Guest Columnist: Living on borrowed time

The ‘Clinton parameters’ may soon become the ‘Obama vision’

Pinkas 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pinkas 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In romantic terms, the July 6 meeting in the White House between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a combination of “it’s not you, it’s me” and “let’s hug it out.”
Both phrases are understated versions of the more lurid and moist descriptions of the encounter in the Israeli media.
A meeting proclaimed, before it took place, to be “doomed to succeed” because of shared political interests, ostensibly lived up to the hype. But so did the previous meetings, almost all of which were declared to be pre-programmed to fail. They, too, lived up to their expectations and facilitated what some see as an unprecedented and wide divergence of interests and policy between the two allies.
Much like the application of those one-liners to the realm of love and relationships, last week’s meeting was all about excuses, denial, winning time, respite and expediency. It does not seem as if it was genuinely about substance. Time magazine’s Massimo Calabresi savvily depicted it as “false intimacy.”
Was it false? Not entirely.
Was it real? Not really.
Reconciling these two answers involves a basic mutual misreading. Netanyahu has never understood that Obama wants to be a great president.
Obama is not your vanilla American politician. He is not interested in being merely a good or adequate president, like the (roughly) 39 ordinary presidents who preceded him.
Rather, he wants to be one of the great presidents, like the other (arguably) four. Obama wants to be remembered in the same historic breath as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman.
Getting an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Obama believes, will tick off a box on the application form for joining that prestigious club.
Obama is the first president to define resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a US national security interest. The US will not only serve as intermediary or facilitator, but it has a vested interest in an agreement. The absence of an agreement, as Gen. David Petraeus said in Senate testimony in March, creates challenges to US interests. Thus, Israel is not accommodating to the broader interests of its superpower benefactor.
Obama has never really understood the toll that life in a permanent state of war in the Middle East exacts on Israelis.
They are disillusioned, cynical, distrustful, bitter and apprehensive about their Palestinian neighbors. Cerebrally and viscerally, Israelis know Obama is right. But they feel more comfortable within the confines of Netanyahu’s “they are all out to get us” attitude.
Yet this does not fully explain the discord between the two. In recent months, Netanyahu allegedly argued that Obama was inherently hostile toward him, unsympathetic toward Israel and in fact represented a major shift in US-Israel relations and was the embodiment of abuse of an ally.
If Netanyahu was right, then his statement after this last visit that Obama is a great friend of Israel who understands Israel’s security predicaments and concerns is disingenuous. Either you were wrong in interpreting and understanding the US for a year and a half, or, conversely, you are grossly exaggerating the significance of last week’s love-fest in the Oval Office.
The meeting was, with the limited perspective of less than a week, an exercise in practical political realism. Given the last 18 months of misperceptions, melodramatic statements, acrimony and the free exchange of insults, realism is quite an achievement. Given the quality of US-Israel relations over the last 30-40 years, that we actually have to devote articles to one meeting is a serious underachievement.
THERE ARE two distinct levels and aspects through which the meeting should be analyzed.
The first is how it relates to the US-Israel relationship.
The second level pertains to the consequence such a “positive, warm and cordial” meeting has on the immediate (weeks) and medium-range (months) future of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.
Israelis were pampered with 16 consecutive years of the Clinton and Bush administrations – with all due respect to the differences in historical and peace process context – showering them with weekly love letters. The unsentimental Obama brought to the forefront the core issue of whether Israel has turned from “asset” to “liability.”
To think that such a profound and fundamental shift is at all possible overnight and could be caused by one individual, even if he is the president of the United States, is both shallow and delusional.
The issue deserves ample but separate attention. Suffice it to say that Israel was never the asset it thought it was and most certainly is not the liability some detractors portray it as becoming. The US and Israel have forged a very unique relationship, but the concepts of “asset” and “liability” are not intrinsic to it.
FROM AN American policy point of view, cornering Netanyahu and exposing him as a nonpartner was counterproductive, although the prime minister did his best – unintentionally perhaps – to vindicate those who didn’t like him in Washington.
Obama’s idea last week was to press the restart button and treat Netanyahu as an ally in order to co-opt him into a serious peace process. If there are differences between us, goes the Obama logic, they are clearly substantive, not personal. If Netanyahu is incapable of or unwilling to engage, we’ll take it from there.
The Obama grand strategy is to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a Clinton parameters- like framework. This would comprise a demilitarized Palestinian state on approximately 90-95 percent of the West Bank, with the three major settlement blocs incorporated into Israel in exchange for agreed-upon land swaps in compensation. Settlements situated east of the border will be dismantled gradually or be allowed to live under Palestinian sovereignty. Israel will maintain a military presence along the Jordan River for an agreed period of time. The “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees will be fulfilled only in the newly established Palestinian state. And Jerusalem will not be divided, but most of Arab East Jerusalem will be Palestinian and a mechanism for joint sovereignty over parts of the Old City will be constructed.
The one potentially major outcome of the meeting is that if Obama finds out that Israel and/or the Palestinians are consistently intransigent, the “Clinton parameters” will soon become the “Obama vision.”
When that happens, no one will remember how great last week’s meeting was.
The writer is president of the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York. This article first appeared at and is republished by permission.