Dore Gold – whose words should be given even more weight now since he will soon
likely fill a top slot in the Prime Minister’s Office – said bluntly at last
week’s Herzliya Conference that the relationship between US President Barack
Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “started off on the wrong foot” four
Gold, a former ambassador to the UN who always weighs his
public words with great care, said he could make that comment “pretty
definitely” because he was at two meetings between the two men when they were
both running for office, “and the personal chemistry between the individuals was
actually very positive.”
Gold said that while it was “hard to identify
exactly where this wrong foot began,” his assessment was that it had to do with
the “assumptions that were moving in the political systems of both
countries.”Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel
One of the assumptions in Washington, Gold said, was that the
sides were just a hairbreadth away from an agreement, and with just a little
push here, or a bit more “Camp David time” there, they could be pushed over the
ledge to an agreement.
While that was the main difference Gold discussed,
it was not the only difference in assumption between the two leaders. There were
two major conceptual differences at the time between Obama and Netanyahu that
came to the surface time after time and created friction.
The first had
to do with Iran, and the idea of linkage.
When Netanyahu met Obama in the
Oval Office in May 2009, the president linked Iran and the Palestinian issue, saying that progress on the Palestinian track would make it easier to
enlist the Arab world in getting behind efforts to stop Iran.
took the opposite approach: First, neutralize Iran’s nuclear program – thereby
dismissing Tehran’s ability to gain hegemony in the region – and then it will be
much easier to deal with the Palestinians.
According to this reasoning,
as long as Iran felt that it was riding high in the saddle in the region, it
would never let a diplomatic process get off the ground, and it had two players
it could send onto the field to gum up the works whenever it wanted: Hamas and
First deal with Iran, then the Palestinians, Netanyahu
And then there was the question of how to deal with the
Palestinians, another major conceptual difference. Obama, at the time, was under
the sway of those who felt that if Israel would just give a little more, concede
a little more land, then peace would be attainable.
reflected a different approach, saying that the land for peace equation never
worked in the past – not in Lebanon, nor in Gaza – and there was no reason to
believe it would work now either.
As time passed and reality began to
bite, the gaps in these conceptual differences began to narrow. Few in the
administration actually seem to still believe that solving the Palestinian issue
would impact on efforts to stop Iran, and many in Washington have been disabused
of the notion that a settlement freeze will bring about gestures from the Arab
world that would start a snowball effect of gestures and counter gestures,
concessions and counter concessions, leading straight to a comprehensive
agreement on the White House lawn. No one is there anymore.
conceptual gaps narrowed, so the tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama
governments lessened. Lessened, but not erased.
It is abundantly clear
that one of the purposes of Obama’s visit is to set the reset button with the
Israeli public. He will say things the public wants to hear, and try to connect
with them. It is equally clear that the degree to which the Israeli public
believes and trusts the US president dictates to a large degree its willingness
to take the risks the president ultimately wants Israel to take.
while this will certainly be a “feel good” trip, the positive atmospherics
should not obscure one major conceptual gap that still exists between Jerusalem
and Washington – and this gap has to do with the proverbial “Arab
Last Thursday morning Maj.- Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of military
intelligence, gave an unsettling assessment of Israel’s strategic situation at
the Herzliya Conference.
He talked about the rise of the Muslim
Brotherhood and how Islamist parties have moved into the vacuum everywhere in
the region, from Egypt, Turkey and Gaza, to Tunisia, Morocco and
In the Arab street, Kochavi said, “the distinction between
religious and secular life is being blurred.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, he
said, wants to promote its agenda – a state based on Islamic law.
with regimes in the region moving from a nationalist to religious paradigm,
people are looking at the conflict through a religious prism.
he said, “is seen as an alien element, and that sense is growing. I cannot
While acknowledging that one cannot paint all Islamic
parties with the same brush, and that there was among some “a pragmatic
willingness for compromise in the short and moderate term,” at its heart the
Arab street views Israel as something alien and unacceptable in the Middle
Kochavi articulated Israel’s assumption: As the region becomes more
Islamic, the chance of Israel normalizing ties in the region becomes dimmer and
And then there is Obama.
A few hours after Kochavi
presented the Israeli “assumption,” an interview Obama granted Channel 2 was
aired. In that interview, during which Obama articulated the type of warmth for
Israel that the public has yearned to hear over the last four years, he posited
his assumption: “There is now a situation in which Israel can’t count on just a
few autocrats holding everything together in the neighborhood,” he
“Israel has an interest in being able to speak to the Arab
What he said was expounded shortly after the interview was aired
during a conference call with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security
“Israel, as it makes peace, is going to have to recognize the
broader role of public opinion in peacemaking,” he said.
“In the past,
the peace processes with a variety of countries and partners in the region were
between Israel and individual leaders. And as you move towards more democratic,
more representative and responsive governments, Israel needs to take into
account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across
the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli- Palestinian
peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace.”
Rhodes and Obama’s assumption is
that the Arab street will be more accepting of Israel if it just “does right” by
Kochavi’s assumption, reflecting Netanyahu’s thinking
as well, is that an Arab street led by the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to
accept Israel in any form, and that Israel will always be viewed as alien and
Those are vastly different assumptions and could lead to
very different conclusions as to what Israel needs to do in the diplomatic
process. It is a safe bet, however, that during this “feel good” trip, those
differences – that conceptual gap – will remain behind closed doors.Find live Twitter updates from our reporters covering the Obama visit, here: