Barack-Bibi Meeting: More Than a Photo-Op


Last week we published a front-page story by JTA’s Ron Kampeas that was headlined: “Nice photo-op, but what did Obama and Bibi discuss?” Is anything other than pleasant platitudes to come of this recent meeting?

Last March, the White House was smarting over the ill-timed announcement of a 1,600-unit development in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem at the very time that United States Vice President Joe Biden had arrived in Israel to help restart direct peace talks. Relations appeared at least semi-frozen as the usual diplomacy of friendly pictures and other niceties was suspended. The cordial and seemingly authentic good will between the two leaders last week was indeed welcome, especially after international condemnation over Israel’s interception of the Gaza flotilla.

U.S. President Barack Obama went out of his way to tell reporters that the bonds between Israel and the U.S. have been, are and will remain “unbreakable.” And in a lengthy and significant interview with Yonit Levi on Channel 2 of Israel Television after the meetings with Netanyahu, Obama reiterated that commitment and demonstrated a real understanding of the dilemmas facing Israel. For his part, in an hour-long interview on “Larry King Live” on CNN, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the shared democratic values between Israel and the U.S.

But there was much more to the Barack-Bibi summit than just feel-good pronouncements. Obama said publicly that the U.S. would continue to respect Israel’s official stance on its nuclear weapons capacity, which has been deliberately ambiguous for decades. While it is widely believed that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, or can develop them quickly, Israel has always said it would not be the first power in the Middle East to use such catastrophically destructive weapons. Israel had been worried that the U.S. might join European and Arab nations in pressuring Israel do abandon its deterrent arsenal even while Iran, which has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” is rushing toward nuclear development.

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Also of great significance was President Obama’s statement that the U.S. and Israel were “on the same page” regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions. Obama said that he received assurances that Israel would not launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities without first informing the United States. For his part, Netanyahu praised Obama for securing unanimous passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution placing sanctions on Iran, and for signing a bill passed by Congress that contained even stronger sanctions against Iran.

Finally, Obama supported Netanyahu’s call for direct peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Obama noted that Netanyahu had agreed to a freeze on new housing developments in portions of Jerusalem and the West Bank through September, and that deadline should spur the parties to move toward direct talks. Despite opposition from right-wing factions in Israel, it is widely thought that if talks do resume on a face-to-face basis, the settlement freeze could and should be extended. And some interpreted Netanyahu’s words in Washington as suggesting flexibility on the long-term settlement solution as well.

We have learned that events in the Middle East are unpredictable and that today’s positive development can quickly be replaced by another contentious crisis. But the Barack-Bibi summit was an encouraging sign that the relations between the U.S. and Israel remain close and strong. We hope that the positive events of the White House meeting will be the impetus needed to get meaningful and direct peace talks started again.