It finally had to happen, after several abortive efforts. A high-level US-Israel diplomatic lovefest occurred at the White House between Pres. Obama and PM Netanyahu on Tuesday. As both governments had a strong vested interest in making the event successful, it was all smiles, firm handshakes and affirmations of undying friendship. The word of the day was “excellent,” a term repeated ad nauseum by both leaders. In order to ac-centuate the positive, so to speak, the public press event the two held emphasized all the matters on which the countries are in strong agreement: US support for Israel’s military qualitative edge over regional rivals and overall security commitment, new and significant sanctions against Iran, tacit US support for Israel’s nuclear program, and ever deepening defense and intelligence ties. So far, so good.
Beneath the shimmering veneer of warmth and bonhomie, however, still lurked the issues that have caused so much difficulty between the two countries in recent months, mainly having to do with the peace process. I got a great deal of attention from my comment on Russia Today TV on Tuesday when I called the settlement issue a “timebomb” lurking for both US-Israel relations and for diplomacy generally because of the expiration of the partial, temporary and one might even go so far as to say fraudulent, settlement moratorium. Neither leader directly mentioned the moratorium or the issue of settlements directly, but they were asked about the expiration date and while Pres. Obama was fairly vague, he made it quite clear that he expects the current levels of what he called “restraint” in building in the occupied territories to continue past September. In other words, since the moratorium is really such a fraud in its own way, he’s suggesting that it doesn’t matter how you package it, the United States just doesn’t want to hear about large-scale building projects, especially in Jerusalem, and above all in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
We really do not know much about the substance of the private meeting or the extent to which it focused on these divisive issues as opposed to the feel-good rhetoric of the presser. But it seems difficult to imagine that Obama did not impress upon Netanyahu the importance United States places on restraining settlement activity. He needn’t have said so directly, but obviously since we’ve had three crises over settlement activity in Jerusalem since November, and no major change of policy from either country, another crisis could erupt at any moment to the detriment of both. There were clear hints during the public presentation of what Obama extracted from Netanyahu, including his praise of the state and institution building program, naming not only Pres. Abbas but Prime Minister Fayyad as well, and clearly stating the need for the zone of authority for the Palestinian security forces and other administrative control in the West Bank to spread. Both men, especially Netanyahu, repeatedly referred to practical confidence building measures to be put on the ground “within weeks,” which is very difficult to read outside of the context of Obama’s reference to the state and institution building program. In other words, it very much looks like Obama asked Netanyahu to cooperate with and facilitate state building in the West Bank, and that he seems to have agreed.
However, this brings us to the most obvious and noteworthy dissonance in the rhetoric of the two leaders who were doing their best to achieve resonance and harmony. President Obama confirmed, for the umpteenth time, that a peace agreement based on the creation of a Palestinian state is a vital American national interest. Prime Minister Netanyahu made no mention of the two state agreement, although he did talk in terms of peace. One might argue that since peace really can’t mean anything else to any rational person, he must’ve also been talking about a two state solution. One certainly hopes so. It is also noteworthy that Pres. Obama emphasized that following their conversation he was reassured that Prime Minister Netanyahu is genuinely serious about pursuing a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians. This could be read in two separate ways: either he was skeptical about Netanyahu’s intentions but has actually been reassured by whatever they discussed, or he is still skeptical about them but decided to make a point of the issue in order to lock Netanyahu into whatever assurances he had provided. Certainly, these are hardly the comments one would make with regard to someone whom one personally, and the world generally, regards as firmly and obviously committed to a negotiated peace agreement.
The clear difference in emphasis on this goal between the two leaders indicates a real gap in the extent to which each government believes this is possible or desirable. For the United States, this is not optional, and the foreign policy and military establishment believes that it is essential to ensuring the success of many other policy goals around the region including with regard to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, among other challenges. Israeli society is, at best, badly divided on the subject. This, of course, is the Leviathan lurking beneath the babbling brook of goodwill at this week’s meeting.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was recently in a flap over whether or not he had said there was a “tectonic rift” between the United States and Israel. I’m sure he didn’t say that, because obviously there is no rift, tectonic or otherwise. However, his clarification that what he had actually said was that there has been a “tectonic shift” at work makes perfect sense. Indeed it’s true, as I’ve argued many times in the past on the Ibishblog, that the context of the US-Israel relationship has changed, and a tectonic shift is a rather apt way of putting it. To recapitulate, in the past, US-Israeli relations have almost always been based primarily on the bilateral “special relationship” of American commitment to Israeli security, or even more problematically on US domestic politics and the wide coalition of forces that encourage maximal support for all Israeli policies. Because of the new understanding of Middle Eastern regional strategic dynamics inspired by the situations in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, among others, Washington now sees the region as much more powerfully interconnected and interdependent, and Israel’s policies, like all other regional actors, are now also seen in these broader strategic terms. Therefore a third element has been added, one in which the United States views an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and an end to the occupation as a vital strategic national security priority for this country. This is new, and it’s clear that Netanyahu and his colleagues, and Israeli society in general, are struggling to come to terms with this.
Obviously peace will require major American pressure on Israel, the Palestinians, the Arabs and others since left to their own devices, these parties are not capable of resolving their differences. And, because it is a vital American interest, it is a role and responsibility United States can neither avoid nor outsource. Therefore, many people who understand this were disappointed with the lovefest atmosphere of this week’s meeting and the relative lack of pressure that appears, at least in public, to be placed on Israel. I think this is a simplistic misreading of what is required diplomatically for the United States to move the ball forward. In my last blog posting, I explained how successful the recent Palestinian trip to Washington was, and how strong an understanding had been developed between Abbas and Obama on the most fundamental issues. That the United States is now on good terms and has some relative understandings with both the Palestinians and Israel at the same time cannot be a bad thing from the point of view of promoting peace and negotiations. A further public quarrel at this point probably wouldn’t have served any constructive purpose, and I think in general it’s fair to say that a scared and isolated Israel is less likely to be forthcoming than one which feels confident. Of course, there is always overconfidence and indeed arrogance, which we have seen plenty of in the past. However, I think the Obama administration has made its point on that issue quite clear during the Biden fiasco and, even worse, Netanyahu’s disastrous first visit to Washington earlier this year. It was time to kiss and make up, and that’s not a blow to prospects for peace.
What’s important is to keep the ball moving. Both men agreed that direct negotiations are important and may be imminent. The Palestinians clearly explained their requirements to Pres. Obama last month, and met with a positive American response. Therefore, one can only conclude that the administration has found a way, or believes it is about to find a way, of reconciling the Israeli and Palestinian understandings of what direct negotiations should constitute. But, as everyone knows, given the relative weaknesses of the governments involved and their great differences on final status issues, any major breakthrough in the coming months is unlikely, even though a return to formal and direct talks will be an achievement in itself. In the meanwhile, the real action is more likely to be on the ground in the West Bank centered around the state and institution building program. The fact that Pres. Obama specifically mentioned the need for it to move forward and operate in ever greater areas of the West Bank is highly significant, and so too, I hope, is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge of “confidence building measures” to be in place “within weeks.”
This isn’t going to be easy, quick or painless. It’s going to require all parties to swallow large bags full of bitter pills. But the historic task facing the current leaderships of all the parties, and our generation in general, is to somehow find a way of making the two state solution work and thereby avoid the rise of a cataclysmic holy war. The Leviathan lurking underneath the ultimate failure to develop a two state peace agreement over the next 10 years or so is far more terrifying and more dangerous than the relatively puny leviathan-ete of ongoing US-Israeli disputes slithering beneath the surface of this week’s feel-good theatrics. It’s good for friends to be friends. It’s good for friends to be friends again. But the only point in being friends is to help each other to avoid calamities and disasters, and this can only be done by achieving a two state agreement.