Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Obama praises: Netanyahu's openness and thoughtfulness set the right tone at DC summit

(Politico, Jpost).President Barack Obama told Jewish religious leaders Tuesday that he was "pleasantly surprised" and "stunned" at how cordial and constructive were discussions last week between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

He also praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statesman-like demeanor, saying Netanyahu "came with an openness and thoughtfulness that set the right tone," according to a person on the call.

Obama was speaking with rabbis on a call Tuesday arranged in honor of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown Wednesday.

"Israel knows it's negotiating from a place of strength because the U.S. is absolutely committed to Israel's security, as the Prime Minister and Israelis have seen over the past eighteen months," Obama also said.

Obama was asked by one participant about comments from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas perceived in Israel as hostile to the negotiating process he launched with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just last Thursday.

In response, Obama said that he expected both Israelis and Palestinians throughout the process to make statements meant for domestic political consumption, call participants told The Jerusalem Post.

"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."

He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.

"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.

Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.

"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.

"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.

"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.

Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.

"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.

Obama urged those on the line to instead focus on the positive atmosphere during last week’s talks, admitting to being pleasantly surprised by how candid and constructive they were.

“I don’t know if he was expecting them to come in and beat each other with baseball bats, but he made a point of saying that twice,” said one participant.

Still, Obama was said to sound a cautious note about the negotiations and the difficulties ahead.

“Overall there was a very realistic, not at all naïve assessment of the situation,” said one person on the call.

Another rabbi described Obama as clear-eyed in acknowledging the challenges ahead, and that “he didn’t sugar-coating anything.”

That rabbi, who like all participants contacted by the Post asked for anonymity in discussing the details of the call, said that Obama also asked for the support of Jewish leaders going forward with the peace process.

“He was saying it in the sense of trying to create an atmosphere where people could be hopeful and can be optimistic about the talks’ success,” explained another participant.