Stripe-suited men and women speaking different languages, but all sharing an expertise in Israel, the United States or both, were sitting in foreign ministries around the world over the last three days scratching their heads and trying to evaluate Tuesday’s White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Diplomats from Ankara to Amman, Cairo to Copenhagen, Ramallah to Rome, Teheran to Tokyo, were all busy writing internal memos focusing on what the meeting meant and how it impacted on their governments’ policies. And, almost certainly, as far as getting information about what was actually said at the private meeting, the diplomats were all dipping from the very same well – and that well was dry.
In the days that followed the fifth meeting between Netanyahu and Obama
in their current roles, precious little was leaked about what was
actually discussed behind closed doors – what Obama said about
construction in Jerusalem, or what Netanyahu said about extending the
settlement construction moratorium.
As a result, evaluations and assessments are being drawn up based on
what happened in the open, in the full glare of the television cameras,
and with the microphones working.
And out there in the open, as all the world witnessed, Obama and
Netanyahu oozed affection.
The cynics, both here and abroad, will say it was not real, that it was
all for show, and that the warm meeting in public was the result of cold
political calculations by both men. Obama needed to show Jewish
contributors to the Democratic Party for whom Israel is very important
that the relationship remained rock-solid, and Netanyahu needed to show
his electorate that his polices did not cause a tectonic rift with the
But the cynics are missing a very important point. In diplomacy, like in
much else, perception is what matters, often – oddly – even trumping
reality. And the choreographed love affair put on in the Oval Office –
real or make believe – is what the US administration wanted the world to
That perception is right now all that those diplomats in all those
foreign ministries have to go on in writing the memos that will impact
on their countries’ polices.
Their assessments and evaluations will come under the headline of “the
Netanyahu-Obama meeting, a warming of US-Israeli ties.” Policy decisions
in capitals around the world, including in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and
Ramallah, will be made based on that assumption.
For instance, based on the show put on Tuesday, the Palestinian
Authority will have to decide whether it would be wise to continue
avoiding direct negotiations, banking on the hope that if it holds out
longer, Obama might pressure Netanyahu into declaring a total settlement
Based on Tuesday’s meeting, the Turks will have to decide whether to cut
off diplomatic relations with Israel, trying to judge what type of
reaction that would elicit from the US. With Obama bashing Netanyahu,
they might conclude that the reaction would be minor; with the US
president caressing Netanyahu, the conclusion is likely to be
So, too, when EU foreign ministers get together and draw up their
monthly foreign policy statements.
These statements are likely to be much tougher with an Obama perceived
as impatient with Israel, than at a time when he is seen as Netanyahu’s
PERCEPTION, THEREFORE, has the power to shape reality, and Tuesday’s
warm Oval Office public appearance should not be cavalierly dismissed as
“just a show.” The perception of a warming of ties was obviously what
the US administration – which is in the position of shaping these
perceptions – wanted to portray.
At the disastrous last Netanyahu-Obama meeting in March, when Obama did
not even let photographers memorialize it, the perception the
administration wanted to create, just weeks after Vice President Joe
Biden was embarrassed by the Israeli announcement of a new building
project in north Jerusalem beyond the 1967 lines, was one of deep anger
at the Netanyahu government.
Last May, at Obama and Netanyahu’s first meeting in the White House when
a photo opportunity and press conference was allowed, Obama underlined
the deep disagreements he had with Netanyahu over the correct approach
to Iran, and surprised him with his bald statement that settlements have
to be “stopped” The perception that Obama wanted to convey during that
meeting, sandwiched in between his address in Turkey in April and his
outreach to the Muslim world speech in Cairo in June, was that the US
was not in Israel’s’s pocket.
Soon after that meeting, when everyone picked up on Obama’s changed
signals on Israel, the president met a group of Jewish leaders who told
him he was being too publicly tough. During that meeting with 16
officials of Jewish organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, made the observation that diplomatic progress in the
Middle East usually occurs when the public perception is that there was
“no daylight” between the two countries.
It is one thing for the sides to disagree, even robustly, in private,
but publicly they must – for the sake of a diplomatic process – be seen
on the same page, Hoenlein argued.
Obama, according to a participant at the meeting, disagreed and,
referring to the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush, said,
“Eight years of no daylight, eight years of no progress.”
The upshot of the president’s comment was that it was time to open the
curtains and let the sunshine in. If the close ties that existed between
Israel and the US during his predecessor’s reign did not bring progress
in the peace process, then it was time to try another way.
And, indeed, the administration for the next few months tried that other
way, publicly taking Israel to task, not hiding disagreements.
Obama, one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said, came to power like so
many US presidents before him, thinking that all he had to do was shake
the Israeli tree a bit, and Arab fruit would start falling from the
boughs. All he thought he had to do, according to this official, was
show a willingness to pressure Israel, and the Arab world – including
the Palestinians – would rise to the occasion, reciprocate and take the
steps needed to move a peace agreement forward: The Arab world would
make gestures toward Israel, and the Palestinians would show some
tendency toward compromise.
Well, Obama shook the Israeli tree all right, but the fruit did not
fall. The Arab world gave nothing – Saudi Arabia wouldn’t even agree to
letting civilian Israeli aircraft fly through its airspace on the way to
Thailand – and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas climbed up
a tree of his own, unwilling to do what he had done in the past –
negotiate directly – out of a feeling that if he held out, Obama would
shake the Israeli tree even harder.
Earlier this year, however, as Abbas continued to hold out and refuse
negotiations, it became apparent to the US administration that this
tactic wasn’t working, and that it was time to change the public
The US was not advancing its own goals of direct negotiations leading to
a peace agreement by publicly squabbling with Netanyahu. Not only did
the tactic fail to move the Palestinians, but the Israeli public was
losing its trust in the Obama administration – a trust necessary if it
were to agree to take the types of risks for peace the administration
ultimately wanted to see.
As a result, Obama sent Biden here in early March with the expressed
purpose of changing the perception. But the Ramat Shlomo housing project
intervened, and the vice president who came to praise us, left with his
boss cursing us instead. Seeing an opportunity following the Biden
visit to push Israel into taking steps it had not taken before –
including freezing building in Jerusalem – the administration pounced,
but it pounced too hard, alienating many in the US Jewish community and
some key Democratic politicians and backers.
It is one thing to let a little daylight into the Israel-US
relationship; it’s quite another to flood the room in it. Tuesday, at
the Obama-Netanyahu public appearance in the Oval Office, the curtains
were formally drawn.
But some will say that closing the blinds will not hide the mess inside
the room, and that ultimately you can’t hide the fundamental policy
differences that exist between this US administration and the Netanyahu
government. True, but if those on the outside don’t see the mess within,
if they can’t be certain that it is there as it was before, they can
only make their choices relative to those inside the room based on how
things appear on the outside. And the way Washington now wants things to
look on the outside is that the US-Israeli relationship, as visiting
Sen. Joe Lieberman said Thursday in Jerusalem, is “back on track.”
Whether that characterization is spot on or misses the mark is almost
secondary, because if that is the way the relationship is now perceived
on the outside, that perception itself has significance.