Analysis: Can Israel win favor on the Arab street?

It is abundantly clear that one of the purposes of Obama’s visit is to set the reset button with the Israeli public.

By
March 20, 2013 03:47
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Dore Gold – whose words should be given even more weight now since he will soon likely fill a top slot in the Prime Minister’s Office – said bluntly at last week’s Herzliya Conference that the relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “started off on the wrong foot” four years ago.

Gold, a former ambassador to the UN who always weighs his public words with great care, said he could make that comment “pretty definitely” because he was at two meetings between the two men when they were both running for office, “and the personal chemistry between the individuals was actually very positive.”

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Gold said that while it was “hard to identify exactly where this wrong foot began,” his assessment was that it had to do with the “assumptions that were moving in the political systems of both countries.”

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One of the assumptions in Washington, Gold said, was that the sides were just a hairbreadth away from an agreement, and with just a little push here, or a bit more “Camp David time” there, they could be pushed over the ledge to an agreement.

While that was the main difference Gold discussed, it was not the only difference in assumption between the two leaders. There were two major conceptual differences at the time between Obama and Netanyahu that came to the surface time after time and created friction.

The first had to do with Iran, and the idea of linkage.

When Netanyahu met Obama in the Oval Office in May 2009, the president linked Iran and the Palestinian issue, saying that progress on the Palestinian track would make it easier to enlist the Arab world in getting behind efforts to stop Iran.



Netanyahu took the opposite approach: First, neutralize Iran’s nuclear program – thereby dismissing Tehran’s ability to gain hegemony in the region – and then it will be much easier to deal with the Palestinians.

According to this reasoning, as long as Iran felt that it was riding high in the saddle in the region, it would never let a diplomatic process get off the ground, and it had two players it could send onto the field to gum up the works whenever it wanted: Hamas and Hezbollah.

First deal with Iran, then the Palestinians, Netanyahu argued.

And then there was the question of how to deal with the Palestinians, another major conceptual difference. Obama, at the time, was under the sway of those who felt that if Israel would just give a little more, concede a little more land, then peace would be attainable.

Netanyahu, however, reflected a different approach, saying that the land for peace equation never worked in the past – not in Lebanon, nor in Gaza – and there was no reason to believe it would work now either.

As time passed and reality began to bite, the gaps in these conceptual differences began to narrow. Few in the administration actually seem to still believe that solving the Palestinian issue would impact on efforts to stop Iran, and many in Washington have been disabused of the notion that a settlement freeze will bring about gestures from the Arab world that would start a snowball effect of gestures and counter gestures, concessions and counter concessions, leading straight to a comprehensive agreement on the White House lawn. No one is there anymore.

As the conceptual gaps narrowed, so the tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama governments lessened. Lessened, but not erased.

It is abundantly clear that one of the purposes of Obama’s visit is to set the reset button with the Israeli public. He will say things the public wants to hear, and try to connect with them. It is equally clear that the degree to which the Israeli public believes and trusts the US president dictates to a large degree its willingness to take the risks the president ultimately wants Israel to take.

And while this will certainly be a “feel good” trip, the positive atmospherics should not obscure one major conceptual gap that still exists between Jerusalem and Washington – and this gap has to do with the proverbial “Arab street.”

Last Thursday morning Maj.- Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of military intelligence, gave an unsettling assessment of Israel’s strategic situation at the Herzliya Conference.

He talked about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and how Islamist parties have moved into the vacuum everywhere in the region, from Egypt, Turkey and Gaza, to Tunisia, Morocco and Libya.

In the Arab street, Kochavi said, “the distinction between religious and secular life is being blurred.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, wants to promote its agenda – a state based on Islamic law.

And with regimes in the region moving from a nationalist to religious paradigm, people are looking at the conflict through a religious prism.

“Israel,” he said, “is seen as an alien element, and that sense is growing. I cannot exaggerate that.”

While acknowledging that one cannot paint all Islamic parties with the same brush, and that there was among some “a pragmatic willingness for compromise in the short and moderate term,” at its heart the Arab street views Israel as something alien and unacceptable in the Middle East.

Kochavi articulated Israel’s assumption: As the region becomes more Islamic, the chance of Israel normalizing ties in the region becomes dimmer and dimmer.

And then there is Obama.

A few hours after Kochavi presented the Israeli “assumption,” an interview Obama granted Channel 2 was aired. In that interview, during which Obama articulated the type of warmth for Israel that the public has yearned to hear over the last four years, he posited his assumption: “There is now a situation in which Israel can’t count on just a few autocrats holding everything together in the neighborhood,” he said.

“Israel has an interest in being able to speak to the Arab street.”

What he said was expounded shortly after the interview was aired during a conference call with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

“Israel, as it makes peace, is going to have to recognize the broader role of public opinion in peacemaking,” he said.

“In the past, the peace processes with a variety of countries and partners in the region were between Israel and individual leaders. And as you move towards more democratic, more representative and responsive governments, Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli- Palestinian peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace.”

Rhodes and Obama’s assumption is that the Arab street will be more accepting of Israel if it just “does right” by the Palestinians.

Kochavi’s assumption, reflecting Netanyahu’s thinking as well, is that an Arab street led by the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to accept Israel in any form, and that Israel will always be viewed as alien and unacceptable.

Those are vastly different assumptions and could lead to very different conclusions as to what Israel needs to do in the diplomatic process. It is a safe bet, however, that during this “feel good” trip, those differences – that conceptual gap – will remain behind closed doors.

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