NEW YORK — President Obama’s final meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu here on Wednesday served as a reminder of how little progress has been made toward one of Obama’s biggest foreign policy goals — a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Obama and Netanyahu, who has been the president’s most troublesome ally on the world stage, met for probably the last time in the aftermath of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. In their public remarks, both leaders described the U.S.-Israeli alliance as “unbreakable.” There were smiles and handshakes and even praise from Netanyahu for Obama’s “terrific golf game.”
“We’ll set up a tee time,” Obama quipped.
It’s a virtual certainty, though, that the two leaders will not be hitting the links anytime soon. In private, senior administration officials said that their differences, particularly over the issue of continuing Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, were a major focus of discussions.
The president raised concerns about “the corrosive effect” that continuing Israeli settlements are having on the prospect for a Palestinian state, said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. And he expressed concern about the rising violence afflicting Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu, meanwhile, defended the Israeli settlement activity in a meeting that ran only about 35 minutes.
“They’ve never papered over their differences,” a second senior administration official told reporters.
The joint appearance, following Tuesday’s U.N. General Assembly here, was important for both leaders. Netanyahu needed to show that despite his well-known disagreements with Obama, America still supports Israel, said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Obama’s goal was to demonstrate to the world, and to American Jewish voters ahead of the presidential election, that his differences with the Israeli prime minister have not fundamentally altered the relationship between the two allies.
The United States this month pledged to give Israel as much as $3.8 billion a year over 10 years, which White House officials described as the largest foreign assistance package in U.S. history. The agreement is an increase over the $3.5 billion that Israel now receives but also less than the $4 billion to $5 billion a year that Netanyahu sought.
“It is important for America’s national security to ensure we have a safe and secure Israel, one that can defend itself,” Obama said of the 10-year security deal. The long-term aid agreement allows Israel “certainty in a moment when there’s enormous uncertainty in the region,” Obama said. “It’s a very difficult and dangerous time in the Middle East.”
Since the signing last week of the U.S. aid package to Israel, some leaders and pundits in Israel have already pointed to the aid package as proof of the withering relationship between the United States and Israel.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, writing in The Washington Post last week, said the pact was a failure. And, several defense analysts pointed out that after factoring in inflation and previous supplemental bumps in funding for Israel by Congress, the new assistance package represents less money than the past 10-year deal.
Still, Netanyahu praised the security agreement and thanked the president for the extensive cooperation between the two countries.
“I don’t think people at large understand the breadth and depth of the cooperation, but I know,” Netanyahu said.
Some analysts have speculated that Obama would make one last push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office, but White House officials this week discounted such speculation. “Over the course of the last eight years, basically everything you could consider as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we have,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We’ve tried multiple tactics; none of them have succeeded.” Rhodes did not rule out another push for peace talks but indicated that the president would not weigh in unless there were signs that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were interested in talking to each other.
Obama could, as Israeli news media speculated on Wednesday, back a resolution in the U.N. Security Council laying out new parameters for the Israelis. Or he could in his final weeks in office offer a vision for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could serve as a blueprint for the next president.
In Israel, such pressure would probably be seen as Obama’s revenge on Netanyahu, who last year slammed the president’s push to reach a deal with Iran to constrain its nuclear program during a speech to a joint meeting of Congress. Netanyahu’s address to Congress infuriated White House officials, who thought that the Israeli leader was improperly meddling in U.S. politics.
But there is little indication that an intervention by Obama at this point in his presidency would have much effect, said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst. “This is something he should have done at the start of his time in office and not at the end,” she said. “What can a president in his final months actually do? And will it be sustainable, under Clinton or, God forbid, Trump?”
The tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu over the past eight years will probably increase pressure on the president’s successor to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem.
“It is important the U.S. and Israel find common ground in advancing the Palestinian issue even if the leadership between the parties on the ground makes it unlikely it will be solved soon,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Without common ground, there are bound to be differences even if the tone is more restrained.”
“Hillary Clinton is likely to make a push for greater Israel-Palestinian coexistence even if it cannot solve the whole conflict,” Makovsky said. “Of course, if Trump wins, there will be a level of unpredictability that could create its own complications.”