Are the Americans serious this time?

The international press is writing that it seems different this time, that this new American administration may be serious this time — about stopping Israeli settlement-building, expansion, and whatnot. But, that’s what sells newspapers.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and company were received at the White House in Washington on Thursday 28 May. Obama is the leader, here, talking with dominant body language.

The protocol is interesting: on the couch beside Obama are (No. 1) Special MidEast envoy George Mitchell, (2) U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (the one in the more colorful clothing), and (2) VP Joe Biden.

On the couch beside Abbas are PLO Executive Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo (who is also now apparently in charge of media for the PA), long-time negotiator Saeb Erekat, and someone I can’t immediately identify who is writing on a notepad (very similar to the one the interpreter is using in the photo below).

A portrait of the U.S. “founding father”, George Washington, is over the no-frills mantle decorated with Republican greens (no floral arrangements, but why not herbs that can be replanted later in Michelle’s garden?). And Abraham Lincoln is prominently displayed in the upper left side of the photo.  The Palestinians would probably have been happy if there were also a portrait of Martin “I-have-a-dream” Luther King, but the Israelis might have freaked out…

The expanded meeting between Obama and Abbas at the White House on 28 May 2009

There was a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Abbas on Thursday, and then the “expanded” meeting shown above. Asked if there had been any Israeli reaction to Clinton’s strong words on Wednesday calling for a halt in all kinds of Israeli settlement activity, the new State Department spokesperson replied (without saying anything about any Israeli reaction) that “I’ll let the Secretary’s words speak for themselves. I mean, she said very clearly that in order for this process to move forward – the President has said this, too – the settlements must stop. I mean, that’s – it just couldn’t be more clear. And we also think that it’s not only in the interest of regional peace and stability, it’s in the square interest of Israel and the square interest of the Palestinian people to come up with a lasting solution to the problem of this decades-old conflict. And we just need to remove all the obstacles to this process … we want to have a lasting peace in the region. We want to have a [n.b., here, the spokesperson appears to be making a deliberate effort to avoid saying the words Palestinian State]– we want to allow the Palestinian people to be able to participate in their own future, to be able to give a prosperous future for their children. We – of course, we want to have a Palestinian Government that abides by the principles laid out in the Roadmap”.

On Wednesday evening, Clinton hosted a dinner for President Abbas and company, the spokesman noted: “She termed it a very productive dinner. They discussed the – a full range of bilateral issues and concerns before our countries. Senator Mitchell had an opportunity to report on some of his talks. They were able to report on the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu. She said that the main message that we gave to the president of the Palestinian Authority is that we’re committed to doing all we can to move this process forward to attain the goal of a two-state solution and a lasting peace”.

Just as Helena Cobban did in her Just World News Blog here yesterday, a journalist in the State Department briefing yesterday noted that “we haven’t seen much of Special Envoy Mitchell recently. What has he been up to?”. And the spokesman, Ian Kelly, then replied “I think I addressed this yesterday. He had a – he went to London and had a meeting with officials from Israel to follow up on the – some of the discussions that Prime Minister Netanyahu had when he was here in Washington. He’s back in Washington now, and as I said, he participated in the dinner last night”. [See the last paragraph of this post for more on this.]

In yet another official White House photo, with the official American interpreter sitting in the middle, Obama is talking (with dominant body language) yet again.

Notice the medly of peace-blue ties against the blue-and-white striped upholstery of the armchairs.  (This interpreter has a notable preference for gorgeous sunset-pink or sunset-orange silk ties).

Obama making points to Abbas at the White House with the official interpreter in between

Here, in an official White House photo, U.S. President Barack Obama appears to be reflecting on what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to say:

Obama meets Abbas - official White House photo - 28 May 2009

What did Abbas have to say?

News reports suggest he brought a five-page document. It seems to have been the one he was working on with Arab States who have supported the Arab Peace Initiative — yes, that one, the one whose chief defect is its name, as veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has reported. If only it were called the Israeli peace initiative, and if only it had been drafted with significant Israeli input, it would already have been implemented…

According to a communique issued by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO’s) Negotiations Support Unit, long-time negotiator Erekat said that “Palestinians are encouraged by the commitment President Obama and his administration have shown to Middle East peace … Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is central to regional stability and peace. The establishment of a viable Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel, and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with UN Resolution 194, will create a more secure and stable Middle East. This is not only important to the region, but it is also in America ’s own national interests. Palestinians and Americans share a common interest, and we share the same vision for peace based on the two-state solution”.

Erekat added that “The peace process lives on borrowed time. Israel ’s failure to implement its obligations under existing agreements has eroded its credibility, while Israel ’s continued settlement activities are undermining the very viability of the two-state solution … Palestinians have made great progress in fulfilling their obligations under existing agreements. We expect Israel to do the same. Implementing a comprehensive settlement freeze, including all ‘natural growth’, and lifting all restrictions on Palestinian movement, are not Palestinian preconditions, but Israeli obligations. They must be met if we are to salvage the peace process, restore its credibility and make genuine progress. Israel is not being asked to do anything it has not already agreed to do under existing agreements.”

And, he said, prescriptively, that “Israel must also immediately end its siege on Gaza , and the collective punishment of its people. Palestinians in Gaza cannot be allowed to suffer any more”.

According to a transcript of Obama’s remarks issued by the White House (and posted here), the U.S. President said after the meeting that “[W]e just completed an extensive conversation, both privately as well as with our delegations, about how we can advance peace in the Middle East and how we can reaffirm some core principles that I think can result in Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in peace and security. As I’ve said before, I’ve been a strong believer in a two-state solution that would provide the Israelis and Palestinians the peace and security that they need. I am very appreciative that President Abbas shares that view. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here last week I reiterated to him that the framework that’s been provided by the road map is one that can advance the interests of Israel, can advance the interests of the Palestinian people, and can also advance the interests of the United States. We are a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure. It is our belief that the best way to achieve that is to create the conditions on the ground and set the stage for a Palestinian state as well. And so what I told Prime Minister Netanyahu was is that each party has obligations under the road map. On the Israeli side those obligations include stopping settlements. They include making sure that there is a viable potential Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side it’s going to be important and necessary to continue to take the security steps on the West Bank that President Abbas has already begun to take, working with General Dayton. We’ve seen great progress in terms of security in the West Bank. Those security steps need to continue because Israel has to have some confidence that security in the West Bank is in place in order for us to advance this process. And I also mentioned to President Abbas in a frank exchange that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square, because all those things are impediments to peace”.

The McClatchy newspaper group reported from Washington that “President Barack Obama Thursday ratcheted up what might be America’s toughest bargaining position with Israel in a generation, demanding anew that Israel stop expanding its settlements in the disputed West Bank as a key step toward making peace with its Arab neighbors. Obama made the demand after a White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, building on unusually blunt language the day before from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ‘Each party has obligations’, Obama said of the so-called Road Map to Peace, to which Israel is a party. ‘On the Israeli side, those obligations include stopping settlements’.  He said he made that point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they met earlier this month, noting that the conversation ‘only took place last week’ and that Netanyahu must work through domestic politics, but added: ‘We don’t have a moment to lose’.”

The McClatchy report included comments from former White House adviser and now-analyst Aaron David Miller, who said: “What we’re seeing from the Obama administration is an uncharacteristically tough policy on settlements without a corresponding detailed strategy to justify it. It looks like a significant fight with the Israelis … They’ve essentially issued an ultimatum to Israel . It’s a game of chicken, an Obama-Netanyahu game of chicken.”
But, this is what sells newspapers. This report can be read in here.


I cannot fail to note this comment that Miller made on Clinton’s statement on Thursday, which included the laden and sexist adjective “shrill” (which he would certainly not have used if he were talking about a man). McClatchy reported that Miller said: “Her comments were about as tough and as shrill as I’ve heard from any senior American official on this issue since Baker told Congress , ‘When the Israelis are serious, have them call me’.” McClatchy added that “In 1991, former Secretary of State James Baker and President George H.W. Bush tried to press Israel to stop building settlements by urging Congress to suspend loan guarantees to Israel, but then they backed down”. This report can be read in here.


It is interesting to compare this visit of Abbas with the visit on 18 May, just ten days ago, of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu:
– Abbas did not get a working lunch with Obama, as Netanyahu did.
– Obama did not devote his whole day to Abbas, as he did for Netanyahu.
– CORRECTION: It seems that there might have been a joint press conference with Abbas, as there had been with Netanyahu.
– In both meetings, Obama acknowledged that the Annapolis-process talks had completely stopped [see below].
– There was no need for an interpreter.
– As for the atmospherics, just look at the official White House photos of the meeting with Netanyahu (despite some of the reports in the Israeli press that Netanyahu was sitting there, sweating):

Obama talking to his aide while Netanyahu listens - official White House photo on 18 May 2009

In the official White House photo above, Obama is dominant, pointing, and doing the talking, but he is speaking to his aide, and not to Netanyahu, who is just appreciatively listening, because he has been included in the conversation. In the official White House photo below, Obama walks Netanyahu all the way to his car, a gesture — as we all know —  of extreme politeness and respect.

Obama walks Netanyahu to the door of his car - 18 May 2009

On the substance — well, we don’t know what really went on in private (either with Netanyahu or Abbas), but here is what Obama said publicly, in his joint press “availability” with Netanyahu:
“Obviously this reflects the extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel. It is a stalwart ally of the United States. We have historical ties, emotional ties. As the only true democracy of the Middle East it is a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people. I have said from the outset that when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel’s security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained [emphasis added] … We also had an extensive discussion about the possibilities of restarting serious negotiations on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. I have said before and I will repeat again that it is I believe in the interest not only of the Palestinians, but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security. We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the Prime Minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure. That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they’ve previously agreed to. Those obligations were outlined in the road map; they were discussed extensively in Annapolis. And I think that we can — there is no reason why we should not seize this opportunity and this moment for all the parties concerned to take seriously those obligations and to move forward in a way that assures Israel’s security, that stops the terrorist attacks that have been such a source of pain and hardship, that we can stop rocket attacks on Israel; but that also allow Palestinians to govern themselves as an independent state, that allows economic development to take place, that allows them to make serious progress in meeting the aspirations of their people … So let me just summarize by saying that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has the benefit of having served as Prime Minister previously. He has both youth and wisdom —

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I’ll dispute youth, but — (laughter.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: — and I think is in a position to achieve the security objectives of Israel, but also bring about historic peace. And I’m confident that he’s going to seize this moment. And the United States is going to do everything we can to be constructive, effective partners in this process”. This transcript can be read in full here.

On resuming the Israeli-Palestinian talks that the Palestinians finally ended when the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Herb Keinon has written this week in the Jerusalem Post that “Yitzhak Molcho has unofficially been appointed [Netanyahu’s] envoy on the Palestinian issue. Molcho, along with National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor returned Wednesday from London and a meeting with George Mitchell and his staff … follow-up meetings are expected next week. Netanyahu is said to be interested in holding off on his first meeting with Abbas until various issues are settled with the Americans, including the settlement issue, and what authorities a future Palestinian state would have to give up”. This can be read in full here.

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