The Cable

Inside the seven-hour Clinton-Netanyahu marathon meeting

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-hour marathon meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in New York could signal a turning point in the effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, as the administration works to resolve the dispute over Israeli settlement building by turning the focus to borders and security.

The Obama administration's latest strategy seems to have two main elements, according to a senior official's read out of the meeting and analysis by current and former officials on both sides.  First, the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu as many security guarantees as possible in order to give the Israeli government increased confidence to move to a discussion of the borders that would delineate the two future states. Second, the administration wants to work toward an understanding on borders so that both sides can know where they can and can't build for the duration of the peace process.

"If there in fact is progress in the next several months, I'm confident people will look back at this meeting between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu as the foundation of the progress. It was that important," former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable.

Wexler said that President Obama had long been asking both the Israelis and the Palestinians for clarity on the territories they envisioned being part of their future states. The recent meeting, he said, could be an important step in that direction -- at least in clarifying Israel's position.

"I am hopeful that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of clarity in terms of Israel's visions about her own borders -- where does Israel want Israel's borders to be," said Wexler. "Because ultimately, we can't help our close friend until they share with us their own vision."

The meeting was the highest level interaction between the U.S. and Israeli governments since the last round of direct talks in September. Wexler said that while the two leaders didn't sit down with a map and draw lines around particular neighborhoods, the administration's switch to a focus on borders as a means of getting at the settlements problem was clear. "It's the only rational, sane way to proceed," he said. "Talking about borders and territories will by definition minimize the impact of the settlement issue."

Wexler said that by virtue of the fact that the meeting was seven hours, it's reasonable to assume that significant progress was made. "I think we're very close to creating that magic formula that satisfies both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come back to the table."

The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, wasn't so sure. He pointed to the boilerplate statement that Clinton and Netanyahu issued after the meeting as evidence that no real breakthrough was achieved.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Clinton had a good discussion today, with a friendly and productive exchange of views on both sides. Secretary Clinton reiterated the United States' unshakable commitment to Israel's security and to peace in the region," the statement read.

But Areikat endorsed the idea of discussing borders ahead of the settlements issue, saying that's what the Palestinian side has been advocating all along.

"The conventional wisdom is that if we deal with the issue of the borders then we will be able, by default, to deal with the issue of settlements -- and if you can define the borders of the two states and agree on these borders, then each party can build in its own territory without being contested by the other party," Areikat told The Cable. "This is what everybody is aiming at.... Now whether the Americans are going to succeed in convincing the Israelis to do it, we have to wait and see."

Of course, the two sides disagree over the order of events even when discussing the border issue.

"The Palestinian position is that we need to agree on the borders, then we will discuss in parallel the security arrangements. The Israelis are saying no, we need to define first what the security arrangements are to project what the final borders will be," Areikat explained.

In what appears to be a recognition of the Israeli position, Clinton and her team apparently spent a good deal of their time with the Netanyahu team spelling out a long list of additional security guarantees the Obama administration is offering to Israel.

In a Friday morning conference call with Jewish community leaders, notes of which were provided to The Cable, the National Security Council's Dan Shapiro described several of the ways America has been advocating on behalf of Israel's security in recent months. They included increased U.S. diplomatic opposition to efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block efforts to revive the Goldstone Report at the United Nations, promising to block condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program at the IAEA, and increasing pressure on Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities.

The U.S. position on settlements has not officially changed, Shapiro said. The United States still believes that the Israeli settlement moratorium should be extended, but that Palestinians should stay in peace talks even if it is not. He said that President Obama -- who said Monday that Israeli settlement construction was "never helpful" to peace talks Israel announced further construction plans in East Jerusalem -- wasn't trying to publicly criticize Netanyahu with his remarks. He simply answered a question put to him in a direct way, said Shapiro.

The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting was the culmination of several days of intensive, personal attention to the issue by Clinton herself. On Tuesday, she held a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to announce $150 million in new U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman to discuss the Middle East peace process.

But in the Washington press, the seven-hour conversation was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu's meeting with incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Unlike Clinton, Cantor publicly disclosed what he told Netanyahu.

"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."

Wexler said he didn't see a problem with Cantor's remarks or stance. "It's a perfectly natural, appropriate meeting to have," said Wexler, who pointed out that Netanyahu also met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). "I don't believe he intended to play the president, the prime minister, or anyone else against one another."

But Areikat saw Cantor's stance as extremely unhelpful.

"This amounts to undermining the efforts of the U.S. to achieve peace," he said. "People like Eric Cantor who blindly oppose the Palestinians, they think they are helping Israeli interests but he is hurting Israeli interests. By making these statements they are hardening Israeli positions."

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Shapiro was describing a list of ways America was already working on behalf of Israel's security, not a new list of incentives discussed in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.

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The Cable

Was Obama's Iraq intervention a success or not?

Top Obama administration officials Thursday lauded Iraq's latest efforts to form new government and defended their intensive efforts to help push through the deal, even though their proposal was very different from the agreement that it appears Iraqi leaders have reached.

"We've worked very hard in recent months with the Iraqis to achieve one basic result, and that's a government that's inclusive, that reflects the results of the elections, that includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon. "And that's exactly what the Iraqis seem to have agreed to do."

The White House and the State Department have been walking a very fine line when talking about their involvement in Iraqi political negotiations. The administration has often stated that it does not seek to impose any specific solution on the Iraqis, but at the same time has been working behind the scenes on behalf of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which received the most seats in Iraq's March parliamentary elections, but not enough to form a government on its own.

The United States has a direct interest in maintaining whatever influence it can in Baghdad as U.S. troops leave Iraq, in a bid to counter Iranian attempts to push Iraqi politics toward a more Shiite and religious bent. That's a tricky balancing act for the White House, which wants to claim credit for its involvement while simultaneously appearing neutral and keeping the responsibility of deal making in the hands of Iraqi politicians. The still-evolving agreement between all of Iraq's major political players would keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in their posts, while allotting Allawi's Iraqiya slate the position of Speaker of the Parliament and the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policies. Saleh al-Mutlak, one of Iraqiya's most prominent figures, is also being floated as a potential foreign minister in the new unity government.

The New York Times reported Thursday afternoon that Allawi's slate walked out of Thursday's parliamentary session after failing to score a vote on a series of demands. But if the Iraqi politicians are successful in ironing out the details and forming their government, the Obama administration stands ready to endorse the deal. However, it doesn't want the credit for brokering the agreement.

"The most important thing about what happened in Baghdad today is that this is a government that is made in Iraq," the official said. "It was not the result of the influence or work of any outside actor, any outside country. The decisions that the Iraqis reached, they reached themselves. They negotiated very difficult issues themselves, and they came to an agreement."

In fact, however, top administration officials were deeply involved in the negotiations, especially toward the very end. The official spoke of personal efforts by Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries and others. In recent days, Obama spoke personally with Talabani, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Allawi (but not al-Maliki, notably).

The Washington Times revealed that Obama personally asked both Talabani and Barzani to cede the presidency to Allawi, a request that the Kurdish leaders flatly rejected. "And for the United States to be leaning on us, as they are now, in effect handpicking the new leaders of Iraq, is not respectful of Iraq's parliamentary system and touches on all of the insecurities of the Kurds, that the United States will once again betray us," Qubad Talabani, Jalal's son and the KRG's representative in Washington, told the Washington Times.

The senior administration official confirmed that Obama had floated the idea to the Kurds, but said it was only one of the various permutations put forth in the hope of convincing Allawi to join the new government.

"In the case of Iraqiya and Dr. Allawi, one of the things they had been saying for some time was an interest in the presidency after they gave up on what they believed was their right to be prime minister, which was a significant compromise by them," the official said. "And so we've had conversations, many of us, with Iraqis, exploring all of these different options. And one of the options certainly was for the Kurds to think about taking a position other than the presidency, which would have opened the presidency for Dr. Allawi."

Iraq experts praised the administration's efforts in the last few months of the negotiations, but lamented that it didn't always take into account the red lines of the parties, such as the Kurds.

"The level of U.S. engagement was not satisfactory in the early months of government formation, there was a sense of a hands-off approach. But by late summer, there was a clear sense of a need for more senior involvement," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War.

"As the months went on, a number of Iraqis were requesting Washington take a larger role to help bring people together," she said. "I'm glad to see now that there does seem to be engagement at the most senior levels, although Biden's office has been engaged all along."

Sullivan criticized the tactic of asking the Kurds to give up the presidency, however, saying that the White House should have known that was a non-starter.

"By the time the White House asked Talabani to step down, the Kurds had already publicly stated they wanted to maintain the presidency and that made it impossible for Talabani to do what Obama wanted," she said.

Some analysts hailed the administration's attempt to retain as much influence in Baghdad as possible, contrasting it with the supposedly more laissez-faire approach of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill.

"The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor," said Max Boot, writing on the website of Commentary magazine.

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