Sixty-two has been a lousy year for American-Israeli relations, and all the signs are that the coming 63rd year of modern Israel is going to be worse – notwithstanding President Barack Obama’s warm Independence Day message.
On the personal level, many people on either side of the bitter divide acknowledge a fundamental lack of trust between our two nations’ leaders.
Much worse, there is acknowledgement that each side believes the other to be plain wrong-headed.
The Obama presidency is convinced that Israel’s settlement policy lies at the root of much of the Palestinian and wider Arab hostility toward Israel. This despite Israel’s counterproductive demolition of the Gaza settlement enterprise and the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace offers that would require far greater settlement destruction.
The administration argues that Israel must prioritize more effectively – hence the relentless pressure for a building freeze to include east Jerusalem. This is seen by Washington as a tiny price to pay for the possibility of a breakthrough on the Palestinian front, in turn producing a whole new climate of relations with the Arab world and the prospect of a wider, powerful coalition to thwart the most serious threat to Israel, a nuclear Iran.
Such a freeze is of paramount importance to Israel, the administration feels, and it is acutely frustrated that Israel doesn’t share the sentiment. American pressure on Israel in this regard, the administration is convinced, is not only truly, honestly, in Israel’s best interest, but also in America’s best interest – since it would relieve some of the tensions in the Middle East which are producing greater hostility to “Israel’s friend America” wherever its troops are deployed on other Middle Eastern fronts.
Some of this has been publicly evident in recent comments by the president – including his reference last week to conflicts in the Middle East costing American “blood and treasure.”
Some of it, notably relating to the Obama conviction that the road to a nuclear-blocked Iran runs through a settlement-frozen Israel, was evident in comments he made at his press conference with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu way back last May.
“If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” Obama mused then, flatly contradicting the opposite position as delineated by Netanyahu, “I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians — between the Palestinians and the Israelis — then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat.”
The president elaborated: “Imagine how much less mischief Hizbullah or Hamas could do if, in fact, we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope. And if Hizbullah and Hamas [are] weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran’s ability to make mischief and vice versa.”
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the equally adamant conviction is that the administration is mistaken in its approach to Palestinian peacemaking, and dangerously naive if it is giving any serious consideration to the notion of containment where the apocalyptic mullahs of Teheran are concerned.
The Netanyahu leadership believes that the massive concession of freezing all building in east Jerusalem, including in thoroughly Jewish neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo, would be anything but helpful: That Israel would be undermining, by its own actions, its claims to its own capital. That every such concession seems only to produce greater Palestinian intransigence and demands for further capitulations. That Israel, in the view of at least some in the cabinet’s key septet, would be playing into the hands of a Palestinian leadership that has never truly abandoned its phased plan for the destruction of Israel. That any perception of Israeli weakness emboldens Iran. And that the Arab world needs no concessions from Israel to motivate its support for every policy that would prevent the terrifying prospect of a nuclear Iran.
This Israeli mind-set has also been made publicly evident – in the open rejection of the notion of a widened building freeze, and in ministers’ complaints that America’s disproportionate pressure on Israel is actually keeping the Palestinians away from the peace table. It was also strikingly clear in Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, when this member of the septet took direct aim at the administration: “Those who want to continue the Oslo process, who want us to continue to give and give and give, without a Palestinian willingness to recognize our right to a national home,” he charged furiously, “are cooperating with the phased plan for Israel’s destruction.”
There is also resentment in Jerusalem at what is deemed to be a US failure to internalize how greatly Israel feels it has been let down in recent years by the international community when it relinquished territory – let down over south Lebanon, where promises to prevent Hizbullah filling the vacuum after the IDF pullback of 2000 to the international border have proved repeatedly empty; and let down over Gaza, where Israel’s military response to the intensified missile attacks that followed disengagement garnered anything but sympathy and support.
Jerusalem is also bridling over Obama’s implication – with his talk of the US getting “pulled into” our region’s conflicts, and paying in “blood and treasure” – that America has had to help Israel out directly in its wars. Quite the opposite, runs the argument here: Israel has always sought to defend itself rather than have the US or others come to its rescue, and its concern now is to prevent misplaced US pressure increasing the likelihood of our being plunged into new conflicts.
OBAMA’S THINKING on Israel evolved far from the national American public eye, and there are those who spend their time speculating endlessly as to whether it is this preacher, that “anti-Israel” Washington veteran, this close Jewish adviser or that close ex-Israeli adviser who has shaped him and his policies to Israel’s ostensible detriment.
What’s at the heart of the Israeli dismay, though, is the contrast, precisely as predicted by Ehud Olmert, with Obama’s predecessor. Olmert was spot-on in stressing, as he tried to cut a deal with an unforthcoming Mahmoud Abbas in the last years of the Bush administration, that George W. Bush was unique even among self-declared friends of Israel in firmly supporting the notion of a final-status “67-plus Israel” – an Israel expanded beyond its pre-1967 lines. Olmert told this newspaper, and others, that he was doing his utmost to reach an accord while Bush was in the White House because other world leaders, and other likely presidents, would not share that fundamental empathy for an Israel extending its sovereignty into parts of Judea and Samaria to reflect not only the growth of major settlements since the 1967 war, but also Israel’s history and its security needs.
And so it would seem. Obama, in the 17 minutes I spent with him when he visited as a presidential candidate two years ago, while clearly regarding himself as a friend of Israel, evinced no particular empathy for an Israel expanded for religious, historic or security reasons. And one of the early features of the deteriorating relationship was the dispute between the two leaderships about what it was that the Bush administration had promised Israel about expanded sovereignty, and how binding such understandings should be on successor American leaderships.
Evaluating how Netanyahu’s thinking has evolved requires considerably less sleuthing and speculation. He grew up in a domestic and a political environment fundamentally committed to Israel’s assertion of legitimacy in Judea and Samaria, and has been torn by the growing realization that the absence of sufficient Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is going to require a territorial compromise with the Palestinians if Israel is to remain Jewish, democratic and internationally legitimate. He wanted to believe that last year’s declaration of personal support for a Palestinian state, complete with anthem and flag, would persuade both the Israeli mainstream and the international community of his peacemaking bona fides. He must have simultaneously believed, given Olmert’s inability to cut a deal, that the Palestinian leadership would not meet his reasonable demand for an effectively demilitarized Palestine and for a policy of compromise on the refugee issue that would preserve Israel’s internal predominantly Jewish demographic. But if Abbas did, surprisingly, prove forthcoming, he signaled that he would negotiate in good faith, and drive the toughest possible territorial bargain for Israel.
Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech did largely convince the Israeli middle ground of his readiness for substantive talks with the Palestinians; however, because of the abiding commitment to settlement expansion, it did not persuade the Obama presidency. Nor, indeed, did the Netanyahu government’s easing of restrictions on movement in the West Bank, in the cause of his “economic peace” model, which has helped fuel growth of some 10 percent in the West Bank economy these past 12 months. Most gallingly, disconcertingly and damagingly in terms of Netanyahu’s thinking on Washington, furthermore, the praise that he received for, very reluctantly, approving what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described last November as the “unprecedented” settlement home-building moratorium was superseded by another bout of pressure for a freeze in east Jerusalem and an absence, certainly in public, of any remotely comparable American pressure on the strategically intransigent Abbas.
AND SO we find ourselves in today’s debilitating and dangerous mess. Day by day, despite the flurry of assertions from Obama and others that the relationship is unbreakable, Israel, or at least its current leadership, sees itself becoming increasingly ill-loved by Washington, and perceived to be increasingly ill-loved by the watching American public, by the international community and by a delighted Arab world.
Day by day, in America, the sense is deepening that support for Israel is becoming a more partisan issue – that this Israeli government is an irritant to the Democratic presidency for its perceived obduracy on settlements and its stubborn complication of Obama’s efforts to rebuild America’s relationship with the Muslim world. Opinion polls still show remarkably high American public support for Israel, and Capitol Hill is still robustly in Israel’s corner, but the presidency does set the tone for much of the wider American mind-set, and the presidency, not the Hill, determines the conduct of foreign affairs.
Further afield, the United States seems to be coming into line with an international leadership community that, again as Olmert correctly pointed out, has been peppered with men and women who see themselves as true friends of Israel – people like Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel – but who nonetheless see that Israel as being legitimate only within its pre-1967 dimensions, give or take a limited, Palestinian-sanctioned land swap or two.
In such a climate, it should come as no surprise that boycott and divestment efforts are again intensifying, and that Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority would ban an Israeli tourism advertisement for having the nerve to show footage of the Western Wall, footage implying that – shock! – the Kotel is part of Israel. In the world of 2010, after all, the Western Wall is no longer the holiest place in Judaism. It is, rather, a disputed location beyond the pre-1967 green line, and thus an area whose status is currently unresolved, to be finalized during Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations.
The bitterness and the frustrations between Jerusalem and Washington have only intensified over the failure to so much as start indirect “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians. Even that lowest of low-expectation goals has yet to be met, with arguments and complaints raging back and forth among the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Americans about how this unsatisfactory channel is supposed to work.
US peace envoy George Mitchell shuttles back and forth, or sometimes doesn’t, weeks and months pass, Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapons capability, and the Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough that Obama hoped to use as leverage on the Iranian front disappears ever further over the horizon.
NO MATTER how dire the consequences, it is hard to imagine either Obama or Netanyahu radically changing course in the next few months.
One is the leader of the free world, and there can be no better vindication of one’s world view than to have reached that most elevated of positions. Obama does not come across as a man likely to redefine his global outlook on the basis of entreaties and arguments from an Israeli leader he has no particular reason to trust.
The other is a second-term prime minister charged with the awesome responsibility of trying to safeguard his highly vulnerable nation, utterly aware of the ruthlessness of Israel’s enemies, extraordinarily reluctant to give ground on Jerusalem, and increasingly uncertain about how much he can rely on a previously dependable ally.
People of influence on both sides are working to try to heal some of the personal rifts and bridge some of the substantive differences. Their efforts, however unpromising, are vital. The media in both countries are now routinely filled with rampant speculation about what each side is cooking up that might discomfit the other – including this week’s suggestions that the US doesn’t really know what it’s doing about Iran but is bent on preventing Israel from doing anything. Because there are inadequate direct channels of communication, each side is starting to believe at least some of the worst that is being written or said about the other, with dismal consequences.
I have two small suggestions. First, that Tzipi Livni put aside her misconceived sense of where her narrow political interests lie, and bring Kadima into the government for a guaranteed period of, say, two years. This would spare Netanyahu the need to constantly cosset this or that coalition dissenter, enable the formulation of policies that encompass the entire Israeli mainstream, and allow Israel to present a more unified, credible face to the world.
And second, that the Obama administration, replicating some of its Israel pressure on the Palestinian side, ask Mahmoud Abbas to stand up and deliver, as Netanyahu did at Bar-Ilan University last year, his version of the “two states” speech, his vision of peaceful coexistence.
Let Abbas speak in Arabic, to his own people – with his leadership colleagues on hand to publicly support and applaud him – and let him tell them that the Jews, too, have historic rights to Palestine. Let him make plain that viable compromise is vital to the future well-being of both peoples. Let him recall that the international community, in partitioning British mandatory Palestine, provided for a Jewish and an Arab entity side by side – that, in other words, the provision for revived Jewish sovereignty was integral to the right the Palestinians seek to realize for their own historically unprecedented independence. And let him declare, therefore, that he recognizes that the demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians to what is now Israel is a dream that must be abandoned, for the Jewish nation has the right to that small sliver of sovereign land of its own.
This should be a speech, moreover, not imposed by Washington, with
every phrase and key word arrived at through exhaustive semantic
battling; not a speech laden with constructive ambiguity. It should be,
rather, a speech from the heart of a would-be peacemaker.
Words are one thing, and deeds quite another, of course. But wouldn’t
such a speech be an ideal, immediate test of Palestinian intentions, an
effective barometer of what is possible? Wouldn’t a positive address
electrify and encourage Israel, and moderates across the region?
Wouldn’t such a speech serve Palestinian, Israeli and American interests?
And why, 10 months after Netanyahu’s address at Bar-Ilan University, has Washington thus far been indifferent to its absence?