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Inside the Netanyahu bubble

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Aipac
The easy part: Speaking to Aipac the powerful pro-Israel lobby

Gidi Kleiman, a producer with the BBC Middle East bureau in Jerusalem, was part of the press team accompanying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit to Washington. This is his account of the unusually tense and difficult trip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed relaxed, in his informal clothes, as he worked his way down the aisle of the plane, chatting with the travelling press.

The greeting ritual is customary during these flights, on which we accompany the prime minister on his all-important visits to Washington.

But it's never quite clear when he's going to drop by the press section, which poses a tricky question: do we stay in our business attire or risk having to greet Israel's leader in the T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms we've brought to sleep in on the 13-hour flight?

The US-Israel relationship is special. But the plane isn't. Mr Netanyahu's office charters a regular commercial plane. His team are in business class; the journalists in economy. The food choice - as on many Israel-US flights - is chicken or beef.

Row in the background

As the prime minister and his wife Sara left the press cabin, the plane's screens were showing the evening news - transmitted several hours earlier - on which US Middle East envoy George Mitchell confirmed that Mr Netanyahu would meet US President Barack Obama during his visit.

Benjamin Netanyahu at
The hard part: Not the usual welcome for an Israeli PM at the White House

Mr Netanyahu was travelling to the US capital to address the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

But, with a recent row over settlement building in East Jerusalem in the background, there had been questions over whether he would get to meet Mr Obama and whether Mr Obama was going to give him a hard time.

We touched down in Washington on Monday morning. Mr Netanyahu spent the day meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, preparing his speech for Aipac, and later having dinner with US Vice-President Joe Biden.

After the meeting with Mrs Clinton, Mr Netanyahu and his staff were in buoyant mood. The jokes and banter flowed.

Enormous wedding party

Then on to Aipac. The conference looked like an enormous wedding party, with large dinner tables set for some 7,500 guests and delegates in a hall stretching hundreds of metres.

Mr Netanyahu was due to speak at 2130, but was late from dinner with Mr Biden, the man Israel had, in the US's own words, "insulted" only a week ago by announcing the approval of settler homes in East Jerusalem as Mr Biden visited to try to launch indirect peace talks.

TIMELINE: ISRAEL-US ROW
9 Mar: Israel announces the building of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem during visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden.
Mr Biden condemns the move
11 Mar: Mr Biden says there must be no delay in resuming Mid-East peace talks, despite the row
12 Mar: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Israeli move is "deeply negative" for relations
15 Mar: The US says it is waiting for a "formal response" from Israel to its proposals to show it is committed to Mid-East peace
16 Mar: The US envoy to the Mid-East postpones a visit to Israel
17 Mar: President Obama denies there is a crisis with Israel
22 Mar: Hillary Clinton tells pro-Israel lobby group Aipac Israel has to make "difficult but necessary choices" if it wants peace with Palestinians.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu tells Aipac Israel has a "right to build" in Jerusalem
23 Mar: Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu meet behind closed doors with no media access
23 Mar: Jerusalem municipal government approves building of 20 new homes in East Jerusalem
24 Mar: Mr Netanyahu ends Washington trip talking of a "golden" solution amid US silence

It was just as well. Many of the guests had not got into the hall either, stuck in huge queues as congressmen and dignitaries struggled to make it through the security checks and metal detectors.

Inside, in the youth section, exhausted teenagers and students held their heads in the hands, trying to stay awake, as the announcers read out a long list of eminent conference attendees, filling the time until Mr Netanyahu arrived.

When he was called onstage, the crowd lit up. The sympathetic audience listened carefully to his speech, applauded and embraced him.

But it was the end of the easy part of the visit. The meeting with Mr Obama the following day was a different story.

Waiting

It began at 1730, shortly after the news had emerged of the granting of permits for another controversial building project in East Jerusalem.

We waited at the hotel for indications of how the meeting had gone. The signs were ominous for Mr Netanyahu - only official photographers, no public handshake or remarks in the presence of the press.

Sometime after 1900 it emerged that the meeting was over. A senior Israeli official told me there would be time for a drink in the bar before a statement came.

There turned out to be enough time, had we wanted it, for a tour of Washington's bars. And still no statement came from the White House or the Netanyahu staff.

Later, we heard that there a second meeting between the president and the prime minister.

Netanyahu's advisers stayed in the White House long past midnight in attempts to reach a joint statement with the Americans. Still nothing.

At odds

The following morning, all media engagements for Netanyahu were cancelled.

His staff wouldn't say a word, but it was written all over their faces that things were not good for the prime minister.

A group of senior Obama administration officials, headed by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, arrived at the hotel to meet Mr Netanyahu and his advisers. But after hours more waiting, it emerged that no agreement had been reached and Mr Netanyahu would leave Washington DC at odds with the Americans.

In the hotel lobby, a group of Mr Netanyahu's staff walked past, returning from dinner. They looked completely exhausted. Only one of them mustered a smile.

We were whisked back to the waiting plane with the prime minister's motorcade. But as we stowed our bags in the overhead lockers, there was a flurry of activity.

An adviser rushed up the stairs, and shouted out a statement Mr Netanyahu had just given on the airport tarmac.

"We're finding the golden path," the prime minister had said, "we've moved forward."

After take-off the physical and mental exhaustion of the past few days caught up. It was eyes shut for everyone.

Most of us will do this all again in early April when Mr Netanyahu is due to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC.

The questions remains: will there be a meeting with the president? And will Mr Netanyahu have to go through the same ordeal again?



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