The Cable

Behind the scenes of the Peres-Obama meeting

When Shimon Peres met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, the White House had to walk a fine line: Honor the president of a close U.S. ally, but don’t make overmuch of the visit of a figurehead who has publicly supported the Middle East peace process and was granted a meeting ...

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When Shimon Peres met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, the White House had to walk a fine line: Honor the president of a close U.S. ally, but don’t make overmuch of the visit of a figurehead who has publicly supported the Middle East peace process and was granted a meeting at the White House before Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has opposed it.  (Netanyahu is being invited to the White House later this month, along with the presidents of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority).

So, while the White House made no secret of the Peres-Obama meeting, there was no press conference featuring the two leaders in the Oval Office; just a chance to catch photos and a few comments from Peres as he departed the White House meeting and a one-paragraph readout of their visit on WhiteHouse.gov.

National security advisor James Jones, NSC senior director for the Middle East Daniel Shapiro, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and White House political advisor David Axelrod were in the room with Peres and Obama. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Peres earlier Tuesday at his hotel.)

At first glance, it’s a team that makes sense to be included in a meeting that straddles policy and politics. Jones, as Obama’s national security advisor, and Shapiro, as the NSC official on the Middle East, convey the national security dimensions of the relationship. Emanuel and Axelrod are two high-level Jewish members of Obama’s administration; they have been increasingly enlisted in recent weeks to build support within the Jewish-American community for a two-state solution in the face of resistance from the new Netanyahu government.

The presence of Emanuel and Axelrod in the room told the Israelis something important, Israel watchers suggested. “This is a significant decision,” said Steve Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, which conducts track-two diplomacy between Israel and the Arab world. “The Israelis have tried to intimidate Rahm to say, in effect, ‘Don’t forget you are a Jew [whose parents were born in] Israel.'” His presence, Cohen said, “told the Israelis in the most clear possible way that ‘I serve the president of the United States and there is no distance between my role with regard to this search for peace in the Middle East and that of the president.'”

Axelrod’s presence is also significant, Cohen said. “Axelrod also has been the most significant person relating to the Jews and everybody else during Obama’s election campaign. Axelrod has had a very good relationship with the Jewish community of Chicago.”

He added, “I think this was another sign that the old game is over,” referring to what he described as past Israeli attempts to “get around the strategic assessment of the U.S. president by putting pressure on him from allies within the United States.” Cohen sees signs that efforts to “slow down the president by going to Congress … which has been so often used to slow down the peace process” will thus be discouraged or will not succeed.

An Israeli diplomat said that there was no offense taken by the Netanyahu government that Peres got the first meeting with Obama. “Quite the contrary. Peres is there to soften the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, to provide an elder statesman’s view of how things ‘will eventually work out.'” Peres and Netanyahu are fully coordinated, another observer said.

But in other ways, too, sources tell The Cable, the lineup had some notable inclusions and omissions that says something larger about how the Obama administration’s foreign policy is being made and communicated by the White House. For instance, Clinton was not at the meeting, though as noted earlier she met with Peres separately at his hotel.

“The White House won’t let her on TV on the Sunday morning talk shows,” a plugged-in Washington Middle East hand observed.”Who is talking about foreign policy on those shows? Axelrod. Who is showing up at the meeting with Obama-Peres? Axelrod. They are controlling the message.”

“They’ve never even had her even on Charlie Rose,” he added. “You have not really seen the secretary of state in the U.S. media; you’ve seen her in the international media. Who is their main messenger on foreign policy?”

(An aide confirmed Clinton hadn’t been on the Sunday talk shows since the campaign.)

The plugged in Washington Middle East observer noted that Clinton was not sent by the administration to address the AIPAC conference, either. Instead, Vice President Joseph Biden was dispatched, where he called for Israel to stop its settlement expansion.

“Biden is the person who is perceived as a very experienced foreign-policy hand who has a very solid relationship with Israel, but that relationship is solidly based on American strategic analysis,” Cohen said. “And not affected so much by the Clinton experience of being a [former] New York senator.”

“The combination and timing of Biden at AIPAC, Peres’ ‘What, me worry?’ face after meeting Obama and the nuclear non proliferation treaty issue causes severe nervousness here,” the Israeli diplomat said Wednesday. “And further builds a drama over Netanyahu’s” upcoming trip to Washington.

Observers looking for other signs that Obama’s foreign policy is emanating and being controlled by the White House more than the State Department will find them. When U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke had to wrap up his testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tuesday a bit early, he apologized, saying the White House had only asked him to come by at the last minute. Later, Holbrooke mentioned that he could be found through a personal aide or via the NSC (though he maintains an office on Foggy Bottom’s first floor next to that of special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross, few people in the State Department’s normal bureaucracy seem apprised of his schedule).

And this past week, when Ross was dispatched to the Persian Gulf states and Egypt to reassure them on U.S. plans for outreach to Iran, it was the NSC’s senior director on Iran and the Persian Gulf, Puneet Talwar, considered to have a more moderate take on U.S. policy to Iran, as well as the Centcom deputy commander, who accompanied him. (Or perhaps shadowed him, others might see it.)

The NSC’s Shapiro is currently accompanying Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s acting (and nominated) assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, on their second trip to Damascus, Syria. Sources say that Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, was mystified by the trip to Damascus being scheduled now, before the June 7 Lebanese elections, and wondered how and where the decision was made. Neither Feltman nor Shapiro responded to a query on the Damascus trip. Asked about the trip Wednesday, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said he had no more details. “We will engage in dialogue when and where we feel it’s appropriate,” Wood said. “But we think it’s time for both countries” — Syria and Iran — to “become part of the solution.”

UPDATE: White House and State Department officials wrote to strongly dispute that Clinton was being kept off the Sunday news talk shows. A White House official said Clinton is an “absolutely critical voice” in the effort to develop and communicate the administration’s foreign policy. He noted that Secretary Clinton spoke to the entire press corps about foreign policy in the briefing room yesterday. A State Department official said the White House asked Clinton to go out two Sundays ago, but she couldn’t because she was in Iraq. He further said that television networks are being given unprecedented access to the Secretary on her trips, extra seats, and interviews.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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