As this week's warm Washington welcome for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly intended to show, U.S.-Israeli relations are certainly on the mend. But President Obama's new deadline for moving the Israeli and Palestinian sides to direct talks is looming large over the peace process -- setting the stage for a summer of frantic diplomacy after 18 months of little discernable progress and raising the risks of a dramatic failure on one of his signature diplomatic priorities.
Obama announced the deadline after meeting privately with Netanyahu Tuesday, saying he wants the direct talks to begin "well before" Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expires at the end of September.
An Israeli official told The Cable that Obama and Netanyahu discussed specific confidence-building measures that Israel could take to help get to the direct talks by the deadline. The details of those measures are being closely held, but they are intended to show tangible evidence that Israel really wants to move the peace process forward.
The Israelis see Obama's deadline as a useful tool to press the Palestinians to move to direct talks -- but warn that if face-to-face negotiations don't start by the time the settlement freeze expires, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to justify extending it.
"If it was up to the prime minister, it would have happened yesterday," the Israeli official said. "There's only so much that can be demanded of Israel for just sitting down and talking," the official said. "There should be now a lot of pressure on Palestinians."
Obama didn't bring up the settlement freeze in his meeting with Netanyahu. "It wasn't discussed," the official said, "but obviously it's going to be an issue in three months' time."
For their part, the Palestinians see a continuation of the settlement freeze as a precursor to serious face-to-face negotiations, not a reward.
"I hope [Obama's deadline] is not an attempt to pressure the Palestinians that if they don't move to the direct talks, there will be a resumption of settlement construction in the West Bank," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Obama is trying to delink the settlement freeze from the move to direct negotiations. The thinking is that if direct talks begin first, "by the time the Israeli government reaches the decision point [on extending the freeze], there will already be a different context."
But Netanyahu will have trouble justifying an extension of the settlement freeze either way, Satloff argued, and the Palestinians could manipulate the situation by accepting direct talks in some sort of symbolic way while keeping the U.S. heavily involved and making few concessions. This would shift the pressure back to Netanyahu, who would then have little progress he could use to convince the Israeli public that the settlement freeze worked.
Netanyahu had lunch Tuesday with almost the entire Obama Israel team, including Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Special Envoy George Mitchell, Ambassador James Cunningham, U.S. Representative Susan Rice, and NSC staffers Tom Donilon, Dennis Ross, and Dan Shapiro.
Among those on the Israel side of the table were National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, Ambassador Michael Oren, policy advisor Ron Dermer, and special advisor Isaac Molcho, who has served as an important go-between in recent months.
The kosher lunch menu included chopped White House garden salad with honey-apple cider dressing, thyme-roasted chicken with spring peas, leek puree and potato croutons, with apricot torte with White House honey ice cream for dessert (dairy-free, of course).
On Tuesday afternoon, Clinton, Mitchell, Cunningham, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman went to see Netanyahu at Blair House for a 45-minute working meeting that largely tracked Netanyahu's White House meetings. Gates came to Blair House Wednesday morning for a one-on-one with Netanyahu that focused on bilateral defense cooperation.Netanyahu traveled to New York Wednesday afternoon to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He will address the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations Wednesday night and give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday before heading back to Jerusalem.