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Why Netanyahu won’t attend this year's AIPAC conference

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is afraid that US President Donald Trump is determined to close "the ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians, and that he will not let anyone stand in his way to such a deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Etienne Oliveau/Pool  *** Local Caption *** Xi Jinping;Benjamin Netanyahu - RTX31YRF

Upon his return from his first meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington on Feb. 15, it was obvious that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be heading back to the US capital in the very near future. The official excuse would be the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in late March, an event that Netanyahu does not like to miss. The second excuse would be that Netanyahu finally found a new buddy in the White House. After almost eight difficult years, in which he was alienated from the US administration under President Barack Obama, Netanyahu now has a good reason to pop over to Washington every Monday and Thursday. If the relationship between the two leaders is really as close as it seems, there is no reason why they would not want to meet each other as often as possible.

But Netanyahu will not be going to AIPAC, nor will he be meeting with Trump. A diplomatic source in Washington told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that it was impossible to arrange a meeting between the two men due to "scheduling conflicts." As of now, it is unclear who really tried to avoid meeting with whom. Was it Trump, who was signaling to Netanyahu not to take him for granted, or was it Netanyahu, who is worried about another meeting with Trump?

Regardless of who was responsible for that, a source in the prime minister's office said on condition of anonymity, "We're not quite there yet, but we will soon start to miss Barack Hussein Obama."

Sources close to Netanyahu confirmed that there were all sorts of concerns in Jerusalem last week following envoy Jason Greenblatt's visit to the region. Anyone who thought that the Israeli right would have it easy during the Trump era was sorely mistaken.

Furthermore, while everything under Obama followed very clear rules defined well in advance, under Trump there is no way of knowing how it will all end. Netanyahu had no qualms about saying "no" to Obama on numerous occasions, and he almost never had to pay for that either — at least until late 2016, when he got hit with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.

Things are different under Trump. There are no rules, no checks and balances, and no restraints. As many people have learned firsthand over the past year, it is not a good idea to upset the president. He can do a 180-degree turnabout at breathtaking speed. According to some of his aides, Netanyahu is terrified of this. There was good reason why he sent his Chief of Staff Yoav Horowitz to Washington on March 18. Horowitz must help Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer to come up with a formula for continued settlement construction that the administration could accept. Dermer never needed this kind of emergency assistance during all the years of the hated Obama administration. Now the situation looks completely different.

Before arriving for his visit to the region, Greenblatt met with several senior members of Obama's peace negotiations team for briefings. He also met with quite a few Palestinian and Arab business leaders in an attempt to learn about the situation on the ground. He even brought Yael Lempert, the senior director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt at the National Security Council, to his meetings in the region. Lempert will apparently remain in her post under the new administration. In Netanyahu's immediate surroundings, this is considered a bad omen.

Greenblatt met with Netanyahu twice, on March 13 and March 16, with each meeting lasting about five hours. Of the roughly 10 hours that Netanyahu and Greenblatt spent together, at least seven of them were private meetings between the two men. Greenblatt also met with President Reuven Rivlin, opposition chairman Isaac Herzog, settler representatives and even with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. He held a similar round of talks in Ramallah.

Under Obama, Netanyahu would not allow the Americans to meet with senior defense officials. He has now been forced to give up on that informal policy, and allowed Greenblatt to meet with Mordechai (though someone from Netanyahu’s office was also present in the meeting). In this meeting, Greenblatt tried to find out what Israel could do to improve the situation of the Palestinians. No one is better versed in this than Mordechai.

Greenblatt turned out to be an impressive, courteous, polished and discreet individual. Describing his intentions during this visit, he said he "came to learn." He looks like a Republican but talks like a Democrat. The yarmulke that he wears — but which he removed while visiting Ramallah — and the fact that he is a religious Jew who attended a yeshiva in Israel place a complex burden of proof on him. The fact that the Palestinians came away pleased after their meetings with him proves that he excelled in meeting that burden.

While he was still "learning," Israelis learned that their dream about the impending "arrival of the messiah" (with Trump bringing salvation to the Israeli right) would have to be put on hold for now. No one in Trump's inner circle plans "to throw the Palestinians under the bus." In fact, the opposite may well be true. If talks between the parties until now are any indication, the US administration considers the Palestinians to be equal partners with the same rights as the Israelis, and it is committed to reaching the "ultimate deal." What frightens Netanyahu is that he knows what happens to anyone who gets in Trump's way, when he is trying to reach a deal. He does not want to be that person.

As several people that he met were told, Greenblatt's task is to create a "restart bundle" for the diplomatic process. He has already set the dates for his next two visits to the region. He spent his first visit getting the lay of the land and learning about the two parties, working his way through both with impressive thoroughness. He will now try to reach a "containment formula" to restrain settlement construction and a series of trust-building measures that Israel can adopt toward the Palestinians. When Obama tried to ask Israel for such measures — such as construction permits for Palestinians in Area C — Netanyahu turned him down. On March 22, before getting on the plane back to Israel from China, Netanyahu said that discussions with the Americans on settlement construction advanced significantly. And prevailing assessment in Israel is that a formula for "restrained" construction would be reached in the coming two weeks.

Be that as it may, Greenblatt had another assignment, and a secretive one at that. During his talks in Washington, Netanyahu tried to intimidate the Americans by telling them that he was restrained by politics and his coalition. Given the makeup of his government, he explained that there was little he could do in terms of the Palestinian issue. As such, when Greenblatt met with Herzog and also with Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi Livni, he asked discreetly and with considerable sensitivity about the current political situation. In other words, he tried to find out whether Netanyahu's analysis of the situation was accurate, or whether he had other political options (which have been written about frequently in Al-Monitor).

Netanyahu is under siege. Police investigations against him are moving ahead quickly, while his promise to establish an alternative settlement for the Amona evacuees still remains unfulfilled. Washington looked into this potential new settlement and found that its location is problematic. It would complete the dissection of the West Bank from east to west and make it extremely difficult to establish a Palestinian state at some point in the future. Given this state of affairs, it is hard to believe that Washington would agree to the establishment of such a settlement. What is also unclear is how Netanyahu will extricate himself from this problem. 

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