A missed opportunity

Netanyahu’s slogan used to be: “Not one single brick.” It now seems to have become: “Be like Trump.”

December 30, 2016 14:01

John Kerry lays out Mideast peace vision

John Kerry lays out Mideast peace vision

On May 18, 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the White House. It was three months after his reelection and Netanyahu had come to Washington to meet America’s new president, Barack Obama.

The two men had actually met before, nearly a year earlier in Jerusalem. Obama had come on a 36-hour trip to gain some foreign policy credentials in his race against Sen. John McCain and sat down for half an hour with Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition but predicted to soon replace Ehud Olmert whose government was slowly falling apart.

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At the time, Netanyahu thought the meeting with Obama had gone well. While he was friendly with McCain, Netanyahu was impressed with Obama’s sharpness and energetic youth. After the meeting, Netanyahu told his advisers that Obama seemed like someone he could get along with if he beat McCain and once he, Netanyahu, was reelected prime minister.

Ahead of Netanyahu’s May meeting with Obama, ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor held a series of meetings with the president’s national security team to discuss the agenda.

Meridor and Netanyahu knew that Obama was going to bring up settlements, but then again so had every other US president. This meeting was not supposed to be any different. Netanyahu wanted to use the meeting to discuss Iran and to understand the timetable Obama was planning to use for dealing with its nuclear program.

But when Netanyahu entered the Oval Office and his private meeting with the president carried on for two hours, the Israelis knew something had gone wrong. While Netanyahu thought he had come to discuss Iran, Obama used the meeting to demand a complete freeze of settlement construction.

During the meeting, Obama told Netanyahu that “not a single brick” could be added to a settlement. Everything, Obama said, had to be frozen. Everything.

It was a phrase Netanyahu would carry with him for eight years and use frequently when explaining to coalition partners and settler leaders why he had to be careful when approving construction in the West Bank. “Not one single brick,” Netanyahu would remind them. There is not a Likud member around today who has not heard Netanyahu say those words.

When Netanyahu and his team went the next day to Capitol Hill, the senators and congressmen they met had already been briefed by the White House on the new settlement demands. It was a full-court press.

The thing is that the writing was pretty much on the wall. While Obama’s seminal Cairo speech was still a month away, there were already signs that he was looking to create daylight between Washington and Jerusalem.

After his inauguration, Obama first spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before taking a call from Olmert. George Mitchell, the former US senator whose 2001 report had called on Israel to freeze settlement construction, had been brought back to the White House as Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace.

Netanyahu tried to contain the damage. Following the meeting, Obama and Netanyahu established a joint team to see if a compromise could be reached on settlements. It would take some time but by November, Israel had approved a 10-month freeze on settlement construction. Not a single brick, just as Obama had ordered.

This story is important to remember after Israel faced one of the most aggressive assaults on the settlement enterprise in recent history. While Netanyahu’s reaction makes it seem like he was surprised, he wasn’t. Once again, the signs were all there. Obama started his presidency opposed to Israel’s settlements and is ending it pretty much the same way. While eight years have passed, his opposition has not wavered. On the contrary – it has only grown just like the number of settlers has throughout the same period.

In addition, Netanyahu knew and warned for the past year that an anti-settlement United Nations Security Council resolution was likely to come in Obama’s last weeks in office. Netanyahu’s primary concern was that the resolution would set down new parameters for a peace deal with the Palestinians and would, for example, include Jerusalem and ’67 lines for the first time in a Security Council decision.

An anti-settlement resolution was actually the lesser of the two evils.

In his exhausting speech on Wednesday night, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Obama does not plan to pass a second resolution for how a peace deal needs to be reached. While Kerry mentioned new parameters, they, he said, will remain in his speech.

Then what was the purpose of the speech? It seems that Kerry needed to vent. He invested huge capital and time in trying to reach a peace deal – 130 hours of phone calls with Netanyahu and dozens of meetings – and feels that it was all for nothing.

The second impression from the speech is that Kerry really cares about Israel and the direction in which it is heading. Likud members might refer to him as being “obsessed” or “messianic,” but he is a true friend who has supported Israel throughout 30-plus years of service in the Senate and the State Department. He might have a different vision for Israel, but that doesn’t mean he is not a friend.

On the contrary. Even Netanyahu, who this week launched a full-fledged assault on Obama and Kerry, has said numerous times over the years that the assistance and military cooperation Israel received from this administration was unprecedented. There was the arrival two weeks ago of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, the signing of the $38 billion military aid package, the assistance for Iron Dome, as well as intelligence and technological sharing that stays out of the headlines.

There were also the times that Netanyahu was able to pick up the phone and call Obama for urgent help. That was the case, for example, in 2011 when a mob stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo and Obama’s intervention secured the Israelis’ safe departure.

It is also important to remember that settlements have always been a divisive issue throughout America and Israel’s shared history.

Every president for the last 50 years has slammed Israel on settlements and some have even allowed Security Council resolutions to pass.

For Americans, the settlements have never made sense. Continued construction means Israel is insincere and unpractical. If Israel were sincere, Americans say, then why build where you say you one day want there to be a Palestinian state. And unpractical, because as settlements grow a Palestinian state becomes more difficult to envision.

Even so, almost all Israeli prime ministers managed to find a way to work with their American counterparts. They built in the settlements but were forgiven since they were believed to be pursuing genuine peace.

That was the case with Yitzhak Rabin who signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, with Ehud Barak who went to Camp David in 2000, with Ariel Sharon who pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and with Ehud Olmert who went to Annapolis in 2007. All built in the settlements but all were perceived to have been sincere with their pursuit for peace. Netanyahu simply wasn’t believed in Washington.

Obama and Kerry didn’t think he was sincere in his declared desire to implement a two-state solution.

Nevertheless, there is legitimate criticism of Kerry and his speech.

Firstly, why give it now? What good does a speech do just weeks before leaving office? If Kerry wanted to be effective, he would have given the same speech in 2014 when the last round of talks broke down and the Obama administration still had two years in office. Secondly, is this really the speech a secretary of state in 2016 should be giving? Is Syria not a bigger problem? Is the future of Libya, Yemen and Iraq not a bigger concern? Has Iran’s continued support of terrorism and development of long-range ballistic missiles suddenly moved to the back burner? And thirdly, the speech lacked any accountability or soul-searching on Kerry’s part. The speech had almost everything – a description of what the Obama administration has done for Israel, a list of what the Palestinians need to do (stop terrorism and incitement), a warning to Israel of what will happen if a two-state solution is not achieved and the outlining of parameters to make that happen. But it was given as if there was no American role in the conflict, as if the US had nothing to do with what has happened here over the last eight years.

Kerry, for example, could have acknowledged some mistakes.

One of them might have been the administration’s decision to get stuck on the settlement issue to begin with and to set a high bar that Abbas had to meet. By ordering a freeze in 2009, Obama ensured that Abbas always needed a freeze – or another major concession – before taking the simple step of sitting down and talking to Israel.

It is one thing to say – as Kerry did – that if the settlements were removed, the conflict would still not be solved. It is another thing though when everything you do as an administration makes it seem like it will.

The second mistake – one Kerry is trying to fix at the last minute – was neglecting the Israeli people. Washington failed to realize that no Israeli leader will take risks for peace as long as Israelis are not pounding on his door to do so. Here is the test: If tomorrow someone organizes a rally to save Amona and the next day someone organizes a rally to restart peace talks, which one will fill Rabin Square in Tel Aviv? My guess: Amona.

The Israelis have fallen asleep. They look at the withdrawal from Gaza, the pullout from Lebanon, the wars that have ensued as well as 20 years of Palestinian intransigence and ask – what is the point? Anyhow, they assume, the Palestinians will reject any Israeli offer.

Anyhow, Israelis argue, there won’t be real peace with ISIS on Israel’s northern and southern borders and Iran growing stronger in the region.

The public needs to be convinced that peace is in its interest. Only then will the people demand of their leadership to take action.

But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu is off the hook. Even without public pressure, a leader is meant to lead and Netanyahu’s time has come. Does Netanyahu want a two-state solution as he announced on 60 Minutes or does he want to keep building in the West Bank? Netanyahu has the political power to do what he wants. If he wants to renew negotiations with the Palestinians he can. If he wants to annex the West Bank he can do that too. He just needs to decide. Israelis deserve more than an untenable status quo.

In the meantime, Netanyahu is playing a game of high-stakes poker by cutting off diplomatic ties with some of Israel’s most important friends. It seems that Netanyahu is doing this to signal to Donald Trump that they are similar, that like the president-elect, the Israeli prime minister also refuses to cave in to pressure.

Netanyahu’s slogan used to be: “Not one single brick.” It now seems to have become: “Be like Trump.”

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