Diplomacy: In the US, we trust?

Before getting a new letter of commitments from Washington, Netanyahu is keen on Obama signing off on Bush’s pledges.

By
October 8, 2010 16:30
President Barack Obama walk with Israeli Prime Min

netanyahu obama 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Currency is only valuable if those issuing it can stand behind it. The dollar works because you can go into a store and people accept it. It loses its value if it is not backed up. That’s Economics 101.

That’s also International Relations 101. Countries will only trust other countries’ commitments if they back up previous ones. If they don’t, it creates a trust deficit.

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Which is one of the problems the Obama administration is facing trying to convince Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his inner circle and his top ministers that a new presidential letter of commitments is incentive enough to extend the settlement construction moratorium.

Netanyahu said on more than one occasion since the original 10-month settlement moratorium was declared last November that it was a one-time gesture designed to draw the Palestinians into talks and that it would not be repeated.

His credibility, therefore, would be seriously compromised were he now to extend that freeze, even for a limited amount of time. Domestically, the electorate would question the value of his word, and internationally he would be viewed – on the eve of delicate and sensitive negotiations – as very pliable, as not having any “red lines.”

The Obama administration realizes all this. It realizes that even a limited extension would cost Netanyahu, and as a result it is reportedly trying to “sweeten” the deal by offering some “incentives.”

These reportedly include supporting a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley; selling Israel more F-35 fighters; pledging to veto any anti-Israel resolutions on the diplomatic process in the UN Security Council for the next year; and significantly upgrading Israel’s early warning capabilities.



One reason Netanyahu didn’t jump at the package, according to Israeli officials, is that the package, if one looks at it carefully, is not that attractive.

A sale of F-35 planes is already in the works; allowing an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley could be interpreted as part of previous US commitments to ensure Israel secure and defensible borders; Congress would be unlikely to let the administration throw Israel to the wolves in the UN; and access to early warning platforms seems a given between allies like Israel and the US.

Beyond all that, however, the “trust deficit” is another reason why the Netanyahu government is not jumping at the deal.

FROM ISRAEL’S perspective, there is already one letter on the table – president George W. Bush’s letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 that enabled Sharon to pass disengagement through his government.

The problem, from this government’s perspective, is that this letter hasn’t been honored by President Barack Obama and his administration. And if that’s the case, then why – some key ministers in Netanyahu’s government are arguing – should Israel place its faith in yet another letter.

How many times, the argument runs, will Israel have to take a step that will “cement” its relationship with the US? Hasn’t that relationship already been cemented by previous steps and previous letters, like the Bush-Sharon letter and the disengagement from Gaza? And if not, then why would one think that a future letter would have any greater adhesive power? This is why Netanyahu is reportedly making a recommitment by Obama to the Bush letter his precondition to bringing a two-month extension of the moratorium to his ministers for their consideration. His message: First reaffirm and make good on what was already promised, before promising something else.

THE OBAMA administration’s Middle East policy, though its overall tone toward Israel has improved dramatically over the last half year, is still reeling from two major missteps.

The first was the president’s call in May 2009, during his first, difficult meeting with Netanyahu, for a complete settlement construction halt.

This call immediately drove Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas up a high tree from which he has not yet descended – if Obama was calling for total settlement moratorium, then Abbas could certainly not do anything less.

Obama made a similar move during his address to the UN two weeks ago, calling very publicly on Israel to extend the settlement moratorium. By doing this he again chased Abbas up the tree, because – once more – how could Abbas settle for anything short of a settlement moratorium, if this indeed was what the president of the United States was calling for.

The second misstep was and continues to be the administration’s blatant refusal to commit – or otherwise nod and wink at – the Bush letter. Sharon, when he went to Bush in April 2004 looking to muster domestic support for his disengagement plan, knew very well that he would get nothing from the Palestinians in exchange for leaving Gaza. He also knew that disengagement would not buy peace. What he did think he got were iron-clad assurances from the US that would mean much more for Israel’s national security than retaining the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

He thought he received a US pledge that it would not back the Palestinian demand that refugees and their descendents be allowed into pre-1967 Israel.

He thought he received a commitment that the US was not calling for a return to the 1967 borders, that it would back Israel’s holding on to the large settlement blocks, and he thought that the US would stand firmly behind Israel in the face of what he realized would be pressure coming to bear regarding its nuclear program.

Sharon waved this letter, which was endorsed by huge majorities in both houses of Congress, as an historic achievement. Questions he and his advisers were asked regarding whether the letter would bind succeeding administrations, or whether it had any real statutory impact, were largely dismissed.

History, they said, has shown that presidents do not easily dismiss letters of commitment written by their predecessors.

Except that sometimes they do.

As recently as July, amid reports that Netanyahu was going to ask Obama to recommit to the Bush letter during his meeting in the White House, senior administration officials refused to sign off on the letter.

Washington Times reporter Elli Lake, during a conference call with senior White House officials Dan Shapiro and Ben Rhodes in July, asked specifically about that letter and whether it reflected the US understanding of the parameters of the final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Shapiro sidestepped. “We have a very good understanding with our Israeli partners about the foundations of this relationship and this effort to move toward our shared goals of comprehensive peace and two states,” he said. “But on the specific question you’ve raised, I don’t have a comment.”

Rhodes quickly moved on to another question.

Equally troublesome from the government’s perspective, was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unequivocal denial of any understandings on settlement construction between Israel and the US that flowed from this letter.

Referring to tacit informal understandings on where building could and could not take place, Clinton, in a press conference in Washington with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in March 2009, said that “in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”


Former US deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, as well as senior US Israeli officials at the time, disputed Clinton’s remarks. But beyond the historic question of what indeed was agreed upon, and whose historic record is more accurate, Abrams’s or Clinton’s, the whole episode left nagging questions at the highest levels of Israel’s decision-making pyramid regarding the reliability of US commitments.

And this questioning, this doubt, has resurfaced once again as Netanyahu debates whether to put his faith – and much more – in a new presidential letter.


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