In diplomacy, as in life, the show is the thing

Perceptions of Obama-PM meeting benefit Israel.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Stripe-suited men and women speaking different languages, but all sharing an expertise in Israel, the United States or both, were sitting in foreign ministries around the world over the last three days scratching their heads and trying to evaluate Tuesday’s White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Diplomats from Ankara to Amman, Cairo to Copenhagen, Ramallah to Rome, Teheran to Tokyo, were all busy writing internal memos focusing on what the meeting meant and how it impacted on their governments’ policies. And, almost certainly, as far as getting information about what was actually said at the private meeting, the diplomats were all dipping from the very same well – and that well was dry.
In the days that followed the fifth meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in their current roles, precious little was leaked about what was actually discussed behind closed doors – what Obama said about construction in Jerusalem, or what Netanyahu said about extending the settlement construction moratorium.
As a result, evaluations and assessments are being drawn up based on what happened in the open, in the full glare of the television cameras, and with the microphones working.
And out there in the open, as all the world witnessed, Obama and Netanyahu oozed affection.
The cynics, both here and abroad, will say it was not real, that it was all for show, and that the warm meeting in public was the result of cold political calculations by both men. Obama needed to show Jewish contributors to the Democratic Party for whom Israel is very important that the relationship remained rock-solid, and Netanyahu needed to show his electorate that his polices did not cause a tectonic rift with the US.
But the cynics are missing a very important point. In diplomacy, like in much else, perception is what matters, often – oddly – even trumping reality. And the choreographed love affair put on in the Oval Office – real or make believe – is what the US administration wanted the world to see.
That perception is right now all that those diplomats in all those foreign ministries have to go on in writing the memos that will impact on their countries’ polices.
Their assessments and evaluations will come under the headline of “the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, a warming of US-Israeli ties.” Policy decisions in capitals around the world, including in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and Ramallah, will be made based on that assumption.
For instance, based on the show put on Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority will have to decide whether it would be wise to continue avoiding direct negotiations, banking on the hope that if it holds out longer, Obama might pressure Netanyahu into declaring a total settlement freeze.
Based on Tuesday’s meeting, the Turks will have to decide whether to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, trying to judge what type of reaction that would elicit from the US. With Obama bashing Netanyahu, they might conclude that the reaction would be minor; with the US president caressing Netanyahu, the conclusion is likely to be considerably different.
So, too, when EU foreign ministers get together and draw up their monthly foreign policy statements.
These statements are likely to be much tougher with an Obama perceived as impatient with Israel, than at a time when he is seen as Netanyahu’s pal.
PERCEPTION, THEREFORE, has the power to shape reality, and Tuesday’s warm Oval Office public appearance should not be cavalierly dismissed as “just a show.” The perception of a warming of ties was obviously what the US administration – which is in the position of shaping these perceptions – wanted to portray.
At the disastrous last Netanyahu-Obama meeting in March, when Obama did not even let photographers memorialize it, the perception the administration wanted to create, just weeks after Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by the Israeli announcement of a new building project in north Jerusalem beyond the 1967 lines, was one of deep anger at the Netanyahu government.
Last May, at Obama and Netanyahu’s first meeting in the White House when a photo opportunity and press conference was allowed, Obama underlined the deep disagreements he had with Netanyahu over the correct approach to Iran, and surprised him with his bald statement that settlements have to be “stopped” The perception that Obama wanted to convey during that meeting, sandwiched in between his address in Turkey in April and his outreach to the Muslim world speech in Cairo in June, was that the US was not in Israel’s’s pocket.
Soon after that meeting, when everyone picked up on Obama’s changed signals on Israel, the president met a group of Jewish leaders who told him he was being too publicly tough. During that meeting with 16 officials of Jewish organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, made the observation that diplomatic progress in the Middle East usually occurs when the public perception is that there was “no daylight” between the two countries.
It is one thing for the sides to disagree, even robustly, in private, but publicly they must – for the sake of a diplomatic process – be seen on the same page, Hoenlein argued.
Obama, according to a participant at the meeting, disagreed and, referring to the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush, said, “Eight years of no daylight, eight years of no progress.”
The upshot of the president’s comment was that it was time to open the curtains and let the sunshine in. If the close ties that existed between Israel and the US during his predecessor’s reign did not bring progress in the peace process, then it was time to try another way.
And, indeed, the administration for the next few months tried that other way, publicly taking Israel to task, not hiding disagreements.
Obama, one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said, came to power like so many US presidents before him, thinking that all he had to do was shake the Israeli tree a bit, and Arab fruit would start falling from the boughs. All he thought he had to do, according to this official, was show a willingness to pressure Israel, and the Arab world – including the Palestinians – would rise to the occasion, reciprocate and take the steps needed to move a peace agreement forward: The Arab world would make gestures toward Israel, and the Palestinians would show some tendency toward compromise.
Well, Obama shook the Israeli tree all right, but the fruit did not fall. The Arab world gave nothing – Saudi Arabia wouldn’t even agree to letting civilian Israeli aircraft fly through its airspace on the way to Thailand – and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas climbed up a tree of his own, unwilling to do what he had done in the past – negotiate directly – out of a feeling that if he held out, Obama would shake the Israeli tree even harder.
Earlier this year, however, as Abbas continued to hold out and refuse negotiations, it became apparent to the US administration that this tactic wasn’t working, and that it was time to change the public perception.
The US was not advancing its own goals of direct negotiations leading to a peace agreement by publicly squabbling with Netanyahu. Not only did the tactic fail to move the Palestinians, but the Israeli public was losing its trust in the Obama administration – a trust necessary if it were to agree to take the types of risks for peace the administration ultimately wanted to see.
As a result, Obama sent Biden here in early March with the expressed purpose of changing the perception. But the Ramat Shlomo housing project intervened, and the vice president who came to praise us, left with his boss cursing us instead. Seeing an opportunity following the Biden visit to push Israel into taking steps it had not taken before – including freezing building in Jerusalem – the administration pounced, but it pounced too hard, alienating many in the US Jewish community and some key Democratic politicians and backers.
It is one thing to let a little daylight into the Israel-US relationship; it’s quite another to flood the room in it. Tuesday, at the Obama-Netanyahu public appearance in the Oval Office, the curtains were formally drawn.
But some will say that closing the blinds will not hide the mess inside the room, and that ultimately you can’t hide the fundamental policy differences that exist between this US administration and the Netanyahu government. True, but if those on the outside don’t see the mess within, if they can’t be certain that it is there as it was before, they can only make their choices relative to those inside the room based on how things appear on the outside. And the way Washington now wants things to look on the outside is that the US-Israeli relationship, as visiting Sen. Joe Lieberman said Thursday in Jerusalem, is “back on track.”
Whether that characterization is spot on or misses the mark is almost secondary, because if that is the way the relationship is now perceived on the outside, that perception itself has significance.