President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today at a moment when U.S.-Israeli ties are improving. Further warming may depend on whether Israel extends a settlement-building freeze due to expire in September.
The U.S. sided with Israel in the face of international criticism following its raid on a Gaza aid flotilla in May and persuaded the United Nations to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program last month.
Those actions helped reverse a downturn in relations that developed over Israel’s plan to build 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem. Dan Shapiro, senior director at the White House for the Middle East and North Africa, told reporters last week that the freeze on building homes in West Bank settlements, announced by Netanyahu on Nov. 25, has helped advance efforts toward the goal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“There has been a distinct improvement in the White House relationship with Israel since the last meeting” between Obama and Netanyahu on March 23, said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “Obama will be looking for a payback,” perhaps in the form of an extension to the settlement freeze, Spyer said.
The stakes are potentially high for both leaders. Obama has expended political capital on reviving the peace negotiations, beginning with indirect talks intended to lead toward direct ones -- something that aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas say won’t happen unless Israel halts all settlement building. Netanyahu may lose his parliamentary majority if he extends the freeze beyond the Sept. 26 expiration.
The Obama administration is “very keen to see the moratorium extended,” said Roger Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “That’s a very difficult issue they will probably not be able to resolve during this visit.”
Shapiro said the focus of the discussion between the leaders would be “on making that transition into direct talks” and on what has been covered through the indirect talks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in Helsinki today that “there is no chance the freeze will be extended.” His comments were sent in a text message from his ministry. Lieberman heads Yisrael Beitenu. Loss of the party would rob Netanyahu’s 74-seat ruling coalition of its majority in the 120- member parliament.
U.S. officials say that relations between the two countries have improved considerably since March, when Israel’s announcement of the east Jerusalem housing plan in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden drew criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” said Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security adviser. “This is a relationship that is very strong and very important to the United States.”
Obama shielded Israel from international censure at the UN, after Israeli forces killed nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists aboard a ship trying to breach a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In May, the president requested $205 million from Congress to fund a medium-range missile-defense system for Israel. The system, called Iron Dome, is intended to protect Israel from rockets and mortar shells from Gaza and Lebanon.
In their meeting, the two men will also discuss Iran’s nuclear program, which Israeli officials call an existential threat. Israel, along with the U.S. and its allies, suspect the nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb. Iran says its work is for civilian purposes. Israeli leaders have refused to rule out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations should sanctions fail.
U.S. relations could sour again if Netanyahu sticks to his pledge to renew settlement building. The Israeli leader is under pressure to lift the West Bank construction ban from allies in his coalition and members of his Likud party.
“There is no doubt that construction in Judea and Samaria will resume when the freeze runs out,” Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, a Likud member, said on Army Radio, using the Biblical terms for the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s coalition collapsed during his first term as prime minister, precipitating elections in 1999 that he lost, because of compromises he made in negotiations with the Palestinians.
In Washington, Netanyahu is “going to be asked for more than he’s going to get,” said Mark Heller, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “He’s certainly going to be asked to extend the West Bank construction freeze. That would cause a lot of problems in his coalition.”
The four-month period allotted for indirect talks also expires in September. Netanyahu said July 4 that one of the goals in his meeting with Obama is to bring about direct talks with Abbas. The Palestinian leader won’t engage Israel directly until all settlement building ceases, Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said June 22.
The 10-month freeze imposed by Netanyahu doesn’t include some 3,000 housing units approved before the moratorium, the construction of public buildings or construction in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war and the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.
“I would be very dubious that the Israeli government would be willing or able to extend the temporary freeze, as this would only encourage the Palestinians to put up additional conditions,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and head of an advisory forum on Israel-U.S. relations for Netanyahu.