Media Conference Call: Benjamin Netanyahu's Meeting with President Obama

Media Conference Call: Benjamin Netanyahu's Meeting with President Obama

from Media Briefings

More on:

Diplomacy and International Institutions


OPERATOR: I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Gideon Rose. Mr. Rose, please begin.

GIDEON ROSE: Hi, everybody, and welcome. My name is Gideon Rose. I'm the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

And we're very lucky today to have with us a really bona fide expert, Rob Danin, who is currently the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the council but who comes to us with a wealth of experience in a range of different jobs, from being the head of the office of Quartet Representative Tony Blair in Jerusalem for the last few years; prior to that being deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, who is responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian issues as well as other issues in the region; and then, prior to that, director on the NSC in various ways, and senior director.

So we have somebody basically who has experience not just in the U.S. government and in the region but with Europe and now the council, so basically Rob should be able to answer anything we have to throw at him.

And without further ado, Rob, let's get right to it. I mean, we all know there's been some tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship recently. Is this meeting with Netanyahu going to solve the tensions? Is it basically a kiss-and-make-up session? Or is it just going to be one more venue for the ongoing train wreck that has been U.S.-Israel relations in the last year and a half?

ROBERT DANIN: Well, I think this is very much an effort to demonstrate a repair in the relationship. The United States is going out of its way in this visit to show that Prime Minister Netanyahu is welcome. He's being put up at Blair House this time, as opposed to staying in a hotel. There will be a photo op. And I think the effort is to project an improvement in U.S.-Israel bilateral relations.

But behind that there are serious questions that will be dealt with, and it's not clear to me that they will be resolved. And so while they will try to project an image of reconciliation, there are still some differences that I think are going to remain.

ROSE: Okay. What sort of the -- what will be resolved and what will not be resolved?

DANIN: Well, I'm not sure what will be resolved. I think going into it there are -- well, one issue that hopefully or very well may be resolved is the issue of the Gaza -- what is called a -- the -- I don't want to use the terms he used, but the -- what has been the inability to import goods into Gaza.

Israel on June 20th announced a new policy in which it was shifting its approach from advocating a -- or putting forward a list of allowed goods to essentially opening Gaza to all non-military goods other than those that are proscribed or prevented or not allowed; that is, from a positive list to a negative list. But Israel has not yet produced this negative list, and I think one thing the United States will be looking for in this visit is the actual production of this negative list of those goods that can't be allowed into the West -- into the Gaza, forgive me -- with the presumption being that everything that's not on the list can go in.

So that's one issue I think they can come to understanding about, is what are the procedures and means for Gaza.

But on the issue of the larger negotiations and what needs to happen to get to direct negotiations, there are some outstanding issues. Most notably, there's a settlement moratorium that has been in place and is due to expire on September 26th.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he will not renew it. He said that when he announced it, said that it was a -- was a one-time gesture. The Likud central committee voted last week that they -- unanimously, not to renew the settlement moratorium. And I think that the Obama administration will be very keen to see the moratorium extended or Netanyahu to commit to extending it, and arguing that without such an extension then the -- then progress in negotiations with Abu Mazen, with President Abbas, are not possible -- is not possible.

So I think that will be a very difficult issue that they're -- that they probably will not be able to resolve in this visit.

ROSE: Well, let's do -- back up a little bit and do some background on how we got here. There are people who feel that everything was going fine until Obama pressed the Israelis in a deliberate attempt to bring down the Netanyahu government. And there are people who feel that anything Netanyahu touches is a devious maneuver to escape his obligations, or Israel's obligations. Who is responsible for the problems in the U.S.-Israel relationship? Is it -- is it on the Israeli side, the American side, or is it a mixture of both?

DANIN: Well, I -- you know, I don't think it's a question of who is responsible. I mean, I think that what you have are -- is a -- is a genuine lack of a meeting of the minds about what is the way forward here. I think that the administration is very keen to see a robust and rapid process move forward.

I mean, President Obama indicated his seriousness and the priority to which he gives this issue by naming Senator Mitchell as his Middle East envoy within the first two weeks of his administration. There was early talk about trying to resolve the issue within two years -- resolve the issue.

It is -- now we are in a position where it's been very difficult just to get negotiations going. And there clearly have not been the type of U.S.-Israel meeting of the minds that -- that has taken place in the past when there's been a successful peace process. Think about President Clinton and Prime Minister Rabin, think about President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon on the issue of Gaza disengagement. Usually there has to be some sort of trust, some sort of bilateral understanding that -- of a shared objective. And that really doesn't exist.

The administration sees the Palestinian issue as an urgent national priority. It is not clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu shares that assessment. In fact, it -- all indications are that he sees Iran as the pressing regional threat. He sees the Palestinian issue as an important one, but doesn't share the sense of urgency. And I think that's something vexing to many of the administration.

There's also the baggage of many in this administration who had the experience of negotiating with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the previous Democratic administration under President Clinton. And so they came to this with a certain skepticism about Prime Minister Netanyahu's intentions. And I think all of this contributes to some of the mistrust that now has built up.

ROSE: Okay. Let's say that they don't resolve the issues, that the settlements continue to be a sticking point and that essentially nothing really happens.

Can the situation be kept idling in neutral for a substantially longer period of time? You know, you say the Israelis don't feel a sense of urgency. Is there some reason that they should? Whether or not they do so from a sense of justice or a sense of wanting to make peace, is there some reason that the situation will go -- get worse if it doesn't get better?

DANIN: Well, I think within the context of the proximity talks that are taking place under the auspices of Senator Mitchell -- he's now in the region right now for the fifth round of such proximity talks -- both Israel and the Palestinians are trying to project a stance in which they -- each of them will avoid being blamed should the proximity talks not go -- succeed.

At the same time, most observers -- in fact, I think there's almost a consensus that the proximity talks themselves will not produce an agreement. The United States has been very forthright, very clear from the beginning that it sees the proximity talks as a stepping stone, as a vehicle to get into direct, face-to-face negotiations.

That is a problem for President Abbas because his fear is that going into direct negotiations without any sense of what the end game is, without any sense of closure or a deadline, will just allow for open-ended negotiations that go nowhere, that deplete his political capital but allows Prime Minister Netanyahu to claim he's negotiating with the Palestinians and just have this strong out. This is the Palestinian fear.

So that's why on the one hand they're trying to get as much specificity injected into the proximity talks. On the other hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu's view of the proximity talks are, look, we've negotiated face to face with the Palestinians since 1991, since the Madrid peace talks.

Proximity talks in which we don't even talk to each other are a step backwards. So I'm not going to give up anything, or even talk any sort of real substance in these proximity talks. We need to sit down face-to-face.

And that's why he said yesterday: I will go to Ramallah. President Abbas is invited to Jerusalem. Let's sit down and talk, no preconditions.

Both of them are posturing a bit here, to avoid -- to appear to be the reasonable party who wants to go forward.


DANIN: But to answer your question, if I may, you know, in terms of a -- I think we are headed for a very rough patch in September, where three things come together at once to produce a real -- could produce a real -- I don't want to overstate it, the crisis, but could be a real diplomatic challenge. And it's the following.

You have, as I said, the end of the settlement moratorium, that is due to expire. At the same time, the Arab League, in allowing -- or giving President Abbas the mandate to negotiate the -- with -- in these proximity talks with Netanyahu, gave him four months. And that deadline, or that time period, runs out in early September. So you could have a situation where both the Palestinians are no longer willing to talk to the Israelis in proximity talks; at the same time, you have the Israelis -- you could have a situation where the Israelis will not renew the settlement moratorium.

All this then will take place in September, against the backdrop of a U.N. General Assembly, where then all eyes will be focused on President Obama to produce some sort of -- some sort of reconciliation, some sort of way out of this mess and, rather than see the negotiations fall apart, produce something forward moving, let's say.

So if things don't move forward, they definitely do move backwards. I don't think there is stasis here.

ROSE: We're going to get a lot of questions from our audience here who want to come in and get your take on what they're thinking about. Let me just ask you one more thing.

You've been working these issues at the working level for a while. You have lots of summits like this. You've seen them come and go. And you advise your bosses, and there are things you'd love them to do that they don't end up doing because for one reason or another it's not politically viable or advisable; and then there are things you tell them, don't do, don't do, and they go ahead and do anyway, for the same kind of reasons.

Give us an example. Tell us something that we don't know. What is the kind of thing that, when you were working these issues, you would love your boss to say but they didn't ultimately end up saying?

DANIN: Oh, boy. That they didn't say. No, usually it's the other way around.

ROSE: What's something that you told them, don't say this, don't say this, and they went ahead and said it? I don't mean tell tales out of school, but what is the kind of advice that you were giving that -- well, what is the thing that the professionals inside would like to see happen that doesn't actually happen?

DANIN: Oh, boy. Hmm. I've never been asked that before. What they'd like to see happen. You know, normally these things are so well orchestrated. Usually when they're well prepared, there are no surprises. And I think more than anything, what everyone fears in these sort of events are surprises.

And the biggest nightmare that I think people will always be leery of and has been -- has dogged a lot of the American-Israeli diplomacy are steps that then take place on the ground generated by people who are opposed to it.

So what you hate more than anything is to wake up the morning of the meeting and find out in the Israeli press it advertised that, you know, tenders have been issued for a new settlement or for new building projects, something that's going to inject tension and will direct the line of questioning by the media.

That's what you want to avoid more than anything, and that's something that you work with the parties to avoid. But that's something that has to do more with the other side than with your own side. But avoiding surprises is usually what your biggest fear is.

ROSE: Okay. With that, let's turn it over to our audience who will grapple with you on various other topics.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Chandrakant Pancholi with Overseas Indian Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. What plans are floating around for settlement of this issue -- from U.S. side, from Palestinian side and from Israeli side? And why we can't -- why Israel cannot agree to a meeting with an agenda? Because how do -- how a settlement or any type of issue can be discussed without that being on agenda?

ROSE: Rob?

DANIN: Yes, well -- (pause) -- I think what you have here is a situation where there is a gap between both sides' expectations and where -- about how you conduct negotiations. I mean, there's a certain asymmetry here. On the one hand you have a Palestinian negotiating team who've been negotiating ever since Madrid. And they have all the institutional knowledge, all the experience.

They've learned all the lessons of the negotiations. They know all the secrets, all the history.

What happens then is -- on the Israeli side is a new government comes into power each time and says -- has to relearn or learn what is -- their predecessors did. Sometimes they're very surprised to learn that the -- that commitments were made or concessions were offered that they had no idea were the case.

So the two sides start out from a -- from unequal positions, let's say: one very experienced and ready to go and pick up where they left off, the other basically saying, no, history starts where I -- today, with me.

Clearly there has to be an agenda for talks. And I think one of the things that Senator Mitchell is working on through this proximity- talks process is precisely that: to set the agenda for the movement to direct talks. So I think that that is what the Americans are trying to establish.

QUESTIONER: And how are chances of the success of Mr. Mitchell's plan?

DANIN: Well, there's no plan. What he is doing is consulting with the parties and trying to put together a package that will allow both sides to enter into direct negotiations with a certain degree of confidence. And I think, at a certain point, the negotiator in the field goes as far as they can, and then the issue gets bucked up to a higher level.

And I think the visit that will take place on July 6th, the meeting between the president and the prime minister, will be a very important one in that context, because this is one where clearly the president is going to be feeling a certain degree of impatience, a desire to get to direct negotiations. I think there's a certain degree of impatience with both sides right now from the -- from the Americans, a sense that President Abbas is dragging his feet in going into direct negotiations, and a sense that President -- Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn't yet indicated sufficiently or given enough -- given enough comfort to the sides that the negotiations, if they are to commence, will be -- will do so in earnest and with -- you know, with goodwill.

So I think this is something that President Obama is going to be pushing and prodding Prime Minister Netanyahu to see exactly where the give is, where there are opportunities, how can this process move forward.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Eli Lake with the Washington Times.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Mr. Danin. I have a specific question here. Does the Obama administration still recognize the 2004 Bush letter to Prime Minister Sharon? What is the status of that understanding between Israel and the United States?

DANIN: Well, that's a very good question. I would hate to mischaracterize the -- mischaracterize it, so I think that's one you're going to have to direct to the administration. I've spent the last period out in Jerusalem working for Tony Blair, and so I would hate to mischaracterize how the Obama administration formulates its relationship to that letter.

ROSE: But give some --

QUESTIONER: Can I follow up, just quickly? Did the Quartet or the staff of the Quartet or Tony Blair recognize that understanding or letter?

DANIN: Well, that letter and the statement was a U.S.-Israel understanding.

It was never endorsed by the Quartet as such. So I think it has never been a Quartet issue as such.

ROSE: What -- give a little background. Why would this letter be controversial? And what is the -- what was the stance -- you know, put it this way: Why is this such a touchy topic?

DANIN: Well, I think -- well, the letter was quite path- breaking, and it took place in a unique context. The context was, Israel was withdrawing from Gaza unilaterally. It was dismantling settlements for the first time -- again, unilaterally; and as what was then called "ideological compensation," the United States to help try to encourage this process of Israel withdrawing from Gaza, seeing this as providing an opportunity for forward movement, provided Prime Minister Sharon a letter in April 2004, some of the features which included -- or perhaps the most salient that Mr. Lake is probably referring to, but I'll let him come back if I get this wrong -- was a recognition or was a(n) observation towards the end of the letter that stated that it is likely to -- that it is reasonable to expect that the -- that those settlements or those -- I don't want to -- it's been now six years -- but that those -- that the realities on the ground -- help me, Eli, what you're referring to.

QUESTIONER: I think it said -- it said -- "facts on the ground" was the phrase that you used earlier, or "facts and realities on the ground" (or something like that ?).

DANIN: I don't -- "realities" was it, yeah.


DANIN: It is unreasonable to expect that -- I mean, we could pull it up off the Web -- but essentially what it did was, it hinted at the notion that for the first time that some settlements would not -- would be -- would stay, and that there would have to be territorial adjustments to allow this to take place.

And this also came in the context of the creation of the security barrier, if you recall.

And so for some -- and it's very interesting, because there are two versions of this and there are two sides to it, in a sense, there are two sides to the wall, because on the one hand, for many it was seen as, oh, my goodness, the United States has for the first time legitimated the idea that settlements will stay and are legitimate. From the Israeli point of view -- and as was told to me, Prime Minister Sharon on the flight home from receiving it said, you know, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated because he removed three outposts; I just gave away 90 percent of the West Bank. Because what he basically acknowledged was that the barrier and the letter essentially recognized that the territories will be given back -- or will be given -- you know, will form the basis of a Palestinian state as part of a final status negotiation.

QUESTIONER: Got it. And so, basically it comes down to what is the Obama administration's declaratory policy on settlements.

ROSE (?): Well, not settlements, though, is it? I mean, it's the settlements that are -- the 8 percent which were envisioned in Taba as the land swaps. It was like that one area, will it have to go back to the '67 lines.

QUESTIONER (?): Right.

DANIN: Right. I don't -- I mean, again, I think you're going to have to ask the Obama administration. I think they would probably, you know, say that, you know, there have been subsequent events, including the negotiations between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, in which some of the percentages came down. The letter never got into percentages. It was not meant to give a territorial design to the final status outcomes, not meant to predetermine it.

And it was very clear in saying that any changes in the reality on the ground would have to be mutually agreed upon, so that it was always very explicit that the Palestinians would have a final say in any kind of -- in any kind of agreement.

ROSE: Okay.

(Inaudible) -- the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Evrim Bunn with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Hi. I am wondering if the issue of the Turkish- Israeli relations will come up during the meeting on the 6th. You know, we know the U.S. is trying to talk to both Israelis and Turks to ease the current tension, and there was a meeting yesterday in Europe brokered by the U.S. So do you think Obama will urge Netanyahu to take specific steps to ease the tension with Turkey?

Just as a background, Prime Minister Erdogan set forward some conditions, such as an apology, compensation, removing the blockade on Gaza. Do you think any of these will be advised to Netanyahu by Obama?

DANIN: Well, I think it's an excellent question, and I think it's clear that the issue will be discussed. This is -- the whole issue of the Turkish-Israel relationship in general and then the flotilla crisis in particular have consumed a great deal of diplomatic energy in the last month or so since the crisis erupted.

Obviously the fact that the prime -- that there was a meeting, you know, in Europe yesterday is a sign, and an encouraging sign, that both sides are in some way trying to find a way, you know, back from the precipice of a deteriorating bilateral Turkish-Israeli relationship. I -- you know, I think there's also been, you know, some issues in the Turkish-American relationship.

There have been issues in the Israel-U.S. relationship. So I don't think it's just a question of -- you know, I think there will be a general issue of how to -- how to reconstitute an improved Turkish- Israeli relationship.

And part of the reason that the United States and the Quartet, under the envoy, Tony Blair, worked to -- with the Israeli government to get the regime that governed the import of goods -- importation of goods into Gaza changed was in order to obviate the -- and remove the pretext for these flotillas, and that's so that there would not be the need or -- for there to be, you know, humanitarian goods or even a perceived need -- if there is no need, as some allege -- for there to be -- for the flotillas to take place.

But anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying, yes, Turkish- Israeli relations are critical. It's part of the larger regional landscape. And I'm sure that will be discussed between the two parties.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Rick Richman with Jewish Current Issues.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I want to follow up on Eli Lake's question from a different angle. The Bush letter in 2004 contained an explicit reassurance -- not simply an observation, but a reassurance of U.S. support for, quote, "defensible borders," not simply secure or recognized. And that same position was stated in a Secretary Christopher letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu back in 1997.

Since you were -- you were in the State Department, I think, during the period after the 2004 letter, I wonder if there is any significance, in your mind, to the Obama administration's failure to use the term "defensible borders" and to refer simply to secure and recognized ones.

DANIN: This gets into what I call "peace process theology." I don't think that this is a -- an issue that will be -- that will be discussed when the two leaders meet next week. I think that when the time comes for there to be an understanding between the U.S. and Israel, either through -- either in a bilateral negotiation or some sort of peace arrangement, then this would be an issue that the -- that the Israeli government may seek to address. But I don't think that it's sort of a priority issue for the Israeli government at this point that it would seek to rectify in the context of this discussion in upcoming days.

QUESTIONER: But do those different terms have different significance? I mean, if you're writing talking points, would you say, gee, we said this last time; it -- you know, we should either say it again or say something different, and it'll be noted that we're changing our terms?

DANIN: There's no general rule. I mean, there are times -- I mean, policymaking -- it can be everything from extremely well crafted and highly calculated to extremely surreptitious and seat-of- the-pants, in which -- in which, you know, things are done very quickly and with less thought than the -- than the commentators and analysts who then scrutinize the words devote to it.

So, you know, I don't -- I just don't think there's a general principle that you can apply here. You really have to -- you really have to, you know, go to the administration for -- to see what's behind the -- you know, their words.

QUESTIONER: Is there a difference in the meaning of the words "secure" borders and "defensible" borders?

DANIN: I don't know. I mean, again, I think this is the kind of issue that ultimately the parties who seek an understanding on this will have to determine what meaning they attribute to this.

ROSE (?): Well, would you write those -- would you use those terms interchangeably?

DANIN: "Secure" or "defensible"?

ROSE (?): Right.

DANIN: It would have to depend on the context.

ROSE: So there are some situations in which some people might attribute a difference in meaning to the use of those two different terms.

DANIN: Again, it would have to depend on the context in which it's being used. You know, it's one thing for, you know -- in a background briefing as opposed to in a formal document in which, you know, lawyers are scrutinizing and a document that's going to be signed. So there's a whole range of diplomatic interchange and a whole level of -- different levels of precision that are then used, you know, in that. So I just don't think you can generalize.

ROSE: Got it. I think further discussion on this topic is not defensible.

Next question.

DANIN: (Laughs.) Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Natalia Angulo (sp) with religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I was just wondering if you could give me an idea of whether or not there will be a religious aspect to the talks next week with the president, or in the future proximity talks.

DANIN: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by religious.

QUESTIONER: If a religious angle will be taken in order to ease the approach to this whole situation of whether there will be implications afterwards.

I suppose I'm not being specific enough. But whether or not there -- you know, I'm not sure how to put this, but whether or not there will be a religious implication --

DANIN: Sure, sure. You know, I would say no, I mean, in short. I mean, obviously the issues that are on the table -- and especially when you come to, you know, the fact that you're talking about the Holy Land and the cradle of, you know, the three monotheistic religions, Abrahamic religions -- you know, there -- it is loaded with religious symbolism and religious importance for people. But I think that the nature of the discussions that take place are -- you know, are conducted in -- you know, these are relations between states dealing with diplomatic, political, security, economic issues. And so I don't see how, you know, that religion would be an explicit component of this -- you know, the discussion.

QUESTIONER: Okay, thank you very much.

DANIN: Sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we're holding for further questions. Again, if you would like to ask a question, it's star-one.

ROSE: Rob, how -- the -- let me step in here while we have a -- people are lining up to do questions. There's been this discussion of the Obama administration tried to deliberately sort of put political pressure on Netanyahu to make the government fall. I know that many Americans don't buy this at all and many Israelis are completely convinced that it's true. What's your take on that?

DANIN: I don't see it. I think, you know, my own experience from government is that, you know, there have been times for sure where the United States has taken steps that recognize and that will have implications for other countries' domestic politics.

I mean, the most notable example, I think, you know, in this context was the, you know, 1996 Israeli elections, where the United States was very clearly seen to be backing Shimon Peres and the result was victory for Benjamin Netanyahu.

And so I think the United States has, you know -- we've learned that we're not very good at this. And so therefore, you know, I -- I'm skeptical of those who argue that this has been the design of the -- of the Obama administration, to bring down the Netanyahu government.

QUESTIONER: And yet is it true that the Israelis think that -- many Israelis believe that to be the case?

DANIN: Sure. Sure. I mean, I think -- look, you know, there are a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings that exist across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, between the two countries and in the Middle East. I mean, conspiracy thinking is rife and not something that transcends many borders in the Middle East.

So sure, I think there are people who believe that -- I mean, there are people in this country too who believe that -- you know, that the administration has been out to undermine the Netanyahu government. But I just don't see it. I don't see -- think that the -- that the effort really has been there, and I don't see that there's really -- you know, there's no alternative government waiting in the wings. And I don't think the -- you know, I think the United States recognizes that we, you know -- we can't calibrate that kind of effort, and to be seen to do so is often counterproductive.

Can I just say for folks, just for attribution purposes, I use "Robert" as a -- as my sort of professional name. (Chuckles.) Obviously, my friends, like Gideon, call me "Rob."

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) Got it. How much will Iran come into this -- these discussions?

DANIN: Well, I think this will be an issue that Prime Minister Netanyahu will definitely want to focus on. Prime Minister Netanyahu, you know, was elected and -- seeing Iran as the large strategic threat to Israel. I think he sees his role in history and his role as prime minister now in leading Israel through the challenge of confronting the prospect of a nuclearized Iran, if you will. And so this is priority number one for him.

It's an issue that is very -- very much at the top of the U.S.- Israel bilateral discussions. Defense Minister Barak was here in Washington last week for extensive discussions. Admiral Mullen was in Israel this week for his, I believe, 11th visit this year. I don't think he was there to talk about the proximity talks. So clearly, Iran is a component there. And I think that's something that Prime Minister Netanyahu very much looks to, you know, the United States to see what the status of efforts are. I mean, he comes in the wake of the passage of, you know, the fourth set of U.N. sanctions on Iran, and then, you know, a robust American effort. And he'll want to know what the next step is, and to see what the American game plan is, and to try to ensure that the U.S. and Israel are in sync.

And I think the United States, conversely, very much wants to ensure that Israel is in sync with the greater international strategy on Iran.

So for sure, Iran, I'd say, is probably, you know, up there with the Palestinian issue as the top two issues that will dominate the discussion.

ROSE: Okay.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Chandrakant Pancholi with Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. And with the Arab League, who do you think are the main players? And have they given any suggestions, and the relationship between Israel and these Arab nations is still hostile? It was like two -- since two (decades it's ?) going on. Or has Israel improved relationship with any of these Arab nations?

DANIN: Right. Well, there are really two elements here. There's the Arab League and then relations with the Arab states. You know, the Arab League is a -- is a -- is an entity unto itself or -- you know, led by Chairman Amre Moussa. Relations between Israel and the Arab League have never been particularly strong. Oftentimes the Arab League plays to the -- to the Arab consensus, which, you know, is -- leads to kind of a lowest common denominator politics.

The Arab League has not been a major player in this effort, other than through the follow-up committee, which -- to the Arab League initiative. The follow-up committee -- just to put it in context, this is the committee that basically has been tasked to follow up on the Arab League initiative. It visited Israel. It visited the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian territory.

And it is -- they are the ones who have approved the notion of President Abbas conducting these proximity talks with Israel.

President Abbas, after last autumn and the -- some of the domestic challenges that ensued from the fallout from the Goldstone affair, essentially asked for an Arab League blessing to proceed with proximity talks. Some Palestinians think this was a mistake, actually, because, you know, the Palestinian national movement was established in the mid-60s really to try to get the Palestinians out from under the control of -- or have the Palestinian issue removed from the control of the Arab states and have the Palestinians speak for themselves and take control of it. And so some Palestinians have seen the move to ask the Arab League for permission to negotiate with Israel through proximity talks as actually a step backwards and squandering independence rather than empowering it.

But Abu Mazen I think felt very politically vulnerable and therefore wanted to ensure that he -- his back was covered by having this Arab League blessing for the proximity talks. So the Arab League, you know, is playing a role that way.

But Israel, in its relations with the Arabs, is -- you know, encompasses a great range, from a peace that it enjoys through a formal peace treaty with Jordan, a formal peace treaty with Egypt -- both of which have endured challenges and some other regional wars -- to other relationships with, let's say, at the other extreme, Syria, where there is a very tense armistice but clearly nothing approaching peace at this time. And so there is -- there is not an Arab consensus or -- on Israel other than this -- the Arab League initiative, but that's -- but that is something that is -- not been actively engaged directly except as part of a larger package of the efforts to move the diplomatic process forward by the United States.

So it is a reference point, but it's not THE reference point. I hope I'm not getting into too much "diplomatese" here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Christina Bergmann with DW German International Radio.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Hello. Thank you for doing this.

My question is, do you think that the Obama administration is shifting their approach towards Israel, not only with this visit, as you said which is kind of a good will welcome, but also -- but in the near future? And what do you think that the chances of this kind of changing, different approach will be?

Thank you.

DANIN: I'd call it a change in style, not necessarily a dramatic change in substance. I mean, I think there's a -- because the previous visits by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House have been rocky, the image that has emerged from them has been, you know, that of discords. You recall the last time the prime minister was here, the image that was left was of the prime minister sitting in the Roosevelt Room with his aides while the president went upstairs to eat dinner with his family, and then coming back, the president, you know, only afterwards to have a follow-on discussion; no photo-op, no -- you know, sort of a chilly discussion.

Clearly, the United States has been trying to change that effort. You know, there have been a series of high-level visitors to Israel from the United States. I've referenced Admiral Mullen.

In fact, the visit of Vice President Biden to Israel -- I believe it was in -- sometime in the spring -- was it May? -- you know, was part of actually that effort. It just so happened at that moment was the announcement of the building in Ramat Shlomo, which actually turned what was meant to be a goodwill visit into a further irritant in the bilateral relationship.

I think the visit, you know, that you're going to see next week is going to be -- is an effort to create that sense of partnership, to give Israel that sense of comfort that the United States is not an adversary but actually a partner working with it, arm in arm, to move forward.

That said, I don't think that the -- that the fundamentals are changing at all. I mean, the American -- the administration is seeking to pursue bilateral relations or bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They're working to effectuate that through this proximity talk. So that's the goal.

There isn't -- you know, there are some who call for a dramatic, different approach -- the unfurling of an Obama plan or a move to the Security Council. I don't think you see any indications of that kind of shift on the -- on the administration's approach.

So again, I'd call it a change in style, but not substance.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we're holding for further questions.

ROSE: Okay, we're going to have one more question and then we're going to wrap this up so everybody goes back to their busy lives. Who wants the last question? Time to jump in and grab it.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our last question will come from Jackie Northam with NPR. (Pause.) Jackie?

QUESTIONER: Sorry, took myself off mute there. Hi. Thanks very much for doing this.

DANIN: My pleasure.

QUESTIONER: I know, Gideon, you asked Robert what could be resolved and what might not be resolved during the visit here.

But I'm just trying to figure out, you know, at the photo op at the end of this meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, will we hear about any forward motion at all, any progress on, you know, any of these issues?

ROSE: And if we do hear, will the issues actually be anything that anybody cares about other than the people tasked to write the final statement?

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) Exactly.

DANIN: Well, you know -- (chuckles) -- oftentimes, what doesn't seem very newsworthy to an American audience, you know, is -- will have a dramatic ripple effect back at home, be it in Israel or some other country, when a visitor comes to the Oval Office. So even though it may not be sexy, it can often be very, very important and have great ramifications.

You know, as I said, I think that there will be an effort to have a meeting of the minds and a unified approach when it comes to Gaza and when it comes to the issue of the -- of the movement of goods and materiel into Gaza. You know, that's something that the -- that has dominated the bilateral discussion in the last period, you know, alongside the efforts of Senator Mitchell. So that I think that will be a bit of good news that the two will seek to produce, that the -- you know, that there is now a negative list agreed upon, that the crossings between Israel and the -- and Gaza are significantly changed, and that the flow of goods has significantly changed -- qualitatively, not just quantitatively.

On the issue of the, you know, proximity talks and negotiations, I wouldn't expect a great announcement.

The president met with President Abbas. He's met with the Saudi king. He will meet, you know, with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

He's not going to announce something there. I think he -- you know, hopefully, I think they will get some sort of private assurance that the effort to come to an understanding about the renewal of the settlement moratorium will move forward.

But I wouldn't expect, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu were prepared to privately assure the president that he's going to renew the moratorium, that he would want it announced so early, because it would just allow his opponents time to mobilize against it. And already the settlers are mobilizing against it.

But he may give something, then, that -- a card that then President Obama can use in his discussions with the Palestinians, and Senator Mitchell can use with the Palestinians to get direct negotiations started. And I think that clearly is the objective here, is to avoid the -- what I call the September kind of crisis, by getting the direct negotiations started as soon as possible. But I don't think that it will be announced, you know, on July 6th.

ROSE: Got it.

And the last question, the body language. Are they going to be as stiff and obviously unhappy with each other as last time?

DANIN: Well, barring any unforeseen surprises, I think the effort will be very much not to. I think they're going to want to really project a different image now, an image of two allies, of two friends, of, you know, the traditional U.S.-Israel amity that usually obtains. So I think there very much will be an effort to avoid that kind of stiff body language.

But, you know, we're talking about human beings. And even you can orchestrate everything and choreograph everything and, depending on what happens in the meetings, you know, things can -- you know, you're talking about human beings, and so there's no telling what will happen at the end.

But my expectation is that it will -- it will look like a very friendly and amicable meeting.

ROSE: Thank you. Well, we now know what will be going on behind the scenes.

So thank you, Robert Danin, wise expert on all things Levant- related. And thank you to all our guests, and we look forward to talking with you in future conference calls. So long.

DANIN: Thank you, everybody.







Most Recent

Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  


The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.