Diplomacy: It's the trust that counts

The differences that have to be ironed out between J'lem and Washington are not as great as they seem.

obama netanyahu 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama netanyahu 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Last Wednesday night, at the conclusion of Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israel Independence Day - the popular satirical television show, Eretz Nehederet, ran a couple of sketches about Israel's declaring war on the US, and America's subduing Israel in all of three minutes. "Tonight, close to 9 o'clock, IAF airplanes attacked our biggest enemy - the United States," said the character playing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "We are praying for the peaceful return of our soldiers." While not overly successful, these sketches did tap into a mood that anyone who reads the daily papers cannot escape: Israel and the US are at each other's throats. Overheated media, always looking for a train wreck, especially when Netanyahu is the conductor, are building up an atmosphere of imminent US-Israel confrontation in the run-up to Netanyahu's first visit as new premier to Washington on May 17. Consider the following headlines culled from a couple of the country's dailies from just four days this week: "White House gets tougher with Israel on two-state solution, Iran;" "Concern in Israel: the US is getting closer to Damascus;" "Biden tells AIPAC: Israel must support two-state solution;" "Dramatic turn in US policy toward Israeli nukes - US: Israel needs to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty." Reading these headlines, one cannot escape the feeling that - indeed - Israel under Netanyahu, and the US under President Barack Obama, are on a collision course. Read these headlines, and others that have dominated the last few weeks' coverage of Israeli-US ties, and one understands how a satirical writer could come up with the outlandish idea that the prime minister of Israel considers the US "our biggest enemy." Part of the problem is a lack of clarity regarding the policies of both the new US administration and the new Israeli government. What, for instance, is American policy regarding Iran? When does engagement start? Has it started? How long will it last? Nobody knows. What, moreover, is the Netanyahu government's policy on settlements? Will it build more settlements? Will it allow construction in all settlements? Will it limit expansion to certain settlements? Nobody knows. And where clarity on such key issues is absent, speculation - much of it worst-case-scenario speculation - is rife. Which is exactly where we are at this point: thinking the worst, imaging the most awful. What is needed is to step back a moment and take a deep breath. Israel and the US are not one and the same; their interests and views of the world are different - but this doesn't mean that they are on a collision course that serves the interests of neither. WHEN NETANYAHU travels to Washington next Saturday night, it will be difficult not to draw comparisons between this visit and the first visit to the US in March 2001 of then newly-elected prime minister Ariel Sharon. Now, as then, a new Israeli prime minister will be going to visit a new US president. Then, as now, the new Israeli prime minister was portrayed as obstinate and hawkish, not a man of peace. If anything, Sharon's image in the US in the spring of 2001 was worse than that of Netanyahu today - Sharon, after all, was the architect of the Lebanon War, the "butcher of Beirut," the godfather of the settlements. Moreover, when Sharon went to visit newly elected US president George W. Bush, he was widely seen as being the individual who triggered the Palestinian violence in September 2000, with his much-publicized visit to the Temple Mount. By comparison, Netanyahu today seems a veritable Yossi Beilin. And then, as now, there was overwrought speculation of an imminent clash between Sharon and Bush. Sharon was Sharon, and Bush, well, Bush was his father's son, and his father was not exactly known for a warm spot in his heart toward Israel. Back in March 2001, the new US president was still a very unknown quantity regarding Israel, and everyone was imaging the worst. But Sharon went to Washington, and despite the perceived differences, laid the foundations for a solid working relationship with the Bush administration. Burned in the 1980s in Washington, stung badly by his persona non-grata status there for so many years, Sharon embarked on his first trip as prime minister determined to do everything he could to cultivate confidence in the new US administration. And he was able to build that confidence. It took more than one trip, but that first trip laid the foundation. "We will not surprise each other," Sharon said, as he emerged from his first meeting with Bush. "I said that I will not surprise them, and they will not surprise us." That, as well as his frequent remarking that Bush understands Sharon will "do what he says, and say what he will do," was the cornerstone of his relationship with Bush. THAT DYNAMIC has not been lost on Netanyahu's team in its preparation for Netanyahu's first meeting with Obama. As important is Netanyahu's "policy review" is, and as important as the new initiative he will unveil to Obama might be, what is even more important is fostering and building a relationship of trust, cooperation and intimacy between the two governments - and this is something Netanyahu realizes. Once that relationship is developed, the inevitable differences that will emerge can be worked through. There is another important comparison to make between Sharon's first visit to the US in 2001, and Netanyahu's trip later this month. Sharon went, and Netanyahu is going, to change conventional wisdom; to stand deep-seated notions on their head. When Sharon visited Washington in March 2001, the conventional wisdom at the time was that peacemaking leads to security and stability; that first you make peace - first you sign a peace agreement - and then security will flow like a cascading river. Sharon went and argued that things work the other way around: First provide security and stability, and then peace will follow. Sharon was successful in changing the paradigm - up to a point. The road map, with its phased and sequenced call for an end to terrorism, and then negotiations, reflected this change of perception. First get quiet, and then sign a peace agreement, not the other way around. In the intervening years, however, the world grew impatient, especially since it takes a long time to achieve quiet. So Annapolis came along and tried to short-circuit the entire process: First sign an agreement, and then - as a result of what the agreement will hold out for the other side - security and stability will follow. Netanyahu will be going back to Washington trying to reverse the equation again - trying to go back to the "first security, then peace" equation. THERE HAS been much speculation about where, indeed, Netanyahu is headed, what his "policy review" will produce, what new initiative he will come up with. The clearest indication was given at this week's AIPAC conference, not by what he told the delegates via satellite-hook-up, but by what his close adviser, Ron Dermer, said in his 20-minute presentation as part of one of the conference's numerous panel discussions. Netanyahu has said very little about his diplomatic ideas since taking office, having apparently learned well the lesson of over-exposing himself to the media during his first term in office. If, during his first term, he was interviewed incessantly, his first few weeks of his second term have been characterized by a stunning silence. His voice has largely disappeared. So if you want to know what he is thinking, a good place to start is by listening to Dermer, and what Dermer told AIPAC was that Netanyahu,"far from being a prophet of doom, actually believes peace is possible." According to Dermer, Netanyahu's overall idea, and the one he apparently will be bringing to Washington, "is that through economic development and security cooperation, you can create a context where political progress is possible. What has happened up to now is to basically build a pyramid from the top down. It doesn't work that way. You have to step-by-step, layer-by-layer have the Palestinians have rule of law, a decent economy, provide jobs, provide hope, and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stake-holders, if not right away interested in going for peace, at least not interested in going for all out war." The first prong, Dermer said, is the security prong, the continued training by US General Keith Dayton of a loyal, professional Palestinian security force, not the forces of yesterday, people who one day were in terrorist organizations and the next day in the PA's security apparatus, but rather people who were "carefully screened," and who are "trained, equipped and have pride in what they are doing." The second prong is the much-ridiculed idea of economic peace, an idea that - essentially - Quartet envoy Tony Blair has been working on ever since he took up that post in 2007. "I have to tell you, I have been in a few meetings between the prime minister and Tony Blair, and I am amazed at how many bureaucratic obstacles there are to Palestinian economic development; it's not all security," Dermer said. "Sit down and get a piece of paper. There are 25 different problems, 10 of them which should be solved in five minutes. But when you have a government whose focus is making a peace to end all peace, the deal of the century, and you don't have a prime minister who takes a gavel, rolls up his sleeves and works day after day to move the bureaucracy along to get through all the red tape, nothing will happen on the ground. The prime minister can do a lot to change this dynamic. And this prime minister will do a lot to change that dynamic." Indeed, on Wednesday night, Netanyahu announced the establishment of a ministerial committee - which he will head - on developing the Palestinian economy and improving the Palestinians' quality of life. Dermer said another reason why Netanyahu believes peace is possible is because "something is happening in the Mideast that hasn't happened in the last 100 years, and that is that the Arab world and Israel share a common enemy. In the hierarchy of threats, the Arab world today recognizes that we are not their problem. All of them are frightened of Iran, and that provides a historic, historic opportunity, and that is an opportunity that frankly Israel cannot do alone. That is an opportunity where US leadership will be critical: to recognize that, on the basis of this common danger, not only can you work together to neutralize that threat, but also that you might be able to work together to advance peace." HERE, HOWEVER, is where things will get sticky. If Netanyahu believes that first Iran needs to be neutralized, and then it will be easier to make peace with the Palestinians, the Americans maintain that making peace with Palestinians will make it easier to get the Arab world to help neutralize Iran. And that is one of two major gaps that Netanyahu will try to bridge in Washington. The other gap is related to the whole two-state solution idea. While Obama at this point envisions two full states, Netanyahu seems to believe in a Palestinian state-minus, meaning that a future Palestinian state would not have all the trappings of all other states in the world, namely the right to have an army, enter into treaties with any country it likes or have complete control over its air and water. Those gaps are not insignificant, and the US is not going to stand up and blindly applaud Netanyahu's positions. But nor are these positions so far-fetched that Obama will throw them, and Israel, under the proverbial bus - especially considering Vice President Joe Biden's comments at AIPAC. On the one hand, based on media reports, Biden's speech amounted to little less than reading Israel the riot act. Out of his nearly 4,000-word speech, much of it expressing a great deal of warmth for Israel and a passionate commitment to Israel's security, what was underlined in the media was the following paragraph. "Israel has to work towards a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement." On the other hand, that is not the only thing he said - and those words could have easily been spoken by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or even by Bush himself. What Biden also said was the following: "In the Middle East, we stand for the premise that the status quo of the last decade has not served the interests of the United States or Israel very well. It has not enhanced the peace and security of the region, no matter how good the intention. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. All the good intentions of the last decade have not resulted in a more secure, more stable Middle East; a more secure, more stable Israel; a more secure, more stable United States." Netanyahu, had he been in the room, could easily have responded to those words with an "amen" of his own. He has said repeatedly that the path pursued since Oslo by six Israeli prime ministers, and two US presidents, has not yielded results, and that now it is time to look at a different way. It is that "different way" he will bring to Washington, as well - perhaps even more importantly - the realization that in order to get Washington to look seriously at a new direction, it will be necessary to work with, not against, the administration. Doing that, building up a relationship of trust, will be the primary objective of Netanyahu's first trip to Obama.