What Will Netanyahu Say to Obama?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a cabinet meeting in June. Dan Balilty / AFP-Getty Images

In his White House meeting with President Obama today and at other opportunities in the coming weeks, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu will lay out his case on Jewish settlements. He’ll say that the temporary construction freeze in the West Bank that Israel agreed to last December has deprived settlers of basic needs and is tearing apart his governing coalition. He’ll point out that Palestinians continue to reject direct negotiations with Israel after months of American diplomacy. When the moratorium expires in September, Netanyahu will tell Obama, he cannot renew it.

Straight talk or subterfuge?

Renewing the freeze poses genuine challenges for Netanyahu but not as formidable as he might be portraying to Obama. As the two men sit down for their fourth meeting in 14 months, NEWSWEEK offers this short guide to help readers parse the substance from the spin.

Settlers deprived? Not true. Technically, Israel has stuck to its pledge not to issue new permits for construction in the settlements. In reality, building over the green line has continued unabated. Some of the new construction is centered in East Jerusalem, which Israel said all along was not part of the moratorium, though it’s recognized by the U.S. and most of the world as occupied territory. Some is underway in the illegal outposts that, absurdly, Israel has said don’t count because the outposts were never authorized by the government in the first place. But the bulldozers are also operating in established settlements throughout the West Bank, thanks largely to a surge in housing permits Netanyahu granted on the eve of the freeze last year. Overall, at least 3,000 new housing units will have been built this year, according to the group Peace Now, which tracks settlement data, putting 2010 on par with previous years in terms of settlement expansion. “Unless the freeze continues beyond the month of September, the freeze will remain meaningless on the ground,” the group wrote in a report last month.

Coalition wobbling?
Somewhat true. Netanyahu could face a backlash from ultra right-wingers in his coalition and even members in his own party if he concedes too much to Obama. In his inner cabinet, where most of the government’s big decisions are made, four out of six deputies are against renewing the freeze, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.  And Netanyahu isn’t just being pulled to the right. His centrist defense minister, Ehud Barak, has been pressing for a more “assertive diplomatic policy”—essentially a real peace offering to the Palestinians. If either Barak or Lieberman pulls his party from the coalition, Netanyahu could be left without a government. Still, neither has threatened to withdraw and, compared with the volatility of previous Israeli coalitions, Netanyahu’s government still looks stable.

Palestinians won’t renew direct talks?
Mostly true. Palestinians and Israelis have been negotiating indirectly for several months, with American mediator George Mitchell carrying messages back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Details of the talks have remained a secret, so it’s not clear what exactly is on the table. What is clear is that Netanyahu wants an upgrade to face-to-face negotiations and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has refused. In part, this is a Palestinian negotiating strategy. By holding out, Abbas has wrung concessions from Israel, including Netanyahu’s grudging acceptance a year ago of the idea that Palestinians should have their own state. But Palestinians involved in the talks say what really stands in the way of direct negotiations is Netanyahu’s refusal to discuss the core issues, including the borders of the future state and the status of Jerusalem. “What’s the point talking face to face if he won’t reveal his position on the main issues?” says one Palestinian official who did not want to be named discussing details of the talks.