Snubs, bold steps and a failure to learn from history

Netanyahu is grappling with a US administration that seems to be suffering from an acute shortage of institutional memory.

Last Tuesday, March 23, was not the clearest day in President Barack Obama’s always overcrowded daily calendar. He had just squeezed through the most important piece of legislation in his young presidency, the health care reform bill, and was celebrating the reinvigoration of his leadership – joyfully signing off on the $938 billion legislation and extolling its virtues in the face of bitter Republican opposition.
But Binyamin Netanyahu was also in town, and had sought a meeting. The president had anticipated that he would be in Indonesia during Netanyahu’s visit, but having stayed home for the climactic health care battle, he made sure to find time for the Israeli prime minister.
In fact, despite the immense weight of other pressures, Obama spent much of that evening with Netanyahu. And contrary to a welter of under-informed reports, Washington insiders insist, he did not get up in frustration in the middle of their conversation, announce that he was heading off to his residence and declare, James Baker style, that Netanyahu could call him when Israel was serious about peace.
Rather, these insiders say, the two men reached the joint conclusion after 90 minutes or so that they had come as far as they could in discussing their differences over east Jerusalem and other issues of dispute. They decided to go back to their respective staffs for further separate consultation, and the president told his team he would be putting his kids to bed, and that they could disturb him if they needed him.
Netanyahu, the story continues, went back to the American advisers a short while later and said he had some fresh ideas, and could they ask the president to rejoin him, which Obama did, and the two men sat face-to-face for another session.
This is not the behavior of a president apathetic to Israel’s interests, or personally hostile to Netanyahu, say the insiders. Quite the contrary. The two men do better one-on-one, in the words of one source, and it’s the leaks from those around them that tend to complicate things.
Their differences are real and legitimate, the insiders go on, and they are both working seriously to try to resolve them.
On Jerusalem, for instance, there remains a core policy dispute between Israel and US administrations that has reverberated through the decades about building for Jews anywhere beyond the Green Line. An America seen as complicit in Israeli construction there, in the Obama view, loses its capacity to benefit Israel by serving as an effective mediator in the peace process. An Israel seen as capitulating there, in the Netanyahu view, undermines its cardinal claim to its own sovereign capital.
As for the question of whether perceived American favoritism for an ostensibly intransigent Israel is exacerbating Arab hostility to the US, and thus provoking extremist violence against US troops and targets, here, too, the Washington insiders say, things are more complicated than some Obama detractors would have one believe. The president, they say, does not believe that US support for Israel is a core reason for Islamic extremism. He sees the US and Israel not as the cause, but as the targets. Nor does he believe that Israeli-Arab peace would put an end to Islamic extremism.
But he is also aware that the extremists utilize the pretext of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a recruiting tool, and argues that progress toward resolving that conflict, already a shared US-Israeli interest, would also help deny the radicals that recruiting tool and thus better safeguard Americans and Israelis. It’s a “side” argument for Obama, they say, not the argument that drives his thinking. But, yes, it’s somewhere in the mix.
SO MUCH for the Washington insiders’ overview, the assessment of people who both care about Israel and are sympathetic to the Obama administration in general and the president in particular.
Reasonable as far as it goes, it nonetheless fails to account for the conspicuously unceremonious treatment afforded Netanyahu by the White House.
With Obama ready to give up so much of a pressured day for Netanyahu, why would the administration not offer at least a limited photo opportunity, or even the basic courtesy of a White House photographer’s record of their talks? The message, on a day when everyone knew Netanyahu was at the White House, was that here was a leader the president simply did not want to be seen with.
This was no oversight. The precise modalities of the meeting – private, no press, no photo-op, no stills – were known to the prime minister and the Israeli journalists around him 24 hours before he was quietly ushered in and out of the building. And the White House’s subsequent ostensible puzzlement that this treatment was seen as insulting – “This was a working meeting among friends,” Obama senior adviser David Axelrod claimed on Sunday, “and so there was no snub intended” – is thus disingenuous, and undermines the insiders’ claims of an open, honest relationship.
A more plausible assessment, in fact, is that while the two leaders are perfectly capable of maintaining a civil discourse, each thinks the other is plain wrong on key issues and worries that the other’s policies are damaging to their respective countries. And personal mistrust is exacerbating the differences. When your recent experience has shown you that Israel is capable of announcing a new problematic building project shortly before or after your talks with the prime minister, and you no longer take him at his word on the matter, you may well want to avoid being photographed with him.
No matter how much they might have argued over policy, it is hard to imagine Obama meting out last week’s disdainful treatment to a Menachem Begin, a Yitzhak Shamir or an Ariel Sharon. Critically, for that matter, it is hard to imagine a Begin, a Shamir or a Sharon so misreading his and Israel’s interests as to have pressed insistently, twice now in succession, for a meeting the president had not sought, in order to discuss genuine, aching, highly significant differences for which he was bringing no solution.
The prime minister would be wise, henceforth, rather than plaintively seeking a hearing with the leader of the free world whenever other business took him to Washington, to reserve such requests for occasions when he knew he was bringing something positive to the president, something Obama would want to celebrate publicly, side by side with his Israeli ally, smiling for the cameras and happy to take questions.
PRESUMABLY NETANYAHU believed his logic and articulacy would, as it does with most of his interlocutors, sweep away the president’s concerns and objections.
But Netanyahu has savaged his own credibility with the president through his inability to manage the bureaucracy of building in east Jerusalem – drawing international opprobrium to even hitherto noncontroversial projects such as Ramat Shlomo, which had proceeded without a murmur of Palestinian protest under prime ministers Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert before news of its expansion was inadvertently and ineptly released during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.
Of more significance, however, is the fact that Netanyahu is grappling with an administration that seems to be suffering from an acute shortage of institutional memory.
In pressing Israel relentlessly and publicly for all manner of confidence-building concessions to the Palestinians, in seeking the “bold steps” he publicly demanded from Netanyahu in an American TV interview on Tuesday, Obama appears to have under-internalized the “bold steps” taken by previous Israeli leaders, the circumstances in which they were offered, and the consequences – unwavering Palestinian and Arab rejectionism.
Israel’s enemies tried to wipe it out when it controlled none of the territory now deemed to be at the root of our conflict. And since capturing that territory, despite its centrality to Jewish history, Israel has welcomed every Arab leader’s honest peace feelers with the necessary concessions, and offered land, too, when presented even with duplicitous overtures by the likes of Yasser Arafat. Despairing of Arab partners, Israel has also attempted unilateral solutions – abandoning our buffer zone in south Lebanon and relinquishing the entire Gaza Strip, smashing an entire settler community in the process – only for violence to follow us across those internationally recognized borders and for the international community to condemn us for trying to quash it.
And finally, little more than a year ago, trying yet again to win over a Palestinian leadership that, to date, has made no strategic effort to impress upon its people that the Jews have historical rights here, our last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, trumped his predecessors by offering Mahmoud Abbas almost everything the Palestinians ostensibly seek – the West Bank with land swaps to accommodate major settlements, a division of Jerusalem and a good-faith effort to resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees. And he was rebuffed.
Any and all of these various Israeli offers would have required the dismantling of most West Bank settlements. While evacuating parts of biblical Judea and Samaria would be a wrench of a whole different order, the Sharon-mandated pullout from Gaza demonstrated that Israeli governments are prepared to take such radical decisions, and that the security forces are capable of implementing them. And the Jews of Gaza were forcibly removed without even the incentive of a credible peace accord to ease the sacrifice.
One key administration official, Dennis Ross, worked within various US administrations through some of these more recent events. But Ross, at least by some accounts, is being sidelined on key aspects of the Obama approach, and this week even had his loyalties questioned by an unnamed official who told the Politico Web site that Ross “seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to US interests.”
A well-informed Washington veteran told me recently that the administration does not attach immense significance to Abbas’s rejection of Olmert’s peace terms. When close contacts of Obama have put it to him that, for all his good intentions, his efforts will founder, like those of previous presidents, on the rock of Palestinian intransigence, this veteran said, Obama’s response was that he had an obligation to find out for himself. And so, starting afresh, the president is wondering whether the current Israeli prime minister is serious about making peace.
Asked why the Obama administration is being so publicly rough on an Israel that, time and again, has demonstrated a desperation for an accommodation, and so silent on the need for the concrete Arab and Palestinian steps that demonstrate acknowledgement of Israel’s very right to exist, the Washington insiders insist that pressure is being applied privately, and that the public campaign will begin once their president and our prime minister have found their common ground.
But in the interim, the perception of an America pushing Israel into a corner, the sight of allies at odds, is having the reverse effect to the one Washington says it seeks: Diplomatically, it is encouraging Palestinian and Arab intransigence, and creating the sense that even erstwhile undreamed-of Israeli concessions may now be extracted. And on the ground, it is emboldening extremists to believe their aggression will be more widely legitimized and may already have contributed to a rise in violence. For Iran in particular, the widening international depiction of Israel as a rogue state, at odds even with its main ally, constitutes no small encouragement.
BINYAMIN NETANYAHU was not elected prime minister of Israel in a vacuum. He was chosen, barely a year ago, by an electorate that had already kicked him out once, in 1999, because, among other reasons, it believed he was failing to capitalize on opportunities for progress toward peace. He was elected by a sophisticated public, a public that recognizes the life-and-death implications of its ballot box choices.
That public had seen Olmert try and fail to achieve an accommodation, and it divided its support among the dizzying variety of parties jockeying for its attentions in what amounted to a vote of the perplexed. We were, and are, a nation that wants its leaders to bring peace, that wants to separate from the Palestinians, that does not need reminders from Washington about the unsustainable status quo. But we are also a nation that has seen no evidence of a genuine Arab partner that accepts our legitimacy here.
In trying to change the status quo, Obama has – unfortunately, unhelpfully and through no small fault of our prime minister’s – allowed himself to become focused on one of the most contentious issues at the heart of our conflict, the future of Jerusalem.
If, by contrast, his administration were to challenge Palestinian leaders to do what successive Israel governments have been doing for decades, and what Netanyahu did at Bar-Ilan University in his speech last June – which is to declare in the language of their own people that both sides have genuine claims to this land, that both sides have the right to live in peace here, and that viable compromise is vital – he would offer the chance of a new beginning. If Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were to publicly begin the process of reversing Arafat’s relentless delegitimation of our connection to this land, emblemized by his derision of the notion of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, then they would achieve the simultaneous feat of preparing their people for compromise and persuading Israelis of its viability.
And if, however implausibly, the Obama administration were able toengineer that public Palestinian shift, convincing Israelis thatsomething really had changed since terrorism and the insistence onmaximalist terms doomed the “bold steps” taken by successive Israeliprime ministers over the past 20 years, then he could legitimately putNetanyahu in the spotlight.
Were the prime minister then toprove unyielding, Obama could rightly treat him with disdain at theWhite House as a leader whose policies were prejudicial to American andIsraeli interests. Indeed, the president could keep him out of thebuilding altogether.
Except that, were the Palestinians indeedto undergo such genuine change, Netanyahu, with the Israeli consensuspushing him firmly forward, would likely prove anything but resistant.