The Cable

What Clinton asked Netanyahu

As Washington came back to work Monday, the biggest question in town was: What did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demand from Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in their contentious Friday phone call?

The White House decided to publicly shame Netanyahu by getting him on the phone with Clinton Friday morning and then announcing the harshness of the secretary's message at the State Department's afternoon press conference. Clinton, in what some see as the administration's desire to get the most out of the situation,  gave Netanyahu a list of specific things the administration wants him to do to make up for what the White House  says was an "insult" in announcing new settlements during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit.

"She did outline for Prime Minister Netanyahu some specific things that we wanted to see from the Israeli government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Monday. "They involve not only specifics about the project in question ... but more so about the willingness of the parties to engage seriously in this process ... and be willing to address the core issues at the heart of the peace process."

The most detailed account of what exactly Clinton demanded of Netanyahu was outlined in this Haaretz report, but two State Department officials tell The Cable that the Israeli newspaper got it partially wrong.

The Haaretz story said that Clinton asked for at least four specific things: an investigation of how the settlement announcement happened, a public reversal of that decision, a "substantial gesture" toward the Palestinians such as a prisoner release, and an "official declaration" that the indirect talks that U.S. envoy George Mitchell is trying to get started this week will deal with all the core issues in the conflict.

"Some of it is right and some of it is wrong," said one State Department official about the report, speaking on background basis, reflecting a concerted effort throughout the administration to keep the specifics of the demands quiet.

One official told The Cable that the specific issue that caused the row, Israel's announcement that it would construct 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, would have to be addressed in order to make things right with the White House.

A demand for an investigation of the announcement is somewhat moot because Netanyahu has already announced one. An official commitment by the Israelis to put all final settlement issues on the table now, which Crowley's comments seemed to confirm, is seen as extremely unlikely given Netanyahu's domestic political constraints.

A different State Department official, also speaking on background basis, acknowledged that Clinton had given Netanyahu several different options for building Palestinian confidence in indirect talks that would clearly show "the level of commitment that they [the Israelis] have to the peace process."

Crowley said the State Department was still waiting for a "formal response" to Clinton's demands, which could come today or tomorrow. He dismissed reports that Israel had already decided not to reverse the settlement decision and reiterated that the State Department was still awaiting an official response.

Crowley also brought up the issue of Palestinian complaints regarding the rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's old city and said the State Department has been in contact with Palestinian officials to tell them to ease off.

"We are deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials that mischaracterize the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions that we see. We call upon Palestinian officials to put an end to such incitement," said Crowley, denying he was trying to spread the criticism around in order to dial back the tone of the American attitude.

Mitchell is still planning to leave Washington tonight to return to the region, but Crowley described the plans as "fluid" and suggested that Mitchell could decide to go straight through to Moscow for the Quartet meeting if he didn't like what he was hearing.

"Can I tell you he's going to go tonight? Probably," one State Department official said. "Can I construct a scenario by which he might not go tonight? Sure."

Some insiders fear that asking Netanyahu for things that he might not be able to deliver, the administration is actually making a return to talks more difficult than it has to be. For example, it's not clear that Netanyahu is in a position to unilaterally reverse the settlement announcement.

More importantly, the tenuous trust between Netanyahu and the White House is more strained now, a diplomatic source said, wondering aloud why Netanyahu would be reassured that if he did walk back the settlements announcement that would be the end of the kerfluffle.

"By setting down a public marker in this way, out beyond what can be expected from any Israeli government, we are literally repeating the mistakes the administration made in the spring and has yet to recover from," said one Middle East hand. "If the administration wants Israel to trust them, and hopes they will discuss substance in indirect talks, this is the absolute opposite of an ideal approach."

Republican lawmakers are also admonishing the White House for taking such a public stance.

"The administration's decision to escalate its rhetoric following Vice President Biden's visit to Israel is not merely irresponsible, it is an affront to the values and foundation of our long-term relationship with a close friend and ally," read a statement by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH. Similar statements have been issued by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, and others.

What's clear is that Clinton's demands to Netanyahu, as well as the public announcement of their phone call, were carefully coordinated between officials at the State Department and the White House, who are closely aligned on the strategy.

"The secretary of state specifically discussed her upcoming call with Prime Minister Netanyahu in her weekly meeting with the president yesterday and the message that would be delivered," a White House official told The Cable Friday. "We also coordinated between State and the White House how the call would be read out."

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

On the agenda for Obama's Asia trip: rare face time with POTUS

President Obama's delay of his trip to Indonesia and Australia could be a boost to those in the administration who want to see a refocus on foreign policy and away from domestic politics, experts tell The Cable.

On the long flight to Asia, the virtual West Wing aboard Air Force One will surely include top White House political types who will be dealing with the fallout of a probable health-care vote. But once the White House staff gets out of the Beltway and away from pesky lawmakers and reporters, that's when the policy wonks usually try to grab the president's valuable attention.

"The good thing about these long flights is that they advantage the NSC and State Department staffers because they get a lot of face time with the president," said Michael Green, who was senior Asia director on the National Security Council and traveled with then President George W. Bush on several Asia trips. Green said foreign-policy initiatives often follow such a trip because the president has a chance to really dig in with the subject-matter experts.

"When you do these trips you just have a lot more ability to get away from the nickel-and-dime stuff. It's all policy time," said Victor Cha, who succeeded Green at the NSC. Both Green and Cha are now associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The actually policy deliverables from Obama's Asia trip are expected to be light. In Indonesia, where Obama spent a few years as a boy, the president will likely sign a new U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive agreement that seeks to elevate the already complex cooperation going on between the two countries without adding a whole lot of new concrete aspects to that cooperation.

"It is assumed they will formally announce the partnership between the two countries. The partnership needs an endorsement from the two leaders," said former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ed Masters.

"For various reasons, it was in both countries' interest to keep the relationship relatively low key, so this will be a larger public acknowledgment," said William Wise of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

In Australia, leaders there will be pressing Obama to move faster on trade policy. For Australia, the American lack of movement on free trade right now is deeply problematic, said Green. But Obama needs Congress to move forward his trade agenda and there is little expectation he will use whatever little political capital he has left with lawmakers on trade before the fall midterm elections.

Asian threats to create new trade organizations that don't include the United States are still in the formative stage, giving Obama wiggle room to keep kicking the trade issue down the road.

"The president can probably let his wheels spin on this for a year or so," said Green.

One lingering question is whether the delay of the trip will actually have any detrimental effect on the visit. Most experts say that's unlikely.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz told The Cable that while there will certainly be some disappointment that the trip was delayed and Obama's family won't join, overall Indonesia is simply thrilled to have Obama visit and will forgive him for changing the schedule.

"I think it's difficult to exaggerate how excited Indonesians must be about the prospects of a presidential visit," he said, adding, "Once Obama gets there, they're going to forget all about the postponement."