Helene Cooper, Mark Landler
The New York Times (Analysis)
May 20, 2009 - 12:00am

After the much anticipated White House meeting on Monday between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, one question being asked in diplomatic circles is this: Did Mr. Obama give up more than he got?

The meeting between the two, their first as leaders, was mainly an exercise in breaking the ice. But at the early stages of a relationship between the nations’ leaders that is likely to be more strained than it was during the Bush years, their dealings are being analyzed for signs of who has the upper hand.

American and Israeli officials had predicted an exchange with some give-and-take: Mr. Netanyahu would try to extract from Mr. Obama a timetable for dealing with Iran, with a deadline for Tehran to stop enriching uranium or face serious repercussions.

In return, Mr. Obama would push Mr. Netanyahu to move swiftly on a peace plan with the Palestinians, as well as to freeze the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu got his timetable. “We’re not going to have talks forever,” Mr. Obama said of Iran, assuring Mr. Netanyahu that he expected to know by the end of the year whether Iran was making “a good-faith effort to resolve differences.”

But Mr. Obama did not get his settlement freeze. In fact, Mr. Netanyahu told him it would be politically difficult for him to halt the construction of settlements. That is a hurdle to the administration’s broader peace objectives because Israel’s Arab neighbors have characterized a freeze as a precondition for them to establish normal relations.

Nor did Mr. Obama get much from Mr. Netanyahu on a peace plan beyond his promise to make good on a few commitments that Israel had already agreed to on the “road map,” an outline of peace steps that has not gotten either Palestinians or Israelis any closer to peace since President George W. Bush first announced it in 2003.

Mr. Netanyahu did agree to resume talks with Palestinians without preconditions. But he would not explicitly endorse the notion of an eventual Palestinian state, something his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had already done.

“This is why I’m asking the question, did our president get suckered?” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. “We don’t know the answer yet, but unless he got something more from Bibi in that meeting than they’re telling us, that question can be asked.”

The two leaders set up working groups to deal with Iran, the Palestinian issue and Israel’s Arab neighbors. The groups will meet periodically, Israeli and American officials said. Agreeing to meet with Israel regularly to discuss the administration’s progress with Tehran keeps the pressure squarely on the United States, analysts said.

Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday in Jerusalem that he was also willing to open talks with Syria, if Syria did not make preconditions.

In offering their assessments of the meeting in Washington, a range of American and Israeli officials generally insisted on anonymity to address the question of which leader, if either, had gained the upper hand.

White House officials maintained Wednesday that Mr. Obama had emerged from the meeting with his peace goals intact. “The president was clear, both publicly and privately, that all parties, including the Israelis, have obligations as they relate to settlements, as they relate to Gaza, and as they relate to two states,” a senior White House official said.

Mr. Obama, the official said, pressed Mr. Netanyahu on settlements, and added that American officials would monitor the issue closely in the next months. The official characterized Monday’s meeting as a start: “This was the alpha meeting. It wasn’t the alpha and omega meeting.”

Another administration official said Mr. Obama’s timetable on Iran was not predicated on a quid pro quo from Israel. Mr. Netanyahu, he noted, endorsed the diplomatic overture to Iran — a significant gesture, given Israel’s deep fear of Iranian intentions.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu’s silence on settlements troubles lawmakers like Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Kerry raised the issue on Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she testified before the panel.

“It is clear that settlement activity has to cease,” Mrs. Clinton said, noting that she had pressed Mr. Netanyahu about settlements over dinner on Monday.

Israeli officials also disputed the notion that Mr. Netanyahu had somehow outmaneuvered Mr. Obama. “Obama may be slightly less experienced than Netanyahu, but Obama knows exactly everything that the U.S. is doing,” an Israeli official said.

The Israeli official said Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to explicitly endorse Palestinian statehood now did not mean he would not later.


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