Obama and Netanyahu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The accumulation of insults hurled at Prime Minister Netanyahu marks an unprecedented low in the personal relations between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. Particularly problematic is the fact that there seems to be no end in sight to the continuing negative dynamics. Just the opposite, the crisis has entered a tailspin, diving out of control.
If in the past, Washington and Jerusalem attempted to minimize tensions, or at least to hide them, today it seems that there is neither interest nor ability by either side to contain this crisis and find a solution.
At this point, the crisis does not affect the strategic alliance between the two countries, but without a mature, responsible effort emanating from both capitals to restore the personal relations to their proper course, both countries will suffer strategically in the long term.
There is no doubt that ideological-political differences and a strategic vision by the two leaders at odds with each other do not contribute to the quality of their relationship. But this is not the main problem. In the past, there were also severe differences of outlook between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office – for instance, during the Ben-Gurion-Kennedy and the Begin–Carter periods, but then the leaders knew how to maintain respect and mutual appreciation, at least in the public arena, and did not allow pertinent disagreements to turn into personal criticism and political attacks at home.
In retrospect, it seems the source of the problem is the extreme lack of trust and respect between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, originating in the differences of their approach to the Palestinian problem. Netanyahu’s agreement to begin a diplomatic process whose purpose was to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians in a set time was a critical mistake. It was clear to everyone aside from Obama and his administration that this goal was unrealistic, based on proven and repeated experience.
Instead of looking Obama, Hillary Clinton, and later John Kerry in the eye and talking with them directly and openly, Netanyahu agreed to allow the masquerade between us and the Palestinians to go ahead.
In this masquerade, each side knew that there was no way to reach a permanent agreement under the current conditions, and therefore the tactic must be to blame the other side. Obama, like George Bush before him, may not have liked or agreed with the painful reality and truth shown him, but he certainly would have been impressed and appreciated the honestly and openness in the relations with the prime minister, even “agreeing to disagree.”
In the past as well, the Americans tried to lead Israel down impossible paths. President Bush initiated diplomatic moves that prime minister Ariel Sharon could not agree to, but at that point the redlines were made immediately clear.
The Americans may not have gained satisfaction from this, but they appreciated the honesty and directness that allowed them to plan an educated, applicable strategy, avoiding the embarrassment that comes with cultivating unrealistic expectations. As a result of the direct dialogue, Israel and the US jointly agreed on the 2003 road map, based on advances and developments in the field, not on dates decided upon in advance.
Most likely, Obama would not have agreed with Bush that the path to a permanent agreement with the Palestinians is a long way off, and may have even objected to striving first to reach a long-term interim agreement in the spirit of the road map. However, he would have been obligated to respect a reasoned Israeli position.
Today it is hard to convince the administration of the sincerity of Israeli moves, and worse, it feels as if it has been deceived. Trust and credibility are at the heart of correct relations between allies. The uncomfortable truth spoken behind closed doors is preferable to postponing the conflict, hoping it will go away.
Despite all the severe mistakes and the bad blood, it is possible to come to our senses and avoid a further deterioration in relations, basing them on trust and mutual appreciation, despite all the disagreements. It is vital to restore the dialogue between Washington and Jerusalem in order to return to joint strategic planning.
Repairing the relationship is a vital Israeli interest, and even if in the short-term the security relations between Israel and the US won’t be affected, we are still in need of the American veto in the UN Security Council against dangerous resolutions the Palestinians are planning with European backing. More important is the coordination of the American and Israeli positions on Iran.Danny Ayalon is a former deputy foreign minister.