In romantic terms, the July 6 meeting in the White House between President
Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a combination of “it’s
not you, it’s me” and “let’s hug it out.”
Both phrases are understated
versions of the more lurid and moist descriptions of the encounter in the
A meeting proclaimed, before it took place, to be “doomed
to succeed” because of shared political interests, ostensibly lived up to the
hype. But so did the previous meetings, almost all of which were declared to be
pre-programmed to fail. They, too, lived up to their expectations and
facilitated what some see as an unprecedented and wide divergence of interests
and policy between the two allies.
Much like the application of those
one-liners to the realm of love and relationships, last week’s meeting was all
about excuses, denial, winning time, respite and expediency. It does not seem as
if it was genuinely about substance. Time magazine’s Massimo Calabresi savvily
depicted it as “false intimacy.”
Was it false? Not entirely.
it real? Not really.
Reconciling these two answers involves a basic
mutual misreading. Netanyahu has never understood that Obama wants to be a great
Obama is not your vanilla American politician. He is not
interested in being merely a good or adequate president, like the (roughly) 39
ordinary presidents who preceded him.
Rather, he wants to be one of the
great presidents, like the other (arguably) four. Obama wants to be remembered
in the same historic breath as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt
Getting an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Obama believes, will
tick off a box on the application form for joining that prestigious
Obama is the first president to define resolution of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a US national security interest. The US
will not only serve as intermediary or facilitator, but it has a vested interest
in an agreement. The absence of an agreement, as Gen. David Petraeus said in
Senate testimony in March, creates challenges to US interests. Thus, Israel is
not accommodating to the broader interests of its superpower
Obama has never really understood the toll that life in a
permanent state of war in the Middle East exacts on Israelis.
disillusioned, cynical, distrustful, bitter and apprehensive about their
Palestinian neighbors. Cerebrally and viscerally, Israelis know Obama is right.
But they feel more comfortable within the confines of Netanyahu’s “they are all
out to get us” attitude.
Yet this does not fully explain the discord
between the two. In recent months, Netanyahu allegedly argued that Obama was
inherently hostile toward him, unsympathetic toward Israel and in fact
represented a major shift in US-Israel relations and was the embodiment of abuse
of an ally.
If Netanyahu was right, then his statement after this last
visit that Obama is a great friend of Israel who understands Israel’s security
predicaments and concerns is disingenuous. Either you were wrong in interpreting
and understanding the US for a year and a half, or, conversely, you are grossly
exaggerating the significance of last week’s love-fest in the Oval
The meeting was, with the limited perspective of less than a
week, an exercise in practical political realism. Given the last 18 months of
misperceptions, melodramatic statements, acrimony and the free exchange of
insults, realism is quite an achievement. Given the quality of US-Israel
relations over the last 30-40 years, that we actually have to devote articles to
one meeting is a serious underachievement.
THERE ARE two distinct levels
and aspects through which the meeting should be analyzed.
The first is
how it relates to the US-Israel relationship.
The second level pertains
to the consequence such a “positive, warm and cordial” meeting has on the
immediate (weeks) and medium-range (months) future of the Israeli- Palestinian
Israelis were pampered with 16 consecutive years of the
Clinton and Bush administrations – with all due respect to the differences in
historical and peace process context – showering them with weekly love letters.
The unsentimental Obama brought to the forefront the core issue of whether
Israel has turned from “asset” to “liability.”
To think that such a
profound and fundamental shift is at all possible overnight and could be caused
by one individual, even if he is the president of the United States, is both
shallow and delusional.
The issue deserves ample but separate attention.
Suffice it to say that Israel was never the asset it thought it was and most
certainly is not the liability some detractors portray it as becoming. The US
and Israel have forged a very unique relationship, but the concepts of “asset”
and “liability” are not intrinsic to it.
FROM AN American policy point of
view, cornering Netanyahu and exposing him as a nonpartner was
counterproductive, although the prime minister did his best –
perhaps – to vindicate those who didn’t like him in Washington.
idea last week was to press the restart button and treat Netanyahu as an
order to co-opt him into a serious peace process. If there are
between us, goes the Obama logic, they are clearly substantive, not
Netanyahu is incapable of or unwilling to engage, we’ll take it from
The Obama grand strategy is to get Israelis and
agree to a Clinton parameters- like framework. This would comprise a
demilitarized Palestinian state on approximately 90-95 percent of the
with the three major settlement blocs incorporated into Israel in
agreed-upon land swaps in compensation. Settlements situated east of the
will be dismantled gradually or be allowed to live under Palestinian
sovereignty. Israel will maintain a military presence along the Jordan
an agreed period of time. The “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees
fulfilled only in the newly established Palestinian state. And Jerusalem
not be divided, but most of Arab East Jerusalem will be Palestinian and a
mechanism for joint sovereignty over parts of the Old City will be
The one potentially major outcome of the meeting is
Obama finds out that Israel and/or the Palestinians are consistently
intransigent, the “Clinton parameters” will soon become the “Obama
When that happens, no one will remember how great last
meeting was.The writer is
president of the US-Israel Institute at the
Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York. This
appeared at www.bitterlemons.org and is republished by permission.