Obama hesitant to meet with Netanyahu during GA

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washington  |  If President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to get together for a meeting next week — even though they both will be appearing at the same convention — most sideline observers will be left pondering what exactly is amiss.

Obama and Netanyahu both will be addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, a three-day affair that starts Sunday, Nov. 8. But through the early part of this week, at least, there was a close-but-no-cigar atmosphere prevailing in the capital.

The sense was that Netanyahu wants a meeting and Obama is reluctant.

As Netanyahu’s arrival day of Sunday, Nov. 8, drew closer this week, the continuing uncertainty shocked Jewish communal insiders: No one could remember a time when an Israeli prime minister was so close to coming without a meeting in place.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in May. photo/jta/courtesy of the white house

“Someone’s playing chicken,” one insider said.

Spokesmen at the White House and the Israeli Embassy said there were discussions about a meeting, but as of midweek nothing had been scheduled.

With their governments nearing a deal on the thorny settlements issue, it would seem like a great time for a sit-down, but there’s a problem: the reluctance of the Palestinians — and by extension the Arab world — to climb on board for renewed negotiations.

According to pro-Israel insiders, the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu teams is actually on good footing and improving. Obama’s officials are pleased with the restrictions Israel has lifted in the West Bank; Israel backs Obama’s strategy of containing Iran through engagement backed by the threat of far-reaching sanctions.

And the Israeli army and the U.S. European Command carried out a joint exercise Nov. 3 witnessed by Netanyahu, who called it “an expression of the meaningful relations between Israel and the United States.”

So what has been behind Obama’s reluctance to meet Netanyahu?

Insiders suggested that the president still feels burned by the summit he had in September at the United Nations in New York with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that produced no results and led to sniping between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Obama wants the promise of substance before another meeting takes place.

Ori Nir, a spokes man and analyst for Americans for Peace Now, said a frustrated Obama administration is no longer looking for a boost in peacemaking and instead simply wants to usher along whatever components of the process it can.

The problem now, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that Abbas faces elections in January.

“The general rule is that neither side makes concessions during an election,” Makovsky said.

Vexing the matter even further is that Abbas, while popular throughout the Palestinian areas, does not rule the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has made it clear that it will not allow elections.

As for the General Assembly, while big names dot the lineup of speakers, the annual conference of North America’s largest Jewish charitable network promises to be heavy on the nuts-and-bolts issues facing local federations: fundraising, budgeting and planning

Officials at the Jewish Federations — until recently known as United Jewish Communities — say the announcement of Obama’s appearance helped boost prospective attendance for the event to about 3,000, but the rest of the schedule is focused on practical needs.

Several sessions and workshops are aimed at helping the 157 local federations figure out how to raise more money in a tightened economy — and how to spend it more effectively.

This new approach is being framed as part of a larger effort to be responsive to the needs of local communities. Annual federation campaigns had been seeing a steady decline for the better part of a decade even before the recession.

“We are trying to change the focus from us to the federations themselves,” Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky said. “What are their best practices? What do they need? The different areas of focus came from them.”

Also, a good chunk of the schedule is dedicated to highlighting the needs of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which together have received an average of nearly $200 million annually from the federation system in recent years. That figure is expected to decline by 10 to 20 percent in the coming year, federation officials said.

Both organizations have made it clear that they will start reaching out on their own to individual federations to advocate for their needs. The GA will give them ample opportunity to jump-start those efforts.

The GA also will provide a window into how new CEO Jerry Silverman plans to deal with domestic and overseas issues. Observers will also be watching to see how Silverman works with the organization’s lay leadership, which will get a new chairwoman, Kathy Manning, at the GA.

In addition to Obama and Netanyahu, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, is scheduled to speak.

JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman contributed to this report.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.