Diplomacy: 'Expect the unexpected'

The predominant sense in the Netanyahu camp is that the Obama administration is very much in the policy-review stage.

clinton netanyahu 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
clinton netanyahu 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
'Expect the unexpected," Binyamin Netanyahu told then senator Hillary Clinton last summer, when they met in the US soon after she lost her bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee to Barack Obama. The words proved prophetic, and Clinton reminded Netanyahu of them when they met again Tuesday in Jerusalem in wildly different circumstances: Clinton as US secretary of state, not defeated presidential aspirant; Netanyahu as prime minister-designate, not opposition leader and head of a middling party with only 12 piddling Knesset seats. Neither of them last summer could have anticipated the turn of events that has cast them together again. And now that Netanyahu will soon be calling the shots for Israel, and Clinton will be doing the bidding for Obama, "partly sunny, with scattered thunderstorms" is the widely expected forecast for Israeli-US relations. Partly sunny, because the relationship between the two countries is close, strategic, deeply-rooted and based on shared interests and values. Or, as Clinton said after meeting her "dear and old friend" President Shimon Peres on Tuesday morning, "It is important that the United States always underscore our unshakable, durable, fundamental relationship and support for the State of Israel." While that line may at first blush sound banal, it actually isn't, but rather sends a powerful message to all those waiting to exploit fissures in the US-Israeli relationship to weaken Israel. The subtext here is that despite disagreements - and there are and will be disagreements - the US is as committed to Israeli security now as it was under US president George W. Bush. So much for the sunshine. Regarding the rain, it - like the sunshine - is inevitable, and will likely accompany what looks at this time like a fundamental difference in policy between where the US wants to take the region - a two-state solution - and where Netanyahu is willing to go. At this point, the farthest Netanyahu, at least publicly, seems willing to go is to a self-governing Palestinian entity - what detractors might call "autonomy plus," but which Netanyahu would probably prefer to refer to as "state minus." His vision - and this is after the economic situation in the territories improves dramatically; the Palestinian security services are upgraded to be able to stop terrorists, not only pickpockets; and Palestinian textbooks indoctrinate toward compromise, not hatred - is for a type of entity that right now doesn't exist anywhere in the world. What Netanyahu has in mind is a state without some of the key trappings of statehood, such as an army, the right to make defensive treaties or control over its water, airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. As cogent as Netanyahu's arguments might be - that no one, including the US, really wants to see a militarized Palestinian state, or one that has the ability to enter into defensive treaties with Iran - it is clear that this vision is at odds with the US vision of two states, as articulated clearly this week by Clinton. The US is not giving up on the two-state solution, and is committed to it, Clinton said Monday in Sharm e-Sheikh, at a press conference at the Gaza reconstruction conference. "I feel passionately about this. This is something that is in my heart, not just in my portfolio." As such, this would seem to indicate clearly that Clinton, and the administration she represents, and Netanyahu are on a collision course over the matter. That the expected collision did not take place at Tuesday's meeting doesn't really mean all that much, diplomatic officials said. Since there is not yet any Israeli government, or government policy, there is no room for pressure over what does not yet exist. The Obama administration and Netanyahu are very much at the beginning of the beginning. As Clinton again said in Sharm, "Well, Israel is in the process of forming a new government, and we will be discussing specific policies with that new government once it is formed." In other words, don't put the cart before the horse, or the criticism before the policy. YET CLINTON did indicate in her public statements in Jerusalem that she understands that Netanyahu is coming from a different place. "It is our assessment, as I expressed yesterday and again today, that eventually, the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution seems inescapable. That doesn't mean that we don't respect the opinions of others who see it differently," she said. "We happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution, step by step, is in Israel's best interest. But obviously, it's up to the people and the government of Israel to decide how to define your interests." Those are not exactly fighting words. Indeed, a careful parsing of those comments could indicate that what Clinton sees as "inevitable" and "inescapable" at this time is not necessarily a Palestinian state, but rather working toward it. Netanyahu can live with that. Yet, many insist on believing that the US and Israel are on a collision course, and these are just the candy-coated words of a new secretary of state not interested in picking a fight on her first visit to Israel, especially since she doesn't know what the next government will look like, or - in fact - what it might look like six months down the road. The boom, these voices say, will be lowered. But Netanyahu's camp, basing itself now on discussions over the last few weeks with Clinton, US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and other top US officials, disputes that the much anticipated "boom" is coming. Rather than meeting an administration with a fixed idea, the predominant sense in the Netanyahu camp is that the Obama administration is very much in the policy-review stage, and has come to the region now in the listening mode. The feeling is that the Obama administration is taking a look at the big regional puzzle, and trying to figure out which pieces interconnect and how they affect each other. ALTHOUGH SOME in the media, perhaps more out of wishful thinking than a sober reading of the situation on the ground, built up expectations that Mitchell and Clinton were going to come to Jerusalem and attempt to dictate, the impression that emerged from meetings officials had with the two was that this was not their approach. Rather, the impression was that the US had come with a sober and realistic approach, talking to everyone it needed to talk to, and then figuring out how best to move things forward, given the complex realities on the ground. The decision by Washington to send two representatives to Damascus for "preliminary" talks with the Syrians should be seen in this regard, or as Zalman Shoval, a top Netanyahu foreign policy adviser, said, more as a fact-finding mission than as a gesture to Damascus. This expectation of impending friction between Netanyahu and Clinton and Obama is - to a large extent - derived from the past, and Netanyahu's first go-around as prime minister with then president Bill Clinton. People have a tendency to look at the past to read into the future, and since the Netanyahu-Clinton relationship was considered rocky, that is then believed to be a harbinger of what is inevitably in store for a Netanyahu-Obama relationship, especially since Obama is surrounded by so many ex-Clinton staffers, not to mention by the former president's wife. But must it be so? IF NETANYAHU'S first meeting with Clinton is any indication, things might be different this time, 13 years since Netanyahu first met the Clintons in the White House. When Netanyahu assumed office 13 years ago, the Oslo process was all the rage. Just squeaking by Peres in the 1996 elections, less than a year after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Netanyahu was widely viewed as the dark knight, pushing against the white knight. Ironically, and somewhat incredibly, that white knight was believed by many in the West to be embodied by none other than Yasser Arafat, widely viewed at the time as the Palestinian incarnation of Nelson Mandela. And then along came Netanyahu, who warned that, if anything, Arafat was Robert Mugabe, not Mandela, that it was he who put hurdles in the way of Oslo, leading to a feeling in many capitals that all that was needed for peace to blossom was to get rid of Netanyahu and his intransigence. And, indeed, that transpired. Ehud Barak swept Netanyahu from office in 1999, and in 2000 put the proverbial farm on the table in negotiations with Arafat. But rather than peace, Israel got the worst terrorism it ever faced. Ariel Sharon replaced Barak, and the world applauded when he pulled out of the Gaza Strip. But that led to two wars in the last three years. In other words, the region - and Israel - is a much different place now than it was 13 years ago. Of all that Clinton said this week about the Mideast conflict, and she spoke quite a bit at numerous public events in Sharm e-Sheik, Jerusalem and Ramallah, the phrase that stood out most for Netanyahu's foreign policy strategists was a comment she made not in public, but in her conversation with Netanyahu - that the US did not want to be tied to "old formulas." This - as well as the overall tone of the meetings with Mitchell and Clinton - left an impression that the new administration understood the new realities; it understood what was tried before simply didn't work; and it understood that if Obama indeed wanted to succeed in the Middle East, he would have to look at a different approach.