Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post
July 7, 2010 - 12:00am

Tuesday's White House meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama was the fifth time the two leaders have met in some 14 months, but only the second time they have issued joint statements and answered questions together.

And the difference in Obama's tone on Tuesday, compared to the last time they met the press in the Oval Office in May 2009, was striking.

The two met together with PA President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting last September, but following that meeting only Obama issued a statement citing "frank and productive" talks that barely hid his frustration. Two other Netanyahu-Obama meetings ­ one in November and another in March ­ came and went without any public appearance.

As was widely expected, both Obama and Netanyahu used Tuesday's press appearance to reaffirm the strength of the "unbreakable" bond between Israel and the US. And while cynics may say that Obama's pledge of allegiance to the special relationship was to be expected a few months before a midterm election, as his and his party's political fortunes are sinking, it was clear from the press opportunity that in the intervening 14 months Obama has come to realize that he has a lot more to gain by working publicly with Netanyahu, than against him.

In May's appearance Obama set the tone of the relationship that continued for months -- publicly calling out Israel, while speaking softly on the Palestinians; endorsing engagement with the Iranians; having an unrealistic view of what he could change in the Arab world.

Gone at Tuesday's press conference were the harsh demands on Israel that Obama unveiled at that first press conference, when he said starkly and baldly that "settlements have to be stopped." With that single utterance he distanced any chance of direct negotiations for months because of a Palestinian belief that they didn't need to negotiate with Netanyahu, because Obama would do their work for them.

Rather than bash Netanyahu for various plans in the works to build in Jerusalem, as he directed his secretary of state to do in March following Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, this time Obama praised the Israeli government for "working through layers of various governmental entities and jurisdiction" and showing "restraint over the last several months."

Rather than ­ in the spirit of his "stop the settlements" declaration from earlier ­ calling publicly for Netanyahu to extend the settlement construction moratorium that ends in September, this time he said that his hope was that "once direct talks are begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success."

Gone was the hectoring, like when he said in May ­ in clear opposition to Netanyahu's position ­ that "if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians -- between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat."

In May Obama coddled Iran, spoke of the country's "extraordinary history and extraordinary potential," and how "not talking [with the Iranians] clearly hasn¹t' worked. That's what been tried. And so what we're going to do is try something new, which is actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians."

Fourteen months later, Obama's tone changed dramatically, as he spoke not of the great Persian Empire, but of the "toughest sanctions" at the UN Security Council ever adopted against Iran. He spoke of the US's own sanctions, as well as the sanctions of other countries around the world, "so we are continuing to put pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations, to cease the kind of provocative behavior that has made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community."

And gone too was the rather patronizing tone toward his guest, like when he said in May 2009 that he had "confidence" that Netanyahu would "rise to the occasion" in dealing with the many important decisions he would have to take as prime minister.

At the earlier meeting, a meeting that took place just two months after Netanyahu took over as prime minister, Obama voiced commitment to the Israel-US relationship, but was extremely sparse in any praise of Netanyahu, at a time when many expected him to congratulate the then new prime minister for recently having formed a new government.

On Tuesday, however, Obama changed gears, stressing that he trusted Netanyahu, and did so even before he became president. Obama said that, contrary to reports in the press, the US-Israeli relationship over the last year had broadened and continued to improve, "and I think a lot of that has to do with what the Prime Minister has done, and I am grateful."

During the low points in US-Israeli ties over the last year and a half, when it seemed Obama thought that by pressuring Israel he would get the Arab world to be more forthcoming, or that by engaging Iran he could get them to stop their nuclear program, there were those in Jerusalem who said that at a certain point in time the US President would hit reality's wall and see that these polices were simply not working.

Nobody knows yet what Obama told Netanyahu behind closed doors Tuesday regarding extending the settlement moratorium or building in Jerusalem or any number of other contentious issues that separates the two sides. But outside, in the glare of the cameras, the dramatic change of tone from the last time the two leaders fielded questions together indicated an Obama who seems to have realized that the public path he has followed up until now with Israel and Netanyahu has not worked, and it was time ­ using that suddenly very popular phrase to characterize relations between nations ­ to "push reset."


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