Obama reportedly snubbed Israeli PM, walked out on dinner after no deal on settlements
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned home to media derision on Thursday, having failed to resolve a bitter row with Washington over the building of Jewish settlements. One publication even called it a diplomatic “hazing” by President Obama.
During the visit, the Israeli leader suffered perhaps the chilliest reception yet by an American president, as Barack Obama spoke to him only briefly and, learning that Netanyahu was unwilling to compromise on building new settlements in Palestine, abruptly left to dine by himself.
Netanyahu did not pose for any photographs and made no statement on arrival in Israel, but government spokesman Nir Hefetz insisted Israel and its closest ally had edged closer to an understanding.
“There was progress; there is a narrowing of the gaps between the positions of Israel and the positions of the United States on this issue,” he told Israel’s Channel Two TV.
Other Israeli media saw things differently.
“One Israeli newspaper called the meeting ‘a hazing in stages’, poisoned by such mistrust that the Israeli delegation eventually left rather than risk being eavesdropped on a White House phone line,” the Times Online reported. “Another said that the Prime Minister had received ‘the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea’.
“Left to talk among themselves, Mr Netanyahu and his aides retreated to the Roosevelt Room. He later spent a further half-hour with Mr Obama and extended his stay for a day of emergency talks aimed at restarting peace negotiations, but left last night with no official statement from either side. He returns to Israel dangerously isolated after what Israeli media have called a White House ambush for which he is largely to blame.”
Israeli media said a briefing Netanyahu had intended to give his inner forum of seven senior ministers had been postponed until Friday. Netanyahu’s office would not comment on plans for such a meeting.
The White House sought to give an upbeat tone to Netanyahu’s trip, although it reported no concrete achievements.
“We are making progress on important issues,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said as President Barack Obama flew to Iowa on Air Force One.
Gibbs said he had nothing more substantive to report about the meetings, which Washington has declined to describe in detail.
“Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will convene his senior ministers on Friday to discuss the demands made by US President Barack Obama and his overall trip to Washington – a trip that, because of negative atmospherics and amid a paucity of hard information, has been widely characterized as among the most difficult in recent memory,” The Jerusalem Post added.
The spat erupted after Netanyahu’s government announced 1,600 new housing units for annexed, largely Arab, east Jerusalem as US Vice President Joe Biden was in the region earlier this month hoping to promote peace talks.
The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state, and refuse to meet Netanyahu face-to-face without a complete freeze of settlement construction in the occupied territories.
An aide to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas quoted a US official as saying Netanyahu’s US visit did not bridge the divide.
Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP an assistant to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell told Abbas in Jordan on Thursday that Netanyahu’s session with Obama did not clear the way for indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks that Washington is promoting.
“He told Abbas that the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama failed to arrive at an agreement to stop settlement in Jerusalem and the West Bank and to begin indirect talks,” Abu Rudeina said, adding that the official said US efforts would continue.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Israel “apparently did not reach an understanding with the United States of America.”
In Washington, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Israeli-Palestinian tensions — which the US administration had hoped to ease — are affecting Washington’s national security interests.
“The lack of progress toward Middle East peace is clearly an issue that’s exploited by our adversaries in the region,” he said.
Before flying home, Netanyahu cancelled planned interviews with reporters after none of the customary photo opportunities with US officials or any formal statements with them.
Israeli daily Maariv called the visit a “humiliation” and said Netanyahu had “received in the White House the treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial Guinea.”
Other media reported that Netanyahu’s carefully coordinated dressing down was accompanied by demands for wide-ranging measures including the extension of a partial settlement halt and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Gibbs described the discussions as “honest and straightforward,” a diplomatic euphemism hinting at tensions, after Netanyahu entered the talks having laid down a hard line on settlement construction in east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu on Tuesday said US demands for a settlement freeze could delay the resumption of Middle East peace talks for a year, a day after a fiery speech in which he said: “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”
But as he left Washington, he insisted the two sides had “found a balance between the traditional policy followed by all Israeli governments and our willingness to find ways to revive the the peace process.”
Obama also discussed the latest Middle East tensions with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the White House said.
The talks by secure video link also focused on another key issue concerning Israel — Iran.
Many Israelis fear the growing rift with Washington could hinder progress on containing Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel views as its greatest strategic threat. Tehran insists the program is peaceful.
Israel is widely reported to be the sole, if undeclared, nuclear-armed power in the Middle East. It refuses to confirm or deny having atomic weapons.