'US made a really concerted effort to support Israel'

'Jpost' exclusive interview: James Cunningham speaks about the US-Israeli relationship, Obama's speech, unilateral moves by PA at UN.

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July 8, 2011 03:06
James Cunningham

James Cunningham 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The unimpaired view of the Mediterranean from the ambassador’s expansive office in the US Embassy in Tel Aviv is stunning. And it is a view that James Cunningham, the outgoing US envoy, will give up for the view from Kabul.

Cunningham, a career diplomat who took up his post in Israel under the Bush administration three years ago, will be leaving within days to take up his post as the deputy ambassador in Afghanistan. Talk about moving from a storm to a tempest.

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Here there is scattered violence with a chance of war; in Afghanistan there is serious war, with scattered violence being an optimistic forecast somewhere way off in the future.

But Cunningham, born in 1952, is a consummate, professional diplomat – something that comes out very clearly in conversation with him – and a diplomat does what a diplomat is called upon to do: which in this case is taking up that sensitive post in Kabul.

Before leaving, Cunningham – who, like his predecessor Richard Jones, kept a very low media profile – sat down for an exclusive parting interview with The Jerusalem Post.

He spoke of Israel’s perception of US President Barack Obama, the president’s Middle East speeches in May, and the Palestinians UN gambit in September. What he wouldn’t talk about was Jonathan Pollard.

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What follows are excerpts from the interview:

You have been ambassador at a time some are calling the most difficult period in Israeli-US relations in a generation. Is that a fair characterization?

I actually don’t think it is.

We certainly have had differences over the last couple of years, but my understanding of past relations between Washington and Jerusalem is that there have been plenty of periods when things were tough, and we have had serious disagreements. Through all those years we’ve managed to find a way to get over them and to figure a way to work together and get back on track towards doing what we want to accomplish together.

And I think that certainly describes this period of relations.

But how do you explain that this is the perception among much of the public?

I think we both have rather open societies. The press on both sides likes to find places where there are differences, and highlight them. We have strongly held views in the administration, and there are strongly held views here about what can and should be done.

And we’ve had more open discussion of some of these things than perhaps might have been desirable.

But the fact is that focusing on the negatives is something I’ve tried to overcome in my work here. I’ve encouraged people to get over that perception and look at the broader things we are trying to do, both bilaterally and in the region, and those I think are success stories. Our relationship, our cooperation, our discussion on Iran is qualitatively much better than it has been in the past.

I hear that a lot, but what does it actually mean? Can you give me an example?

It is closer, more frequent in-depth analysis of tactics and strategy; comparing understanding in detail about what is happening in Iran, and with the Iranian nuclear program. That concerted effort by this administration has really taken a discussion that was good before, and really made it much better, and made our understating much closer.

And on the security field...because we do understand and share Israel’s concern about its security in the region, and know there can’t be peace and stability here if Israel is insecure, this administration has made a really concerted effort to support Israel in its needs across a spectrum of things, to support its security posture in the region and make sure that it has both the technology and equipment it needs to provide for itself.

Can you give me concrete examples of that as well?

Missile defense is a big one, where we have done both operational and developmental things.

Operationally there was a very large exercise a couple years ago, the echoes of which are still going through the system in terms of how the US and Israel would cooperate in various scenarios.

And technologically we have an array of programs we are working on together, from short-range to medium- and higher-range missile threats.

The extra money we contributed to Iron Dome – $205 million – to help top up that program, to get it fielded and deployed as rapidly as possible, and which recently proved its worth.

That is a huge achievement for Israel, to bring that system into operation in a short period of time. Frankly, when I was briefed on it before I came here, most of our experts thought it couldn’t be done. Not only that it might not work, but that it couldn’t be done in anything like the short time frame that Israeli government officials were saying. That is quite an achievement.

And in a very difficult budget environment we pitched in a significant amount of money to get it over the top.

And that is just one area.

We have ongoing cooperation and discussion with the IDF across the whole range of local and regional security issues that is very positive.

The relationship between all the elements of our military forces and yours. That has been growing; it is not necessarily always seen in public, but has been growing since the time I have been here.

While you have all that, you read the newspapers and – with your ear on the ground here – understand what the perception here is of the president. Is that frustrating for you as ambassador?

It is a bit frustrating that when you have a relationship as close as ours, and the public here perceives there are problems in that relationship.

I think there is a tendency to say “what is going wrong,” instead of saying “we know that the relationship is sound and moving forward and that this is an issue that we will work through.” That is how the relationship looks from our point of view.

I think that was a central message the president has been trying to send, and was sending in May, if you go back and look at his speech [at the State Department], and the speech [three days later] at AIPAC. He was trying to convey what I think is a very deeply felt commitment to Israel as a state, as the homeland of the Jewish people, and as a place to which the United States has really a bedrock connection that will not be undone.

That does not mean at all that we don’t see the need to address some problems or issues in the region – or in Israel’s relationship with the Arab world – in the interest of furthering that relationship.

And that is where I think there have been some misperceptions on the part of the Israeli public.

Its not that this administration has ideas or is proposing things that might not be immediately welcomed here because we are indifferent or unfeeling or uncaring, or because the president is not committed. We may have different perceptions of a particular challenge or problem and a different idea about how to deal with it, and when those things happen – as has happened in the last couple years – we sit down and talk and try to figure out how to deal with that and how to move on. And that is what we are doing now.

It seems the Arab Spring has added on another layer to already existing conceptual differences between how Washington and Israel view reality, with Netanyahu saying ‘lets wait and let the dust settle before moving ahead on the diplomatic process,’ and Obama not agreeing with that approach. Is this now another source of friction?

I don’t think there is friction about the goal, or about what the implications of the process are. I think the things that we would want to see come out of the process [the developments in the Arab world], in a positive sense, are exactly the same things Israel would want to see come out of it.

What is happening now in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians? What are the Americans trying to do?

We are going to try to come up with what we think is the only way to go forward with the problem, which is through negotiations... So however that is done, and I’m not going to speculate on where all the moving pieces are, at the [present] time there is a lot of conversation going on, and we are trying to open up the pathway that the president wants to open up, to begin finally grappling with the real issues that need to be addressed.

Is the president still very determined regarding the formula he put forward about negotiations based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps. Are those the parameters he is still set on?

He addressed a number of things in his remarks, that was one of them.

That’s the one we wrote about.

That’s the one everyone focused on, which is why he spent some time in his second speech at AIPAC explaining that what he said was broader than that.

But why couldn’t he have said in his first speech at the State Department what he said at AIPAC three days later, and saved everyone a lot of grief.

If the speech was about the Middle East peace process he would have. But it wasn’t about the Middle East peace process, it was about the region, and what it is we are trying to do, and how we are trying to do it, in the region.

And the part about the Middle East – the Israel, Arab portion of that – was a rather small subset, I think two paragraphs.

Maybe it should have been a more in-depth treatment, I don’t know.

The intent was to show that that there is actually a relationship between all these disparate elements – very different countries, very different situations, very different challenges.

But we have always looked at the Middle East from a regional as well as local perspective, and that was the focus of the president’s first speech.

The second speech was a kind of a reminder of what he actually said, as opposed to what he was reported to have said.

And what he actually said was he talked about the borders, yes; but he also talked about the importance of security, what that security paradigm in general terms would have to look like, and how we would all have to get there: the need for gradual withdrawals of the Israeli presence in a secure environment in which the Palestinians demonstrate that they are able to provide security.

Very important was his statement about Hamas, and the need to understand that one cannot negotiate with an entity committed to your destruction, and that this reconciliation process raises real questions that need answers.

That is, I think, an important statement that might have gotten at least as much coverage from the original speech as the borders – but it didn’t.

What bothered the Prime Minister’s Office was that the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, which was prominent in the 2004 Bush letter to Sharon, wasn’t in the first speech, and also the refugees, which was central to the Bush letter, wasn’t in either speech, leading to a tendency among some to say that Obama hasn’t affirmed the Bush letter. Is that a fair criticism?

I’m not going to get into parsing the Bush letter and the speech... It is kind of a principle when you are writing speeches or statements, that you can either say everything over again, or you can focus on a couple of things you want to focus on at that given moment.

We have said repeatedly in many different formats that an agreement – a genuine peace agreement – needs to be final; provide for the homeland of the Jewish people and for the Palestinian people; and that it needs to based on security for Israel... Just because he didn’t go through that whole litany again doesn’t meant that it hasn’t formed the background of how he has been dealing with this from the very beginning, because it has.

Were you surprised by the prime minister’s [negative] reaction?

I understand it.

You understand his problem with the whole formulation of negotiations based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps?

Had the totality of what the president had to say been highlighted more than focusing on one particular phrase, from the very beginning – without reference precisely to the prime minister – Israeli observers could have seen that there was much in that speech that signified our understanding of the things that are important to Israel and our support for them.

You were appointed by president Bush and worked for both him and Obama. Do they have a different take on Israel? Is there a philosophical difference in how they look at the country?

I don’t think I’ll go there (laughs). But in seriousness, because I think I understand the thrust of your question, at the end of the day – no. Each presidency is different, but the bottom line fundamental thing for both presidents is the fundamentally solid friendship and support that the US evinces toward Israel, in both administrations.

I recently interviewed Elliott Abrams, and he said a major difference between the two was that Obama viewed Israel as a problem that had to be solved, and Bush had a completely different view. Is that fair?

No. I have a lot of respect for Elliott, but, no, I don’t think that is fair. There is one fundamentally contextual thing that is different in the period of the two administration, and remember Bush was there for eight years and we are only a little more than half way through the first term of Obama administration.

When president Bush came into office, the last very intensive effort to advance the peace process [Camp David] had failed, and president Clinton made clear that if the deal on the table wasn’t closed, it was not going to be grandfathered over to into a new administration.

And then, shortly thereafter, I was ambassador to the UN in New York at the time, we had the beginning of the second intifada, the focus on terrorism, 9/11, and the paradigm of the issues that we were dealing with shifted from making peace to dealing with terrorism and violence – which is a very different context.

Thankfully we’re not dealing with that context anymore, and at the end of the Bush administration we had the Annapolis process which was not, I venture to say, friction free.

But I think what it did show was a continuity of purpose over successive administrations that when a historical opportunity presents itself to try to move forward on a peace agreement here, presidents try to seize that opportunity.

That is what president Bush did toward the end of his administration. He tried to compress that into a defined time frame, if you’ll recall, and he and secretary of state Rice spent quite a bit of time trying to push that process forward with the Olmert government.

So I think there is a very clearly felt sense by American leaders, certainly for the last couple of decades, that it is in Israel’s long-term interest and our long-term interest to try to see if we can get this done, and sometimes we push a little bit.

You were ambassador at the UN. How do you see the Palestinian bid in September playing out?

First of all we have made very clear we don’t think going to the UN is the way to go – in any of its various permutations.

One of the dangers of this is that taking an issue as sensitive as this to the General Assembly, let alone to the Security Council, is an unpredictable proposition. Even if you are the initiator, it doesn’t mean you can control what is going to happen when you have an issue being discussed there by 180-190 nations. There is no doubt in my mind that the Palestinians could take a resolution to the General Assembly and get it passed by a majority of countries.

That is not going to help them achieve what they really need to achieve.

They run the risk of ending up with a result that will make it more difficult, rather than easier, to actually negotiate the outcome they want, because there could be things in the resolution that will make it more difficult to negotiate. Or, depending on what direction it takes, it could even lead away from it, or try to lead away from negotiations.

However it works out, if that route is taken, it could – depending on the politics of it – it could be an obstacle both politically and in terms of substance to at some point resuming the only path that will really resolve the issue. We think it is very ill advised to open that door. We will keep trying to persuade the Palestinians and others not to do it, and if they do, we will deal with it when the time comes.

Why wasn’t Pollard allowed to attend his father’s funeral?

Those kinds of issues are – as I believe in your system – really fenced off from outside considerations, so I can’t answer that. It is really in the hands of the Justice Department, the people who run our legal system.

How about the more general question that he is being treated in a way that even spies from enemy countries are not treated.

Why? I am not going to respond to that, that’s a different part of the executive branch that is responsible for that. It is not the kind of policy we are dealing with.

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