Renewing dialogue with Israel

President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel is long overdue, but better late than never.

March 20, 2013 22:20
4 minute read.
Obama and Netanyahu pose with IDF personnel

Obama and Netanyahu pose with IDF personnel 370. (photo credit: GPO)

President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel is long overdue, but better late than never.

Much as Obama sought a “reset” in relations with Russia and engagement with various rivals, including Iran, the visit provides an opportunity to renew a true dialogue with one of the US’s closest allies.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu certainly shares the responsibility for recent tensions, but one should treat one’s friends at least as well as one’s rivals. To Obama’s great credit, he significantly upgraded the security relationship and now is the time to do the same with the diplomatic dialogue.

The most pressing issue on the agenda is a collapsing Syria and the increasingly realistic danger that it may, in extremis, use chemical weapons against its civilian population, or Israel. Recent indications have created the worrisome impression that the administration is focused on ways of responding to a Syrian use of such weapons, rather than preventing them from being used. The military options are certainly problematic, but the horrific specter of chemical weapon usage – the Syrian arsenal includes VX and Sarin, the two deadliest forms – warrants careful joint planning. The US and international community stood aside while nearly 80,000 Syrians were slaughtered; it would be unconscionable if they failed to prevent a chemical attack.

Iran is less pressing, but ultimately the greater threat. Iran has once again converted medium-enriched uranium to civilian uses just as it was reaching the critical quantity that might have triggered military action, and the timeline to nuclear capability may have been pushed back again.

Nevertheless, the administration’s hopes that sanctions and engagement will lead to a diplomatic resolution appear to be fading.

If that is the case, military action will remain the only option, making the need for close coordination with Israel greater than ever.

Obama faces a crucial decision regarding whether to make a major push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and what he hears in Jerusalem and Ramallah will have a major impact. The hubris of a new administration led to the misguided belief, during its first year, that it could impose a solution on Israel. The administration failed to recognize the importance of Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze and should have put the onus on the Palestinians to make a commensurate counter-concession. It recklessly abrogated Bush’s 2004 recognition that the settlement blocs would remain part of Israel, only to reverse course thereafter, and mistakenly believed that agreement on the supposedly “easier” issues of land and security would ease agreement on Jerusalem and refugees, when in fact what was needed was a “package approach.”

Perhaps most egregious was the decision to adopt a standoff policy toward Israel; accept our diplomatic demands or face a cold shoulder.

The timing for a major new push for peace could not be less opportune. The Palestinians are hopelessly divided between the West Bank and Gaza and no more willing to compromise than they were when Barak and Olmert presented dramatic peace proposals. The regional situation is entirely un-conducive to peacemaking and American influence is at a nadir. Moreover, the new Israeli cabinet, likely to be reformist domestically, will probably be stalemated on foreign policy.

The prospects of success are thus meager and the Middle East cannot afford another failed peace process; failure will undermine whatever residual goodwill still exists among Israelis and Palestinians and make peacemaking that much harder in the future, if and when more propitious circumstances arise. In the meantime, Obama should adopt a go-slow approach on negotiations and focus his efforts on ensuring Egypt remains at peace, the Palestinian Authority does not collapse, violence is not renewed in the West Bank and Hamas observes the cease-fire. American diplomatic capital should be used when it can make a difference. At present it cannot.

Mr. President, Israel is not always the easiest ally, but we are the only true one you have in the Middle East, and one of the staunchest in the world. Many of us in Israel agree with you on the peace process issues, including settlements, but the way to convince our more skeptical compatriots is to win their hearts and minds, not through pressure, and this should be a primary objective of your trip.

It took us 2,000 years to reestablish our national sovereignty and one of the attributes of sovereignty, as the US knows from its own experience, is the right to screw up.

You can try to convince us of our errors, cajole and even push somewhat, but Israel is a raucous, vibrant democracy and ultimately only we bear responsibility for our policies, both thoughtful and misguided.

In the best tradition of democracies, we do usually end up making the right decisions – albeit often only after trying everything else.

The author, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.

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