Haaretz asks Mideast experts: Why don't Israelis like Obama?
Three experts analyze U.S. policy in Mideast, relations with Israel and possible Iran scenarios.
Haaretz has asked three experts formerly involved in the Israeli-U.S. and the Israeli-Arab peace process to analyze the United States' policy in the Middle East, assess its relations with Israel and sketch possible lines for a future plan. The three participated this week in the third annual "Security Challenges of the 21st Century" conference at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Dr. Martin Indyk, an adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, headed the Middle East department at the National Security Council and served as ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. Professor Itamar Rabinowitz was Israel's ambassador to the United States and headed the team that held talks with Syria from 1993-96. Dr. Oded Eran heads the INSS and has served as deputy ambassador to the United States and Israel's ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, as well as the head of the Israeli team that held negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization during Ehud Barak's first term as prime minister.
When asked why the Israelis don't like Obama, Indyk replies: "The fact that he went to Cairo, Riyadh and Ankara but didn't come to Jerusalem just reinforced that emotional sense [for] Israelis that 'he doesn't love us' like Clinton and Bush did. Israelis got the impression that he wanted to distance the United States from Israel in order to [find] favor with the Arab and Muslim world. Israelis began to feel like the abandoned wife, as the husband went chasing after the other woman. When Israelis are looking at taking calculated risks for peace, they need to know that the president of the United States is going to be in their corner. Obama should invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the White House, rather than Netanyahu asking for an invitation. He should put his arm around Netanyahu and say 'Let's start again. But I need to hear from you what it is that you are actually willing to do to achieve a Palestinian state which you now say is your objective."
According to Rabinowitz, "The [Obama] administration's stance may not be as negative as the Israeli perception of it. There was a determination at the outset to try to break the intimacy, or the appearance of intimacy, that was so characteristic of most of the Clinton period and most of the Bush period. The frequent phone calls, consultations, the open lines [between] the president and the national security adviser are absent now."
"I agree on the issue of the importance of the intimacy of the relations at the highest level," says Eran. "In comparison to the tensions between the Israeli government at the time with President Eisenhower and compared to the tensions during the first couple of years of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, the current tensions between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government are just a hiccup."
"The gestures that the Israeli government made, such as the Bar-Ilan speech and the freezing of the settlements, should have been made earlier and not under pressure," he continues. "What I think should also be on the table is the removal of the unauthorized outposts, as was committed by the Sharon government to the president of the United States. And that should be sufficient to ease the entrance of the two administrations into a much better relationship."
"There was always an American component to alleviate some of the problems that were created by the very fact that Israel was either willing to withdraw and/or redeploy and take upon itself financial burdens," Eran adds. "When and if the Israeli government will be required to make painful decisions, then this intimacy, if it's not restored between the United States and Israel, would make it very difficult for the Israeli government to take these decisions."
Will Israel also have difficulty in making hard decisions vis-a-vis the Iranian threat?
Indyk: "On the issue that is of primary importance to Prime Minister Netanyahu - the issue of Iran - President Obama is highly coordinated with Israel. There is open communication between the people involved on both sides. Despite the fact that the United States is engaged in the policy of diplomatic engagement, as far as I can tell the prime minister and his advisers are all very comfortable with the approach the president has presumed."
"At a certain point, we may get to the fork in the road," Indyk continues. "Where engagement hasn't worked, sanctions haven't worked, and Iran is right on the threshold of achieving nuclear weapons. I can't predict what the outcome will be at that point, but what is really important is that as we approach that fork, the United States and Israel will be talking to each other. That the lines of communication would be open. I'm hopeful that when we get to that point, the U.S.-Israeli relationship [will not be in crisis]."
Rabinowitz: "There have been some important developments, but on the surface, not much has happened yet. The Iranians continue to enrich [uranium] and so far sanctions have not been imposed."
"The president identified the improvement of America's relationship with the Arab world as a strategic priority and certain distancing from Israel was probably seen as a strategy," Rabinowitz adds. "It was a call that was made early on and has had a lingering impact."
At the end of the 1980s, Eran wrote that negotiations on the territories will likely reveal the fact that the American position on the permanent border is closer to the Arab position, which may cause a crisis in our relations with the United States.
Indyk: "Israel is the ally of the United States, there's a very special relationship that exists there. And the relationship between the United States and the Palestinians is maximum 10 percent of that relationship. But the United States' position on the territorial issue has been clear since 1967. Every time Israel has engaged in serious peace negotiations with its neighbors, it offered to make full withdrawals to the 1967 borders with minor rectifications. That's what five Israeli prime ministers did with the Syrians, that's what Ehud Olmert did with Abbas, and that's what Ehud Barak did with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton. So I don't think the Israeli public is exactly going to be shocked by the idea that if you're going to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, it's going to be based on the 1967 lines with adjustments. And I would say that between 60 and 70 percent of Israelis would support that. Well where is the state going to be established - on the moon?"
"Netanyahu had a difficult relationship with Bill Clinton. And it's not exactly the same but it's very similar in that he ends up, in the end, doing what we, in Washington, regard as the right thing. But it's only after it has been shlepped out of him in a way that so irritates and frustrates Washington that he gets no credit for it in the end."
"The Wye agreement, which was an implementation agreement, took about 15 months," Indyk continues. "Eventually [Netanyahu] agreed to it and then his government collapsed. If an Israeli prime minister comes to Washington with a serious initiative, the president will automatically embrace it and support it. It's much easier for us to get behind an Israeli initiative and try to sell it to the Arab world, than it is to try to beat our Israeli ally over the head and try to expect an initiative."
Rabinowitz: "The United States has a very close alliance with Israel. It also has important interests and relationships in the Arab world, and sometimes there is tension between the two... The peace process becomes a tool for the United States in negotiating the difference between these two aspects. When the United States becomes a mediator early on, it actually becomes part of the give and take and then other tensions develop because it ceases to [be] bilateral negotiations, it becomes trilateral negotiations. So there is no 'riding off into the sunset' even when there is an active peace process going [on]."
Eran: "I think the United States should not put on the table some sort of formula which relates to the major core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution. The U.S. experience in mediation between Israel and its neighbors, showed it was successful [only] when the two sides had an initial agreement and willingness to reach a solution. This was the case with Egypt, the case with Jordan, and to some extent it was the case with the Palestinians."
If the stalemate continues, will Obama stand aside while the international community recognizes a Palestinian state?
Indyk: "If in a year or two from now, Palestinians in the West Bank will have completed the task of building their accountable, responsible institutions and a capable and responsible security force ... that's a very different circumstance. And we won't get there without Israeli cooperation on the ground... If Israel doesn't find a way to take the initiative, the initiative will be taken for it, in one way or another, and it will be in a much more difficult position diplomatically if it's put on the defensive in that way."
Rabinowitz: "The Gulf countries that aren't sure that they can count on the United States with regard to Iran are building bridges either directly to Iran or indirectly through Syria. This has to do with a larger U.S. position in the world. Europe loves Obama, but I'm not sure that the EU accepts his authority."
How should Obama proceed in the Syrian track?
Indyk: "It is certainly part of the United States' strategy to try to pick up the Israeli-Syrian negotiations with Turkish involvement and try to move it towards a breakthrough that would bring Syria into the camp of peace and away from Iran, put pressure on Iran to take engagement more seriously, and provide important pressure on Hamas. But it didn't work, mostly because the Israeli government felt they couldn't do both the Syrian and the Palestinian track at the same time. There's a limit on how far the U.S.-Syrian relationship can [move] in a positive direction absent a breakthrough in the peace process because of the legislation which puts Syria on the terrorism list. And also separate [sanction] legislation just makes it impossible to move forward in any positive way. As long as Hamas has its external headquarters in Damascus and Syria is acting as an arms conduit for Hezbollah, the administration is bound by legislation."
"Things have certainly improved from the Bush years and an ambassador will go back [there], but absent some kind of serious Israeli-Syrian negotiation it's very hard to move forward. The lesson I learned is that you actually do need to do both at the same time. I actually think that from the Israeli point of view, knowing what the comprehensive peace is going to look like, it's going to be better than having to make territorial concessions on one front and [going] through the whole trauma on the other front as well."