Washington Wields a Soft Stick

Despite strains at the top, the Obama Administration is treating Benjamin Netanyahu’s government with kid gloves.

PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
When US President Barack Obama spoke about his words being “misrepresented,” he pursed his lips, visibly trying to control his anger. The culprit everyone knew was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had taken the phrase, “1967 lines with land swaps,” ignored the land swaps part and turned it into an American call for an Israeli pullback to the “indefensible” 1967 borders he couldn’t accept. The heated public exchanges in mid- and late-May reflected major policy differences as well as a deep, abiding personal antipathy between the two leaders.
The bad vibes have impacted on working relations between the two bureaus. When Netanyahu phoned to complain about the president’s impending 1967 reference, it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton he called, a sign that the lines to Obama are not readily open.
Clinton too is not enamored of Netanyahu or his government. In late May, she could not find the time to meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the sidelines of an OECD conference in Paris, despite urgent common foreign policy issues, including the anticipated Palestinian appeal for statehood at the UN in September. Clinton also remembers the deep distrust in Washington of Netanyahu’s first administration in the late 1990s when her husband Bill was president.Moreover, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the supposed “responsible adult” in the Netanyahu government, dirtied his copybook in Washington when he suggested in The Wall Street Journal in early March that, in the light of the upheaval in the Arab world, the US provide Israel with another $20 billion in military aid.
Beyond the personal dislikes, the tension between Washington and Jerusalem stems from major differences in strategic outlook and tactical preferences. A large part of the problem is Israel’s perceived obduracy in peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Even Netanyahu’s erstwhile close friend, World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder, warned that by tangling with the American administration over conditions for peace talks with the Palestinians, the prime minister was fast losing credibility and international support. In a late June address in Jerusalem to Jewish members of parliament from around the world, Lauder urged Netanyahu to present a peace plan which could help mend fences with the administration and the wider international community.
The differences between Netanyahu and Obama on the Palestinians are far-reaching.
For Obama, progress in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will make it easier for the US to deal with other major regional issues, while Netanyahu denies any linkage. Obama tends to see the opportunities for America in the Arab Spring, Netanyahu the risks for Israel. For Obama, the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unsustainable, whereas Netanyahu seems to think it can be dragged out indefinitely. Obama wants to find a negotiating formula that would convince the Palestinians to withdraw their appeal to the UN in September, while Netanyahu seems ready to ride it out.
All this leads to a major conundrum. Given the crucial implications for the US of the policy differences and the fact that Israel’s current leaders have so little personal credit in Washington, why isn’t the Obama Administration leaning harder on the recalcitrant Netanyahu government? Indeed, many experts say that under Obama, if anything, the strategic alliance between the two countries has grown even closer. In other words, the question is how to explain the ostensible paradox of Israel’s heavy dependence on the US for military and diplomatic support, and Washington’s apparent inability to find levers to pressure the Netanyahu government into going along with it on matters of vital importance.
The extent of American military aid to Israel is unprecedented. In August 2007, then-president George W. Bush agreed to increase foreign military financing (FMF) to Israel by $6 billion to $30 billion over the 10 years between 2009 and 2018. In 2009, the annual $2.4 billion military grant went up to $2.55 billion, then to $2.77 billion in 2010.
This year it will be $3 billion and will increase to $3.09 billion for each of the seven years between 2012 and 2018. “We consider this $30 billion in assistance to Israel to be an investment in peace – in long- term peace… Peace will not be made without Israel being strong in the future,” Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns, who signed the memorandum of understanding on the increased military aid, explained at the time.
It is not only the quantity of the aid but its quality that is crucial for Israel. It includes state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter planes, cooperation in missile defense programs and the transfer to Israel of American-operated, highly advanced, X-band radar systems to support Israel’s missile defenses. In August 2010, Israel and the US signed a deal for the supply of 20 F-35s at a cost of $2.75 billion, all of which will come out of the FMF. The Americans also agreed to reciprocal purchas- es of around $4 billion from Israel’s defense industries. This year they reaffirmed an addi- tional $205 million in military aid to help the IDF purchase up to 10 Iron Dome anti-short-range rocket batteries and another $210 million for joint development of medium-range Magic Wand and long-range Arrow III anti-ballistic missile systems.
American diplomatic support for Israel has also been unwavering. Obama has promised to veto any Palestinian request to the UN Security Council for membership of the United Nations. America also played a key role in mobilizing international opposition to this year’s Gaza flotilla which failed to make it to the high seas. Indeed, were it not for the American diplomatic umbrella, Israel’s posi- tion in Europe and on the international stage could have been far worse.
For his part, Obama insists that he does not intend to change things. At a late June Washington fundraiser hosted by “Americans in Support of a strong US-Israel Relationship,” he assured his audience that the bond between the US and Israel is “unbreakable.” At a time of tumultuous change in the Middle East, he declared, “one inviolable principle will be that the United States and Israel will always be stalwart allies and friends.” Most Israeli observers tend to take the president’s assurances at face value, at least for now. Dan Halperin, who was Israel’s economic attaché in Washington from 1979-1986 and one of the key negotiators of US aid to Israel after the 1979 peace deal with Egypt, says he does not believe the US will initiate a fundamental change in its strategic ties with Israel. Nevertheless, he maintains that the soured relationship between Obama and Netanyahu could have serious conse- quences for Israel. “It’s like a road accident in which there has been contributory negligence on both sides with one difference: The dam- age to Obama is only a fender-bender, where- as for Bibi it could be total loss,” he quips.
Halperin argues that it would be very difficult for Obama to touch the $30 billion in mil- itary aid. He points out that it is anchored in legislation and the Democrat president would have to get a strongly pro-Israel Republican Congress to make amendments, a mission close to impossible. Moreover, it is not as if the aid package is renewed every year; it has been fixed for a decade. To top it all, says Halperin, bipartisan commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) is profound and genuine. Nevertheless, he says, the administration could pressure Israel by hold- ing up elements of the aid package, where Congress has little say. “There are 60,000 ways to put spokes in the wheels, without touching the sum allocated for aid. In general, though, the aid money is not the point. The administration has many ways of getting at us without getting into an open war with Congress,” Halperin tells The Report.
In his view, the most vulnerable sphere for Israel is the diplomatic, precisely because it is the least subject to Congressional influence. Because foreign policy is the sole prerogative of the executive branch, Obama has much greater freedom of action and significant moves against Israel are possible. Even small signals from America, with the EU following suit and delegitimization efforts picking up steam, could be very serious for Israel. And, according to Halperin, this type of pressure could work: “Bibi doesn’t want to get into a serious fight with America. He knows that Israelis don’t like to see a falling out with the US. He remembers the 1992 elections which [then-prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir lost when Papa [President George H.] Bush refused to grant him loan guarantees. As soon as Bibi understands they mean business, he will try to find a way out,” he insists.
But Halperin does not think Obama will exert too much pressure on Netanyahu, at least not during the run-up to the presidential elections in November 2012. “He won’t press too hard, because he won’t want to give the Republicans ammunition in an election year. Funding is also important in an election and some of the big Democratic money comes from American Jews. However, the chances are that Obama will be elected for a second term and then the shit will hit the fan,” he warns.
Other Israeli experts argue that Obama may be even more inhibited when it comes to pressuring Israel. For one, the president would be flying in the face of American public opinion, which is strongly pro-Israel, says Bar-Ilan University’s Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American policy in the Middle East. Moreover, Gilboa tells The Report, Obama would be hesitant to try because he knows Netanyahu is unlikely to be moved: “He’s not going to dismantle his right-wing coalition, it’s a question of political survival for him.
Secondly, on his recent visit to Washington, he saw a direct correlation between a determined stand against the American president and enhancement of his public standing in Israel. So why should he bow to American pressure?” Gilboa agrees that under Obama, Israel-US strategic ties have actually grown closer and asserts that one of the reasons for this is a strong American desire to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel, he reckons, is privy to more US intelligence than most NATO countries and gets more sophisticated weaponry and anti-missile defense aid so that it can feel secure enough not to launch a preemptive strike.
In Gilboa’s view, however, the most important factor in the Israel-US strategic alliance today is not the degree of American pressure on Israel, but a regional perception of American decline. Gilboa points to an ongoing debate in Washington between two diametrically opposed schools of thought: one that argues that America is “bound to lead,” that world leadership remains America’s modern “manifest destiny” and another which holds that America has already made its contribution to the running of world affairs and now it’s time for others like China and India to step up to the plate and take some of the responsibility off America’s shoulders. The very debate, says Gilboa, fuels a growing regional perception of a declining America and a rising Iran.
This view, which has been gathering pace in the Middle East for some time now, stems largely from the fact that American troops are pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan after inconclusive wars in those countries, Obama’s inability to project power and his ostensible failure, so far, to deal with Iran. In the longer term, Gilboa fears that the decline or perceived decline of American power could have seriously detrimental consequences for the world order in general, the Middle East in particular, and especially for Israel. “Israel’s position in the Middle East is a function of its relationship with the US. If that connection becomes problematic or if the US declines as a superpower, Israel will suffer. That is the scenario over which our leaders should be losing most sleep,” he avers.
In the immediate term, American policy has been focused on efforts to find a formula to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and so defer any Palestinian approach to the UN. In mid-July, the US convened a meeting of the international Quartet, the US, EU, Russia and the UN, in Washington, in a bid to hammer out internationally backed terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Most observers are pessimistic, but some believe the Americans could be more forceful and produce the goods even at this late hour. They argue that because all the main parties, including the Palestinians, recognize that they risk losing a great deal from the UN gambit, they might pull back from the brink.
There is, however, some new out-of-the- box Israeli thinking that says rather than fight the Palestinian UN move, the best way forward would be to go along with it, incorporating Israeli needs into the text and turning it into a win-win resolution for both sides. “Instead of reacting to the Arab UN initiative with yet more pathetic attempts to jump-start a dead peace process, why shouldn’t the international community begin to consider leveraging that very UN initiative into a win-win proposition for both Israelis and Palestinians?” Bitterlemons website co-editor Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli analyst and former adviser to ex-prime minister Ehud Barak, wrote in a June 20 article on the site. Four days later, together with former Labor Knesset member Colette Avital, former military intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit and analyst Mark Heller of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, Alpher published a similar call in The New York Times. Alpher argues that the traditional peace process is dead since both sides don’t want it, because both realize the gaps between them are too wide. In other words, if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t close a deal with the relatively dovish Ehud Olmert, how will he be able to make progress with the far more hawkish Netanyahu? In going to the UN, says Alpher, Abbas (Abu Mazen) is making a con- structive move to break the mold. “This points to his pragmatism, in saying OK, we can’t bridge these gaps. I, Abu Mazen, couldn’t go back to my constituency and say I accepted Olmert’s terms on the refugees’ right of return. So let’s drop it and let’s get a state first. This is a very pragmatic turn on the part of the Palestinians and we would be wise to address it more seriously and not to see it as a threat,” Alpher tells The Report.
In Alpher’s view, a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood could have tremendous advantages for Israel. First, it would mean state to state negotiations, rather than negotiations between a state and an organization largely representing the Palestinian diaspora. Secondly, it would overcome the principle that has bedeviled all traditional negotiations so far: that nothing is agreed until all is agreed, which meant that nothing was solved until the most intractable issues like a regime for the Holy Places in Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees were solved too, which virtually ensured the failure of all previous negotiations.
Under the new approach, the Palestinians would first set up an internationally recognized state and immediately negotiate with Israel on borders and security arrangements, both eminently doable. Only then would they turn to the old deal-breakers like the holy places and the right of return. “Once you do this, the conflict becomes far more manageable. You can go on arguing ad infinitum over the right of return, but at least you will have two states with a border between them,” Alpher insists.
The proposed UN resolution would do more than establish a Palestinian state. It would set internationally-backed terms of reference for a negotiated peace. “Put everything into the resolution the Palestinians say they want and then add what’s good for Israel. Security, provisions about Gaza, some quid pro quo from the rest of the Arab world in the framework of the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, re-recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as well,” says Alpher. In this way, the new resolution could become the key to future peacemaking, replacing UN Resolution 242 and Oslo. The big problem would be to get the parties to agree to its terms. For Israel, for example, it would mean giving up territorial assets before agreement on end of conflict. But if it works, it would create promising conditions for a new state- to-state modus vivendi.
So far Alpher and Co. are a small minority voice. Top American officials told them they would take their proposal on board for possible use at a later date, but that for now, they are committed to launching a traditional peace process in a bid to circumvent the UN move. In other words, if the Quartet fails to renew peace talks, and with September looming, the Alpher proposal could suddenly be thrust into center stage. And if it works, paradoxically, the very UN move, which is placing so much strain on Israel-US ties, and further eroding America’s standing in the region, could, if carefully tailored, turn out to be a lifesaver for Palestine, Israel and the United States.