Editors Notes: Didn’t we use to be on the same side?

ByDAVID HOROVITZ
November 19, 2010 12:47

Before we can even get to grips with the complexities of dealing with the Palestinians, we find ourselves head-to-head with Washington.




Editors Notes: Didn’t we use to be on the same side?

rabin arafat clinton 1994 . (photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)

Earlier this month, in an op-ed for The New York Times marking the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, former US president Bill Clinton told the tie story. Again. The story, often repeated, that shows a Rabin so focused on the important things of life, so “utterly without pretense” as Clinton put it, that he never quite came to terms with this merely decorative article of clothing.

“True to form, two weeks before his assassination,” Clinton wrote of Rabin, “he arrived in Washington at a black-tie event without the black tie. We borrowed one for him, and I still smile whenever I think about straightening it for him...”

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The affection with which he retells the tie story is emblematic of Clinton’s tone in all of his writings and musings on Rabin. The president quite plainly adored our late prime minister – admired him, respected him, empathized with him, regarded him as a role model. As he wrote in the Times, loved him.

There is nothing comparably affectionate in George W. Bush’s new memoir about Ariel Sharon – the prime minister with whom Clinton’s presidential successor worked for crucial periods. But there is evidence of respect, admiration and a meeting of minds.

Bush recalls his first visit to Israel in 1998, and the helicopter tour he took with Sharon – “a bull of a man... who had served in all of Israel’s wars.” Sharon’s proud, “gruff” airborne commentary that day, his familiarity with “every inch of the land,” his observation that “Here our country was only nine miles wide,” undoubtedly shaped some of the then-Texas governor’s fundamental thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tour with Sharon, which constituted his “most striking memory” of that debut trip to the Holy Land, left Bush, as he writes, “struck by Israel’s vulnerability in a hostile neighborhood.”

Tellingly, too, Bush notes, it is with Sharon he speaks by telephone immediately before his first post-September 11 cabinet meeting – “a leader who understood what it meant to fight terror.”

Recognizing the personal and professional dimensions of these relationships between recent American presidents and Israeli prime ministers serves, bitterly, to underline how strikingly the climate – and, one fears, the essence – of our bilateral ties has chilled of late. The Clinton-Rabin alliance and, albeit to a much lesser personal extent, the Bush-Sharon interaction, were true partnerships in which all manner of fundamental shared values and interests were safely assumed, and served as the basis from which heartfelt mutual concern and commitment flowed. These were leadership pairings of profound trust, and of profound benefit to both countries.

Today, there is little echo of these personal meetings of minds to be found in the relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The notion that they loathe each other is almost certainly incorrect. For a start, loathing would require a passion it is unlikely either can muster for the other.

A more reasonable assessment is that, on a personal level, they get along okay, without any of the particular respect, admiration, never mind love, of the Clinton- Rabin team.

Much more troubling, however, is the growing sense in these past few weeks that the shared interests and values that constituted the basis for those earlier, heartfelt personal relationships is crumbling. As our two leaderships have haggled (and that, unfortunately, is the only word for it) over the terms of a new settlement freeze, our alliance seems to be shriveling into a cold, adversarial contest.

In the past, guiding the American-Israel approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians was a wealth of shared goodwill and historical precedent. We were partners, trying together to find the balance of carrots and sticks, to perfect the framework, that would finally draw the immensely, sometimes violently reluctant Palestinians into reducing their maximalist demands to viable terms we all could live with.



US-Israel relations were not an uninterrupted love fest down the decades. The Clinton- Rabin connection was exceptional. Some of the leadership pairings really did take a strong dislike to each other. There were always arguments and disagreements and stark policy differences.

But implicit in the partnership, underpinning it, was recognition of the fact that the Jewish state was revived in 1948 because its leadership unhappily accepted a partition of British Mandatory Palestine that left the most resonant places in Jewish history outside our sovereign borders, while an intended Arab entity was not established because the Arab leaderships preferred to try and strangle Israel. Implicit, too, was the fact that Israel, the world’s only Jewish state and the region’s only democracy, had been forced to fight war after war for its survival in the face of implacable enemies bent on its destruction, to endure unprecedented terrorist onslaughts, and to overcome relentless attempts at economic boycott and diplomatic sanction.

It was recognized that the territory Israel’s critics now asserted lay at the heart of the conflict – territory to which Israel has an incontrovertible historic claim, and which Israel captured when forced into war – was not even held by Israel between 1948 and 1967. Rather, that very territory was the launching point of Arab efforts to destroy the country.

Also implicit in the partnership was the awareness that, while some Israeli governments are more reluctant than others to trade land for peace, no Israeli government has balked at that equation when a credible, dependable Arab peace partner made an appearance. In fact, in recent years, all Israeli governments have shown a readiness to embrace that equation even when the ostensible Palestinian peace partner has fallen some distance short of credibility and dependability.

TODAY, THOUGH, that history, those fundamentals, that peacemaking context seem at risk of being forgotten.

Negotiating with the Palestinians has proven extraordinarily frustrating these past two decades – their leadership to date has been frequently disingenuous, often murderous and serially rejectionist. But we insist on trying afresh, because we need an accommodation to retain a Jewish, democratic Israel. We do not want to have to live by the sword. We nurture the faint hope that, along with its undoubted desire for statehood, the current Palestinian leadership can yet be persuaded of the virtues of reconciliation ­ the benefits of a future, as Clinton put it in his Times op-ed, ³where cooperation triumphs over conflict."

But now, before we can even get to grips with the complexities of negotiating with the Palestinians, we find ourselves head-to-head with Washington, locked in tense negotiating sessions where previously we were often locked in step. Instead of working together to identify areas of leverage, pressure points and incentives for the Palestinians, we are looking for those same opportunities and vulnerabilities in each other.

Last Thursday in New York, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their respective advisory teams sat together for seven hours to try to find an agreed path toward resuming Israeli-Palestinian direct talks. The very fact of this marathon session, the news that our two sides had worked intensively for seven hours, was deemed by most analysts to be a good thing, evidence of substantive progress.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, what seems to have been overlooked here is that these were negotiations between Israel and the United States, not Israel and the Palestinians. These were negotiations, that is, between two parties that, until not very long ago, used to sit on the same side of the table - ­ figuring out how best to entice the recalcitrant Palestinians toward peace. Now we are sitting across the table from each other. And the Palestinians, the people who used to be on the other side of the table, the people who walked out of the direct talks two months ago ­ just as they have ultimately walked away from every serious Israeli peace offer ­ are not even in the room. They are proceeding sedately toward statehood, with growing confidence that they can attain independence without the necessity of reconciliation.

MEANWHILE, FOR all the presumed wisdom of the various interlocutors, the ideas that are emerging from this alarming new Israel-American negotiating construct sound frankly ridiculous.

The "incentives" America is said to be offering Israel include the promise of a one-year US veto on Palestinian unilateralist actions toward statehood in the UN Security Council. Why on earth would that constitute an incentive? Why would the US, our partner, ever want to sanction a unilateral process that by definition resolves none of the core issues in dispute between us and the Palestinians?

Similarly, we are reportedly being promised various security guarantees that would reduce the military risk to Israel posed by a Palestinian state? Again, why would these be offered as an incentive, when surely it is a profound American interest that its sole dependable ally in this vicious region be secure?

Why, for that matter, would our prime minister be seeking to extract more and better such "incentives" ­ to compel the administration into explicitly committing itself to all kinds of pledges and actions which, until now, we reasonably assumed would be forthcoming anyway should the need arise.

And why are these and other gifts, gestures, promises and guarantees being offered in the first place? In the service of an attempted 90-day freeze on settlement expansion, a second one-time-only freeze after the previous 10-month moratorium predictably failed to enable the finalizing of a peace accord. Does anybody honestly anticipate, after 17 years of Palestinian duplicity and evasion, that three months will yield a deal?

Worse, if nobody actually harbors any such expectation, and the ³best² we can hope for, as is being hinted, is major progress on just one core issue, that of the borders between Israel and "Palestine," why is that deemed potentially beneficial either? For surely, central to any viable accord is the refinement of the "land for peace" equation into the more specific "land for refugees" bargain.

If Israel is to ultimately partner the Palestinians to sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, abandoning our hold on Judea and Samaria, then the Palestinians' side of the deal must be to abandon their demand for a "right of return" for their refugees and descendants to Israel. They will have to give up on the dream of overwhelming the Jewish state by weight of numbers, and belatedly integrate all their people into their new country, just as we integrated all of our scattered people into ours. A deal on borders alone would see Israel making its most wrenching concession, without the vital quid pro quo of the Palestinians making theirs.

IN A healthy American-Israel relationship, the type that plainly prevailed until not too long ago, the US would not have turned the settlement issue into what it has become, an appallingly counterproductive precondition for Palestinian consent to so much as talk to us. The US would have recognized that Israel has already dismantled the settlements in Gaza and a handful in northern Samaria, and has presented a series of peace proposals that would involve dismantling most of the settlements elsewhere in the West Bank.

In a healthy American-Israel relationship, the US would not have calculatedly inflated the unfortunate Ramat Shlomo dispute into a full-scale public bust up, complete with scorching denunciation of Israel by Hillary Clinton, who publicly described the dismally timed announcement of the building plans, during Vice President Biden's visit in March, as "insulting" and whose spokesman went so far as to declare in her name that it sent "a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship."

This public humbling of Israel told the Arab world that our alliance was far from the oft-asserted unshakeable and unbreakable, thus fueling our enemies' hopes that Israel can yet be fatally weakened, and it undermined Israelis' vital faith in the US as our ultra-dependable guarantor when we calculate the risks we dare take for peace.

In a healthy American-Israeli relationship, our prime minister would volunteer an open-ended freeze on the expansion of settlements outside those areas we anticipate retaining under a permanent accord. This would underline to the Palestinians and the international community Israel's genuine commitment to compromise and potentially ease the negotiating process. It would also demonstrate pragmatic self-interest. For why would the prime minister want to allocate further resources, and mislead more Israelis into making their homes, in areas where his declared support for Palestinian statehood will necessitate an eventual withdrawal?

In a healthy American-Israeli relationship, that freeze, freely offered, without demands for spurious "incentives," would be welcomed effusively by Washington, accurately presented as evidence of Israel¹s fierce imperative to reach an accommodation. It would be utilized to help ensure the US-supported and US-financed Palestinian leadership not only came to the negotiating table, but stayed there until it internalized its obligation to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state's existence and to champion conciliatory positions to its public.

As things stand, Palestinians are all too often imbibing, including via the PA's own media, an unmodified message of Israel as a nation born in sin, whose soldiers indiscriminately attack its people. Israel is depicted as a transient entity that is illegitimate within any borders, no matter how constricted. Our towns and cities are frequently misrepresented on PA television as Palestinian towns and cities. We are portrayed as a nation that, according to Na'aman Shahrour ­ the guest speaker at this month's PA Ministry of Culture political conference in Tulkarm, held on the 93rd anniversary of the "cursed" Balfour Declaration ­ was created so that Britain and Europe could be "rid of this burden called the Jews... even at the expense of a different nation." In such an atmosphere, no peace effort can take hold.

In a healthy American-Israeli relationship, finally, we would be working, on the same side of the table, to ensure that nothing distracted us from our critical joint focus on thwarting the would-be nuclear Iran. Here, too, it would worryingly seem, our red lines are being drawn in very different places.

Of all the dire potential consequences of our shifting partnership ­ of the sorry drift since the days when an American president was working with an Israeli prime minister he loved, in a climate of instinctive cooperation ­ there is none more dangerous than a dilution of the shared imperative to thwart Teheran's opportunistic, ruthless and genocidal regime.

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