Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- The US administration continues to reach out to the Israeli government in efforts to persuade it to begin serious peace negotiations. In the first direct communication between the two world leaders since their tense meeting in Washington last March, US President Barack Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about indirect negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in order to prepare the groundwork for the beginning of direct negotiations between the two parties during a twenty minute telephone conversation on Monday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Obama and Netanyahu had “discussed how best to work together to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East, in particular by making full use of substantive proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians and transitioning to direct negotiations as soon as possible.” Gibbs added that they had also discussed regional challenges and that the President had “reaffirmed his unshakable commitment” to Israel’s security. The White House refused to disclose any more information about the phone call that took place between the two leaders on Monday.
Obama’s telephone call to Netanyahu comes as part of a series of steps taken by the US to reassure the Israelis that the US administration is committed to Israeli security after relations between the two countries became strained in March. This strain occurred after Obama failed to convince Netanyahu to put a halt to settlement building in eastern Jerusalem during the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Washington at the end of March, and after the construction of 1600 housing units in eastern Jerusalem was announced to coincide with a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden. Netanyahu later skipped Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in April, and there has been no direct communication between the two parties since their terse Washington meeting. However a visit to Washington by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during which he met with the US President and a number of US officials including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paved the way for restoring communication between the two world leaders.
The US is seeking to turn the page on the public rift with Israel by issuing public statements of support for Israel and on the strength of the ties between the two countries. More than 75 percent of congress put their name to a letter petitioning the US President to put an end to public criticism of Israel and “reinforce” American ties to Israel, while a number of US and Jewish figures also criticized the public rift between the two countries and called for Obama to try and understand the Israeli viewpoint on certain issues, including the Israeli view of Jerusalem. Israeli writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel – who previously met with Obama – added his name to an advertising campaign that appeared in a number of US newspapers that emphasized Jewish rights to the Israeli capital and rejected the pressure being exerted by the US administration to include discussions on the future of the city in the peace process. Obama yesterday invited Wiesel to the White House for a private lunch in an attempt to gain his support, and Wiesel afterwards told the press that he believed that ties between the US and Israel were now “good.”
Obama’s telephone call to Netanyahu and his meeting with Wiesel comes at a time that the US administration is stressing the importance of building confidence through the indirect peace talks that will be overseen by US Peace Envoy George Mitchell. A White House official told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the President and his team are working hard to restore confidence and to give the indirect negotiations and then the negotiations the best chance of success.” The source added “this is our focus now; the President believes that it is in the interests of the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a two-state solution with a secure Jewish State of Israel living side by side in peace with an independent Palestinian State.”
While US Envoy George Mitchell continues his tour of the region, attempting to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians and achieve tangible progress in the indirect negotiations between the two sides, US officials continue meeting with figures concerned with the peace process in an effort to create a suitable climate for feasible and credible peace negotiations. Undersecretary of State William Burns yesterday met with Palestinian Legislative Council member Mustafa Barghouti and later Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Yossi Gal at the US State Department.