Netanyahu-Obama talks to set more U.S. military aid

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama on Monday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama on Monday. AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday is being billed as a fence-mending visit following the bitter confrontation between the two leaders over the Iran nuclear deal.

But with discussions expected to focus on enhanced military aid to Israel and Obama administration officials’ acknowledgment last week that they don’t expect a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the rest of the Obama presidency, analysts are seeing the meeting as something of a victory lap for the prime minister.

The appointment last week of Ran Baratz, a conservative academic who lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as Netanyahu’s public diplomacy chief underscores that dynamic, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst.

Baratz has suggested in Facebook postings that Obama was an anti-Semite and has derided Secretary of State John Kerry, and on Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out at the appointment, saying there was no excuse for an official of the Israeli government making such comments.

But Alpher said the appointment made a point. “Netanyahu brings to this visit a strong sense that he has bested Obama, and he can afford to take a very tough line,” he said.

A White House statement said that Obama is expected to discuss with Netanyahu “regional security issues” and “the need for the genuine advancement of a two-state solution.” But with no resumption of peace talks expected, analysts here say Netanyahu is entering the meeting on favorable terms.

Coming away from Washington with additional military assistance will counter arguments that Netanyahu’s confrontation with Obama over the Iran deal caused irreparable damage to U.S.-Israeli relations.

Robert Malley, Mideast coordinator at the National Security Council, told journalists in a conference call on Thursday that, with no meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations expected for the remainder of Obama’s term in office, the next steps are up to Netanyahu. “How does the prime minister himself see Israel going forward, given its own interests in stabilizing the situation and preventing the emergence of a one-state solution,” he said.

Before leaving Israel on Sunday, Netanyahu said his talks in Washington will focus on maintaining “Israel’s comparative advantage in a changing Middle East,” as well as “stabilizing the situation” with the Palestinians after more than a month of surging violence.

Netanyahu is proposing a series of “confidence building measures” to ease some restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, steps that fall short of larger policy decisions like a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion that might help break the impasse in peace efforts.

The proposed steps include removing some checkpoints on West Bank roads as well as approval of infrastructure projects and building plans for Palestinian communities in areas under Israeli control, according to Israeli media reports.

Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said Netanyahu’s point in making these proposals is to head off the possibility that Obama might offer a peace initiative before leaving office.

“One of the ways to do that is to try and occupy the United States with less ambitious and smaller matters,” Thrall said. “If he can succeed and get the administration to bite on his proposals, it will be a success for him.”

High on the meeting’s agenda will be Israeli weapons requests as part of a U.S. military aid package promised in the aftermath of the Iran deal. The United States already has pledged more funding for missile defense and delivery of sophisticated F-35 fighter planes, but the Israelis are seeking additional offensive weapons as part of a new 10-year memorandum of understanding on defense aid.

“Netanyahu senses that Obama is going to have to compensate him on the Iran deal, regardless of his opposition to it,” Alpher said.

Coming away from Washington with additional military assistance will help Netanyahu counter arguments that his confrontation with Obama over the Iran deal had caused irreparable damage to U.S.-Israeli relations.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.