By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; A01
Two months after a tense meeting at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama are set to meet on Tuesday with a deceptively simple mission: getting their picture taken together.
The public show of unity matters for the delicate Middle East peace process and for domestic political consumption on both sides. Of immediate concern to the Democratic Party is the effect a perceived rift could have on the midterm elections, as Republicans angle to use any perceived rupture with Netanyahu to argue that Obama is insufficiently committed to Israel.
Obama was cool toward Netanyahu during their last meeting, leaving the Israeli leader and his aides in the West Wing alone for hours as a subtle rebuke over Israeli settlement policies. The two were never photographed, which in diplomatic code sent a chilly message.
That encounter followed an announcement by Israel, during a visit to the country by Vice President Biden, of a plan to construct 1,600 Jewish homes in a part of East Jerusalem that Palestinians view as their future capital.
This next meeting has been promised as "a makeup visit," one senior Democratic lawmaker said, giving the two leaders a chance to demonstrate at least some degree of solidarity. On Monday, administration officials said that they were confident the visit would go smoothly and that they had made progress in recent days in demonstrating cooperation between the United States and Israel.
At the same time, they noted, Netanyahu's meeting with Obama will be his fifth. "No other foreign leader has had as much face time with the president," one senior administration official said.
Already, from Illinois to Florida, Republican candidates have been raising Israel as part of a broader critique of Obama's foreign policy, seeking to chip away at national-security-minded independents and Jewish voters who traditionally support Democrats. When Obama made statements of measured support for Israel after a raid on a Turkish flotilla carrying aid to Gaza last month, Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate in Florida's Senate race, delivered a speech sharply criticizing Obama's Israel policy. "There is the emerging sense that this long-standing relationship isn't what it used to be," Rubio said.
Robert Dold, a Republican running for an open seat in the 10th Congressional District of Illinois, has accused the administration of an "alarming pattern" in the Middle East. In Ohio's 15th District, Republican Steve Stivers questioned Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) about her criticism of Israel's Gaza blockade, with his campaign saying, "The contrast is very sharp on this issue." And Allen West, a Republican running against Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida's 22nd District, said Obama was "browbeating" Israel.
"Republicans are accusing the administration of not being strong enough on the flotilla incident," acknowledged Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), himself a critic of some elements of Obama's approach. "I think the president has made some unfortunate statements; there's no doubt about it, in terms of appearing to put public pressure on Israel while appearing not to put the same type of intense pressure on Palestinians. And that has caused a lot of angst among lots of people."
Whether such angst could become politically potent enough to tip scales in the November midterms is up for debate. Although some Jewish leaders are wary of his policies toward Israel, Obama enjoys support from Jewish voters. He won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, nearly as much as any Democratic nominee in recent history, and his approval rating among U.S. Jews has hovered in the 60s for much of his presidency.
Israelis are much more skeptical of Obama, with one widely quoted and controversial poll last year putting his popularity in Israel in the single digits. That, in turn, has had a ripple effect on Jews in the United States, giving Republicans an opening to appeal to a generally Democratic constituency and creating distance between the White House and congressional Democrats.
Several lawmakers said the White House position, and that of some liberal Democrats in Congress, is far more nuanced than Republicans give credit for. Far from being anti-Israel or unwilling to back the Jewish state, they say, they are pressuring the country to take steps that would ensure its long-term existence as well as peace. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss freely sensitive deliberations.
But that is not always how Democratic criticism is perceived. Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren said some moves in recent months, including a letter critical of the Gaza blockade signed by 54 congressional Democrats, have left the impression that Israel is "becoming a partisan issue," with Republicans being uniformly supportive where Democrats are not.
Obama administration officials say they are not looking at the matter through a narrow political prism. Instead, they said, the goal is to move the Middle East peace process forward, as well as to pursue goals the United States has in common with Israel, such as Iran.
Israel's concerns over whether Iran is secretly attempting to build a nuclear weapon are strong enough that its officials have said military action against Iran remains open. The Obama administration remains committed to a strategy of using sanctions to compel Iran to enter into negotiations over its program. Iran says its program is peaceful.
The meeting on Tuesday will focus on broad subjects rather than specific goals, White House officials said. The main item on the agenda will be to move toward direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, who have been conducting remote "proximity talks" in order to lay the groundwork for meeting face to face, senior administration officials said. Netanyahu has said he is willing to hold talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at any time; Abbas has set out preconditions for any talks.
The White House meeting will not dwell on some of the most difficult time-sensitive issues, including the expiration in September of a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction. "I think our focus, and the focus of this meeting, is very much going to be on making that transition into direct talks," said Daniel Shapiro, senior Middle East director at the National Security Council.
Shapiro also said there is no conflict between the two leaders. "In no way do we perceive a rift," he told reporters during a conference call.
The word "rift" has become a sensitive one in recent weeks after a report that Oren, the Israeli ambassador, had said a "tectonic rift" between the two countries was underway. Oren quickly said that the quote, which was reported secondhand from a closed-door meeting in Hebrew with diplomats, was incorrect and that he had been describing the Obama administration's "shift" toward Israel.
Oren also denied that photographers had been kept away from the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in March. "There was no photograph last time because it was thrown together at the last minute," Oren said.
A senior U.S. official, however, said it had been part of a clear effort to put Netanyahu on notice that the announcement of new construction days earlier was not acceptable. The official also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Whether a shift or a rift, both sides agree that the goal for Netanyahu and Obama this week is to display neither.
"Both of them, for their own reasons, want to try to end the recent ugliness," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. "But the fundamentals that led to that haven't changed. The United States has a big interest in advancing the peace process, in Gaza not dominating headlines in the Muslim world and radicalizing people from Morocco to Indonesia. And [Netanyahu] is not really very prepared to be flexible on those issues."
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the differences between Democrats and Republicans are closing for domestic political reasons.
"As we get closer to the midterm elections, if there was a gap, it's narrowing," he said. "I think the blowup in March between Obama and Netanyahu has led each side to realize that they've gone too far, and they've got to dial it down. Because there's too much at stake."
Democrats, Makovsky said, have put added pressure on the White House because it is "becoming a campaign issue with some of their constituents."
And thus, Oren predicted, this week's meeting will have different optics than in March. "We are going to have a lot of photographers," Oren said. Laughing, he added: "There are going to be more photographers there than at the Academy Awards."
Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem contributed to this report.