities too in making a peace deal, Netanyahu said; "And I hope President Abbas does this, as I hope that he'll take seriously Israel's genuine security needs." Netanyahu also reiterated that that Israel and the U.S. have working for peace, but the Palestinians have not been a partner for peace; "And I think there is a partnership there, a partnership between Israel and America, that I think is important for this end."

The Israeli prime minister ended his remarks with his own threat to Obama giving him back a little of his own medicine, stating that Israel has to do what is best for its own security and will not give in to external pressures. Netanyahu concluded; "The only peace that will endure is a peace that we can defend. And we've learned from our history -- Jewish history, but I think from general history -- that the best way to guarantee peace is to be strong. And that's what the people of Israel expect me to do -- to stand strong against criticism, against pressure, stand strong to secure the future of the one and only Jewish state."

President Obama's opening remarks were far more conciliatory than his shocking Bloomberg interview, less to do with a sudden change of policy, more to do with telling the Israeli leader what he thinks in remarks to be released to the press. It would look bad for the President to seem as if he was openly fighting with the foreign leader of a country that is supposed to be a staunch ally. Obama thought it would be far better to act like a coward and criticize Israel behind their back where their leader cannot respond face to face.

Instead Obama decided to be a hypocrite and feign friendship with Israel, when the country is simply a means for a foreign policy victory, in an administration with little control over any of its foreign relations, and who behaves more kindly to enemies than its friends. Although some of the Israeli and American media seems to believe the crisis in Ukraine might have convinced Obama to ratchet down his rhetoric to Israel.

President Obama who spoke before Netanyahu praised the prime minister's efforts not once, but twice. First stating; "But I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu has approached these negotiations with a level of seriousness and commitment that reflects his leadership and the desire for the Israeli people for peace." And then again; "And I just want to publicly again commend the Prime Minister for the seriousness with which he's taken these discussions."

Obama went a little softer in his rhetoric, but still stressed that a peace deal will require "difficult," "tough decisions," and "compromise"; "It's my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine in which people are living side by side in peace and security. But it's difficult and it requires compromise on all sides. The timeframe that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near and some tough decisions are going to have to be made."

As if to allude to his recent threat in Bloomberg, Obama took a spin far different that Netanyahu's version of doing what is best for Israel's security. Obama concluded; "But I know that, regardless of the outcome, the Prime Minister will make those decisions based on his absolute commitment to Israel's security and his recognition that ultimately Israel's security will be enhanced by peace with his neighbors."

After the opening remarks floor show for the media, the actual meeting must have been far worse with Obama and Netanyahu unleashing their combative tones and positions, since according to CBS News' Mark Knoller Netanyahu left after the meeting refusing to speak to any of the press.

Obama would gotten much more out of Netanyahu had he not done that interview with Bloomberg. News of the interview already reached the Israeli prime minister by the time his plane landed in the US in the middle of the night, early Monday morning, March 3 and his comments upon landing reflected a more tougher position that in his remarks upon leaving for Israel some 14 hours before.

Netanyahu told the press when he reached the U.S.; "The tango in the Middle East needs at least three. For years there have been two -- Israel and the US. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present. In any case, in order for us to have an agreement, we must uphold our vital interests. I have proven that I do so, in the face of all pressures and all the turmoil, and I will continue to do so here as well." Netanyahu wanted to make it clear the Palestinians are to blame for peace not having been reached, and it was not Israel's fault.

Netanyahu's tone and message was far different upon leaving on his trip, the prime minister seemed to be looking forward instead to focus on Iran than the peace talks in his meeting with Obama. Netanyahu told the press; "I am now leaving on an important trip to the US where I will meet with President Barack Obama. We will discuss the Iranian issue and the diplomatic process. I will stand steadfast on the State of Israel's vital interests, especially the security of Israel's citizens. In recent years the State of Israel has been under various pressures. We have rejected them in the face of the unprecedented storm and unrest in the region and are maintaining stability and security. This is what has been and what will be."

President Obama sat down with Jeffrey Goldberg for the one-hour Bloomberg interview on Thursday, Feb. 27, just as reports were surfacing that Obama was intending to pressure Netanyahu into accepting the peace deal framework at their upcoming meeting. Although Press Secretary Carney publicly denied it, Obama's interview clearly fell into what Israeli media had been expecting since the meeting between the two leaders was announced on Feb. 10.

Obama took a double-sided approach, pretending he is Israel's friend, but threatening them into a peace deal and using terms Israel finds offence such as "permanent occupation of the West Bank." Democratic countries should not blackmail other democratic countries into making decisions unbeneficial to their national security or to the well being of their citizens. The president's threats were many times over worse than Kerry's threat over a boycott at the beginning of February, and there will be a backlash from Israel over President Obama's overt aggressiveness.

President Obama began his interview by quoting Rabbi Hillel and applying it to the present situation; "When I have a conversation with Bibi, that's the essence of my conversation. If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?" Obama said that the Israeli prime minister "does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach… It's hard to come up with one that's plausible."

President Obama first tried to make it seem that the US is still Israel's friend, but the threat attached made it difficult to believe. Obama expressed; "The U.S. commitment to Israel's security is not subject to periodic policy differences. That's a rock-solid commitment, and it's one that I've upheld proudly throughout my tenure. I think the affection that Americans feel for Israel, the bond that our people feel and the bipartisan support that people have for Israel is not going to be affected. So it is not realistic nor is it my desire or expectation that the core commitments we have with Israel change during the remainder of my administration or the next administration."

The president emphasized that both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make "very difficult choices; and "decisions"; "There comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices.....We are coming to a point, though, over the next couple of months where the parties are going to have to make some decisions about how they move forward. And my hope and expectation is that, despite the incredible political challenges, that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas are able to reach past their differences and arrive at a framework that can move us to peace."

Then President Obama went on the attack, demonizing Israel's policies, with simplicity and ignorance a US president should not make public. Obama proved it by questioning Israel; "Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?"

Despite emphasizing that there are both sides in the peace negotiation, Obama seemed to placed all the blame on any failure on Israel, and threatened the ramifications for Israel should a peace deal be reached; "I do believe if you see no peace deal, and continued aggressive settlement construction -- and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we've seen in a very long time -- if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited."

Obama threatened and blackmailed that the international community would not come to Israel's assistance if needed, if the country does not agree to make a peace deal; "The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It's survivable, but it is not preferable." Obama ignored completely that Israel is a democratic country, and has to consider their own best interests first all not blackmailed into accepting an agreement or else.

Contradicting Netanyahu's constant complaint that Abbas is not a partner for peace, Obama told Bloomberg the opposite saying; "I believe that President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, to recognize Israel's legitimate security needs, to shun violence, to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion that meets the concerns of the people of Israel. And I think that this is a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally."

The Times of Israel questioned Obama and his motives in the Bloomberg interview, when Netanyahu was ready to agree to the peace agreement framework as long as it was non-binding, writing; "The timing could not have been any more deliberate - an assault on the prime minister's policies delivered precisely as Netanyahu was flying in to meet with him, and on the first day, too, of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC's annual tour de force conference across town. At the very least, that might be considered bad manners, poor diplomatic protocol, a resounding preemptive slap in the face."

If Obama was playing the bad guy in the Bloomberg interview than Secretary Kerry played the good guy in his interview on Sunday, March 2 with NBC's Meet the Press, where he placed the blame for any road block in the peace process on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry promised the meeting would not be a "showdown or anything," but still emphasized that "everybody has to act." Kerry praised Netanyahu stating; "He's been very courageous. And he's made tough decisions with respect to entering into these negotiations and some of the things that he's indicated he's willing to do in the negotiations." However, Kerry instead chose to blame Abbas explaining; "It's also up to Abbas. The Palestinians need to decide whether or not they're prepared to compromise, whether or not they're willing to do some of the things necessary."

Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis of Likud gave his own assessment to the media concluding; "The American administration is again pressuring the wrong side. You don't need to convince Israel to have a desire for peace, that desire exists. Now you need to pressure the serial refusers of peace for the past hundred years -- the Palestinians.…they should start with the most basic thing, recognizing the state of Israel."

The peace talks, which started in July 2013 have a nine-month limit with a deadline of April 29. The talks have not advanced much and the United States wants Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a framework for an agreement, which will allow the talks to extend until the end of 2014. The framework proposal is considered the basis of further final status negations, and will not be binding. The framework will be based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps, include "unprecedented" security for the Jordan Valley, will require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish State, will not include a "right of return" for Palestinians, and Jerusalem's fate has not been entirely decided on yet, however Kerry wants some Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods to the Palestinian capital.

President Obama's threats and animosity towards Israel comes at an ironic point in the peace negotiations considering it was Abbas that had a temper tantrum during his meeting with Kerry in February. Abbas was the one threatening to walk away from the negotiations, refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish state and threatened to revoke his flexibility and instead will demand the right of return for Palestinians, and chief Palestinian Saeb Erekat has refused a peace talks extension, while Netanyahu has been the agreeable one. Abbas also was the one that again threatened to walk earlier in the day Monday, March 3 telling Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Galon; "I will put the keys on the table and turn to international organizations. The only way we will agree to extend the talks is if Netanyahu announces a settlement freeze and the release of other prisoners beyond the next scheduled release."

Everything Obama said was the opposite of reality, as he was trying to gain the Palestinians' favor prior to Abbas' visit to Washington on March 17, all while throwing Israel under a bus, ignoring the fact that the Palestinians have been the side that endorses and has engaged in terrorism. The comments coming out of Obama's mouth should make Americans whether supportive of Israel or not, long for a presidential administration whose policy was absolutely against negotiating with terrorists, because clearly the Obama administration has blurred the definition of friend or foe.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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