When Hillary Clinton met with Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's famous King David Hotel earlier this month, it was impossible to avoid the fact that the U.S. secretary of state's visit had come at an awkward time.
Netanyahu, Israel's past and future prime minister, has yet to form a government, whether with the moderate Kadima Party or the right-wing Israel Beiteinu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman. The shape of the ruling coalition that ultimately emerges has obvious implications for the peace process that Clinton has repeatedly affirmed will be a top priority in Foggy Bottom. The Obama administration's policy toward the region also remains in flux, with recent trips by U.S. envoys to Damascus suggesting that change is air.
But for all the uncertainties of the moment, Netanyahu's inner circle has not yet detected any substantive shift in U.S. policy on the key issue of settlement expansion, according to some Israeli and U.S. advisers apprised of the leaders' discussions.
In addition, they said, the Netanyahu government will try to make mitigating the Iran threat the central focus of U.S.-Israeli cooperation, taking precedence over the Israeli-Palestinian or Israel-Syrian negotiating tracks.
The observations come as Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi arrives in Washington for five days of meetings with top U.S. officials on the Iran issue. Ashkenazi is scheduled to meet with national security advisor Gen. James L. Jones, special advisor Dennis Ross, and top military leaders, the JTA reported. (The Obama administration is completing its Iran policy review, a process that has been led by Ross, whose portfolio includes the Gulf and "Southwest Asia.")
On Thursday, Obama notified Congress that he is renewing U.S. sanctions on Iran for another year. The move is "routine," one Senate foreign policy staffer said. "These sanctions require annual recertification. It would only be news if he failed to do so."
An Israeli diplomat apprised of Clinton's recent Jerusalem meeting said that Netanyahu was forthright in telling her that Iran is his top priority.
"Netanyahu brought up Iran," the Israeli diplomat told Foreign Policy. "He told her it was the be all and end all. And [he said] that there is a reverse link: If [Washington] wants anything to move on the Palestinian front, we need to take head on the Iranian threat, diplomatically, with sanctions, and beyond that."
Clinton responded, "I am aware of that," the Israeli diplomat relayed.
"They both had a perfect excuse not to say anything blunt," the diplomat continued, "Until Iran gets through the elections in June, nothing can be done."
From the Israelis' perspective, the timing of Clinton's visit was a bit premature.
"There was one positive coming out of her decision to come here," the Israeli diplomat said. "To make sure everyone realizes that a) she is into this topic, b) that the Obama administration will not let it drop in the priorities list."
"As for substance, there is no policy, which is more or less in a mild way, something she admitted," in her meeting with Netanyahu, the diplomat said. "Again, not in those very words. She was there to let those there understand that the Obama administration is in an exploration phase. You've got to give her credit for one thing. There is nothing new here. The players are the same. The plot is the same. The solutions are the same."
Asked whether one could really say the situation is the same with a new administration in Washington rhetorically committed to working toward a two-state solution and an incoming Israeli government led by a man who says he opposes it, the Israeli diplomat said: "Netanyahu is not someone they don't know. [Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, he could join the government, he is someone they know. The outgoing administration dealt with the outgoing Israeli government of the last four years. The same applies to the Palestinians."
"For the last eight years, the U.S. has been pretty adamant on settlement expansion, rhetorically," the Israeli diplomat continued. "Nothing happens on policy. ... My point is, in terms of U.S. policy, it's either a modified or more polished version of what you and I already know from the last 15 years."
"I think she is under pressure," the Israeli diplomat observed. "One side is pressing her to go forward on the Palestinian issue," the Israeli diplomat observed. But for "the other side," he said, referring to professional Middle East observers, "let's face it, the Palestinian issue is about maintenance, not breakthrough."
He said he believed Clinton would be opposed to a Palestinian unity government "unless Hamas, before as a condition of joining such a government, abides by the three conditions: recognition of Israel, renouncing of terrorism, and adherence to previous agreements."
One Washington foreign-policy hand said he asked Israelis involved with Clinton's visit: Did Israelis walk away from this visit with the impression that Americans are increasing pressure on settlements and outposts? "No, not at all," he said he was told.
Other Washington Middle East hands had a different perspective.
"I think so far Secretary Clinton has made very clear that she is looking at the two-state solution, and Middle East Arab-Israeli peace more broadly in the context of American national security interests," a former State and Defense Department official told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. "I don't see that perspective changing irrespective of how much resistance she gets from various quarters. At a minimum, the Obama administration will try to keep the two-state solution alive.
"In addition," the former official said, "Netanyahu needs to be nervous" about tensions in his relationship with the Obama administration. "That's just a political fact. Any Israeli prime minister needs one trump card in particular ... the ability to tell other people in his cabinet and in the Knesset that he has a solid, pragmatic, friendly, working relationship with the president of the United States."
U.S. Middle East hands also told Foreign Policy that peace envoy George Mitchell was likely to appoint two deputies, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who is currently serving as the U.S. security coordinator for Israel-Palestinian Authority and has been asked by Mitchell to stay on two more years, and Frederick Hof, a former chief of staff of Mitchell's fact-finding committee. They also said that David Hale, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Asia, was assisting Mitchell.
UPDATE: JTA reports that Ltn. Gen. Ashkenazi has cut his U.S. visit short, returning to Israel Monday to deal with Egyptian-broken negotiations with Hamas over the possible release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Before he left, Ashkenazi met with national security advisor Jones and Dennis Ross "on the issue of Iran's nuclear development" an IDF statement cited by JTA said.