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Obama shifts to Israel’s corner, but tries not to show it

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Nov. 9, 2009. (Robert Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Nov. 9, 2009. (Robert Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, Nov. 10, 2009. (Robert A. Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, Nov. 10, 2009. (Robert A. Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When the White House chief of staff took to the podium at the federations’ General Assembly to call for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without preconditions, he sounded almost exactly like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier.

"All issues should be resolved through negotiations," Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday to delegates at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual meeting. "No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the overarching goal of lasting peace."

On Monday, Netanyahu used the GA podium to appeal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table.

"Let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement; let us begin talks immediately," Netanyahu said.

Palestinian Authority leaders say they will not negotiate unless Israel commits to a full settlement freeze. To some extent, the Obama administration is to blame for the intransigence; the Palestinians adopted that position only once the Obama administration insisted earlier this year that Israel commit to a full freeze.

U.S. administration officials have since tempered their position, praising the concessions Netanyahu is willing to make on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

During a visit to Jerusalem a week and a half ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Israel’s concessions "unprecedented."

Speaking at a joint news conference with Netanyahu, Clinton said, "What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements which he has just described – no new starts for example — is unprecedented in the context of prior to negotiations."

The U.S. position shift, while pleasing Israel, has angered many in the Arab world and left the Palestinian leadership in a difficult spot. If Palestinian leaders give up their insistence for a full settlement freeze before returning to negotiations, they will be seen as betraying the cause. If they hold firm, peace talks will remain stalled.

The convergence of the Israeli and U.S. positions on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations comes amid some concern about the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.

Their meeting Monday night was under unusual circumstances, taking place well past the time Netanyahu could exploit a handshake with Obama for Israel’s evening news back home — and there wasn’t even a public handshake. In a rare move, the White House skipped both the standard quick photo op before the meeting and the post-meeting Q & A session with reporters.

Few specifics emerged from the meeting. Obama and Netanyahu spoke alone for an hour of the 100-minute meeting, and afterward Netanyahu uncharacteristically canceled his traditional briefing for the Israeli press corps. Emanuel called the meeting "positive" but offered little elaboration.

The unusual circumstances of the meeting reflect the predicament faced by both sides.

It would have been unseemly for Netanyahu, who was going to be in Washington for the General Assembly, to swing through town without having an audience with the U.S. president. But with the Obama administration trying to downplay its shift toward the Israeli position on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — Clinton was forced to make an unscheduled trip to Cairo last week to allay Arab fears that Washington was easing the pressure on Israel — a high-profile meeting with the Israeli leader followed by a joint news conference could only do harm.

Thus, in his GA speech, Emanuel at once tried to assure the Jewish audience that the bond between the U.S. and Israeli administrations remained strong while still making clear that the United States is pressing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Emanuel went to great lengths to make the case for Obama’s support of Israel, noting the "unbreakable" U.S.-Israeli bond. But both he and Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a backer of Obama from the launch of his political career in the mid-1990s, also spoke of natural "differences and discussions" between the two governments.

"Unilateral actions should be avoided and cannot dictate the outcome," Emanuel said. He added that "negotiations must address permanent-status issues: borders, refugees and Jerusalem."

Israeli officials do not want to negotiate over Jerusalem and the right of return to Israel of Palestinian refugees.

The cancellation of Obama’s planned GA speech on Tuesday did not appear to be part of any calculated strategy; the president changed his plans to attend a memorial service Tuesday in Texas for victims of the Fort Hood shooting rampage.

Once the scheduling change was made, the White House put together a reception for Jewish leaders on Monday evening. Obama came but he did not talk foreign policy. Instead, he gave a 20-minute discursion on Jewish values of charity and the importance of health care reform.

In his New York Times column over the weekend, Thomas Friedman suggested that the president withdraw from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking until the parties themselves are ready to come to the negotiating table.

But in a broad-ranging interview Tuesday on "The Charlie Rose Show" on PBS, Clinton made it clear the Obama administration intends to stay involved.

"They want us to be engaged, to be leading, both by example and through engagement," she said of the Israelis and Palestinians. "As complicated and as difficult as they might be, we have to be there, we have to be working.

"Now we may be more engaged or less engaged, depending upon our assessment. We may leave the parties to themselves for periods of time and stand on the sidelines, or we may be intensely working with them. That’s a calibration. But the overall fact is the United States must be present."

Bureau chief Ron Kampeas and staff writer Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report from Washington.

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