Top Obama Adviser to Haaretz: Israel to Face Growing Pressure Over Settlements, Peace Process Impasse

Ben Rhodes tells Haaretz the inside story on White House efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes talks during a television interview with CNN in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 7, 2015. AP

A few minutes before the end of our lengthy phone conversation earlier this month, Ben Rhodes says to me, “You know, this focus doesn’t come from Obama or Kerry. The lack of a two-state solution was there when Obama came into office and it may unfortunately be there when he leaves office. And people will still be focused on it. Whoever the next president is, there is going to be significant international concern over the lack of a two-state solution and settlement expansion.”

Rhodes, 38, was born in New York, the son of a Jewish mother and Episcopalian father. For the past seven years he has been one of President Barack Obama’s top White House advisers. They first met in 2007 when Rhodes joined then-Senator Obama’s speechwriting team for his presidential campaign.

In the time they’ve worked together, Rhodes and Obama have developed such a close relationship that it’s nearly symbiotic. In some ways, it’s similar to the relationship Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has with his close adviser and current Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

Rhodes’ official title in the White House is Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. But his mandate is actually much broader. Rhodes not only shaped President Obama’s voice by crafting the “New Beginning” speech in Cairo in 2009 and the peace speech in Jerusalem in 2013; he has also been a driving force behind much of the president’s foreign policy over the past seven years.

It was Rhodes who urged Obama to cut loose then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011; he was the key player in the secret talks that led to the opening of dialogue between the United States and the military junta in Myanmar that same year; in 2013 he headed the secret talks that led to a resumption of relations between the United States and Cuba two years later; and in 2014 he persuaded the president and the entire administration to undertake a rescue operation to save the Yazidis, who were facing imminent genocide in Iraq at the hands of Islamic State fighters.

No progress

Since entering the White House in 2009, President Obama has accomplished a good number of his foreign policy objectives: he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and significantly reduced their number in Afghanistan; he obtained a nuclear deal with Iran; he secured a historic trade agreement with Asian countries; and he also made some progress with international climate negotiations.

But if there’s one issue where, despite prodigious efforts, the American president has made virtually no progress, it is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Obama and Rhodes
Pete Souza \ The White House

“Yes, he is disappointed,” says Rhodes, trying to describe the president’s feelings on the subject. “It is disappointment because he truly believes, from his perspective of support for Israel, that Israel’s long-term security and success as a Jewish state and a democracy depends on a two-state solution … He is not disappointed because he wanted some accomplishment, but rather because he thinks a status quo without peace or a greater hope of peace will present increasing challenges for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Obama’s attempt to make a breakthrough in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the things that precipitated the acute friction between the U.S. administration and the Netanyahu government. At times, it seemed as if Israeli government ministers were vying to see who could make the harshest statement to the press against the White House.

In 2013, after John Kerry was appointed U.S. secretary of state and pushed a new peace initiative as hard as he could, tensions increased. Things reached a new low in January 2014, when Yedioth Ahronoth quoted Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon calling Kerry “messianic” and “obsessive,” and saying Kerry “should win his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”

In recent months, the prime minister and his people seem to be counting the days until January 2017, when a new American president preferably, they hope, Republican takes office. The thinking appears to be that with Obama and Kerry out of the picture, the “threat” of peace will be removed  or at least that the motivation to pressure Israel to make decisions and progress on the Palestinian issue will be lessened.

“Sometimes it is an excuse to suggest that this is solely an interest of Kerry or Obama. It will be an interest of whoever the next president is,” says Rhodes. “Sometimes people see this as a scorecard like the comments about Kerry that this is a desire to win some award. This is about people’s lives and the president has met with Israeli families of terror victims, he met with Palestinian young people who are growing up without hope of living in their own state those people are still going to be there after Obama leaves office … All the problems created by the lack of [a] Palestinian state will be there.”

In his seven years in the White House, Rhodes has observed the tensions in Jerusalem-Washington relations from up close, and Obama’s various attempts to advance a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He was present at almost every meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, participated in all the internal discussions convened by the president on the subject, and is familiar with all the details of what went on behind the scenes.

Four missed opportunities

Obama’s senior adviser cites four points during the past seven years that he calls missed opportunities to make progress with the peace process. The first is the period immediately after Obama took office and Netanyahu was reelected in Israel, when both leaders had a broad mandate for action. Their first meeting in May 2009 was highly charged. Obama asked Netanyahu to accept the principle of “two states for two peoples” and stunned the prime minister by demanding that Israel impose a complete freeze on settlement construction.

Deputy U.S. National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes participates in the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

A few weeks later, Netanyahu gave his Bar-Ilan speech, in which he expressed his consent to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish State of Israel. “The prime minister did give that speech … but there wasn’t a significant move made at this initial period. It was clear that for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Iran was issue number one on the security side, and the Palestinians were holding back to see what happens,” says Rhodes.

Rhodes believes the second missed opportunity came in September 2010, when, after nine months of a partial settlement construction freeze, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were finally resumed at a summit in Washington  which was also attended by Egyptian President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. “Within a period of weeks the process begins to unravel because Netanyahu doesn’t want to extend the moratorium and Abbas doesn’t want to continue discussions absent of that moratorium,” recalls Rhodes. “That was an indication that neither leader wanted to take a risk to give space for the talks. This was an important moment.”

The third missed opportunity was in May 2011, although it’s unlikely Netanyahu and his people would use that term to describe what happened then. After a long period of deadlock, Obama decided to give a speech in which he would clarify the administration’s position on resolving some of the core issues in the conflict. On the advice of his peace envoy, George Mitchell, Obama sought to use the speech to address four main issues borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.

Behind the scenes, there was disagreement over the content of the president’s speech. Senior American officials have said that Obama’s adviser at the time, Dennis Ross, went behind Mitchell’s back and held his own contacts with Netanyahu’s peace envoy, Isaac Molho. Ross and Molho sought to thwart at least some parts of the president’s speech and, after much pressure from Ross, it was decided that the president would only address the issues of borders and security.

But that didn’t stop Netanyahu from reacting angrily when Obama said in his speech that the borders of the future Palestinian state had to be based upon the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. A few days later, during their joint statements to the media ahead of their White House meeting, Netanyahu “lectured” Obama in front of the cameras about Israel’s security.

“When President Obama put forward two parameters in May 2011, our purpose was to create an alternative to the Palestinians going to the UN and to create a basis for talks,” says Rhodes. “And if you look at what the president said, it was entirely consistent with every negotiation in recent years on territory, the ’67 lines with mutually agreed swaps, and on security  language that was very favorable to Israel … We wanted to signal to Israel that we recognize its security needs to be the starting point for any final-status discussion.

“The prime minister made a decision to attack this proposal rather than work with it,” continues Rhodes. “Frankly  casting it as ’67 lines and not embracing the part on mutually agreed swaps … In his initial comments the prime minister misrepresented what the president said … suggesting we wanted Israel to go back to the ’67 lines  which we didn’t. Everybody knows what mutually agreed swaps mean … but the approach taken by Israel was to take it as the most threatening language possible. That was a determination by Netanyahu to basically reject this as a basis for discussion. And then the Palestinians went to the UN and it was our last chance during the first term.”

But what Rhodes cites as the biggest missed opportunity in the last seven years occurred in March 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry formulated a document of principles for resolving the core issues of the negotiations to serve as a framework for continued peace talks. He also presented a U.S. plan for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley once a Palestinian state would be established  a plan drawn up by a team of experts headed by Gen. John R. Allen.

“Abbas or Netanyahu could have chosen to embrace the formula Kerry was working on, but neither of them did,” stresses Rhodes. “Both had taken some risk by pursuing the discussions: Netanyahu in releasing prisoners and Abbas in pursuing talks without any settlement restraint. They had indicated they can take some risk. But when they got to the big question of whether they could embrace the outline of what would become an agreement, neither of them could do it.”

Israeli and Palestinian reticence

Rhodes admits the Obama administration made more than a few mistakes in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but feels that responsibility for the impasse ultimately rests with the Israelis and Palestinians. “If you look back at the last seven years, the president would say we haven’t done everything perfectly. I am sure that at this or that time you could say that this tactic by the U.S. didn’t work. But the president believes the main reason there hasn’t been a breakthrough is that no matter what the U.S. did, each time the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had an opportunity to take a leap forward together, neither of them took it.

“We tried everything,” adds Rhodes. “Direct negotiations, proximity talks, preliminary negotiation. We tried stepping back, applying some pressure; we tried embracing the leaders. There was nothing we could have done differently that would have made the leaders take these decisions. Both sides had legitimate concerns about whether the other side is going to follow through. For whatever reason, both sides could never get across a certain line, and that is what got us to where we are today.”

Rhodes reveals that when the U.S. peace initiative was launched following the 2013 Israeli election and the swearing-in of the Netanyahu government that March, Obama was a bit more optimistic that Netanyahu might surprise people and move toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “One of the reasons why at times the president was more hopeful that Netanyahu can move in this direction is because he has been well established as a strong leader in Israeli politics for so long,” explains Rhodes. “Often, it takes big figures that were on the stage for a long time to make hard decisions. He has been in Israeli public life for so long. He has been focused on security, and we felt this could be the best legacy for Israeli security. But we haven’t seen the decisive action at the critical moment that advances in the direction of peace.”

In the wake of the worsening security situation over recent weeks, Secretary of State Kerry has taken up the Israeli-Palestinian issue again, after nearly a year in which he was focused primarily on the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Despite the failure of his previous peace initiative in the spring of 2014, Kerry’s keenness to deal with the matter hasn’t waned. If it were up to him, he would invest his whole final year in the job in a last attempt to push for the resumption of peace talks.

Obama, though, is much more skeptical than Kerry about the chances of achieving a breakthrough by the time he leaves office in January 2017. “We don’t have particularly high expectations for what can be accomplished in the next year,” admits Rhodes. “On the other hand, there has not been a year since we have been here in which there was not some effort made to bring Israelis and Palestinians together  either because we saw a diplomatic opening or because there were tensions that required trust building between the parties. Every day that John Kerry is secretary of state, he will continue to see this as [a] priority. He is personally willing to commit his time and energy to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table,” adds Rhodes.

At this point, the U.S. administration has no solid plan of action for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue over the next year, but Rhodes says it also has no intention of ignoring it: Kerry will continue his exploratory efforts in the coming months, but in order for the president to intervene and invest his time in the matter, the secretary of state will have to convince him there is a high probability it will pay off. “I think we will be looking for opportunities and ways to build some confidence between the parties to avoid deterioration and keep some space open for the pursuit of peace,” adds Rhodes.

What’s the alternative?

One thing Obama may choose to do in the coming year is deliver a speech in which he spells out U.S. policy on issues like the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee question in the framework of a final-status agreement  two issues on which the United States has not publicly presented its position to date. If such a speech does take place, it may not be intended so much to jump-start a new peace initiative but rather to fill out Obama’s legacy in terms of the peace process.

“We haven’t decided if we are going to do that. We try to make major statements at times we believe it can make a difference,” says Rhodes. “That is a judgment we will make according to what the situation is on the ground and what Kerry is finding in his discussions. I think you will hear from the president on this issue going forward. We will look for the appropriate time to do that, but at the same time we believe that this is only going to advance when you have leadership in Israel and Palestine that is committed to moving forward,” he adds.

The wave of terror attacks over the past month has alarmed Obama and Kerry. Senior U.S. officials won’t say so explicitly, but the phrase running through their minds is, “We told you so.” “Nothing justifies violence. Period. There is no justification for people stabbing innocent Israelis,” Rhodes says firmly. “The broader point the president has been making for years is that there is something inherently unstable about a lack of a two-state solution. By definition you have a large population of Palestinians, many of whom live in occupied territory [and] who want to live in their own state. And then you have a very successful state of Israel, a vibrant democracy that is governing people who are not full participants in this democracy.”

Rhodes notes that Obama has discussed this very issue at nearly every meeting he’s had with Netanyahu over the past seven years. “He tells him: I don’t understand what the alternative is to a two-state solution. People can point to the challenges and risks of a two-state solution, but what is the better alternative? We don’t believe a one-state outcome is better  it is filled with greater risks for Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy.”

In this regard, asserts Rhodes, settlement construction weakens the prospects of ever achieving a two-state solution even further. “For Israel, the more there is settlement construction, the more it undermines the ability to achieve that peace and the more Israel will only have to be defending its settlement policies in the years to come. That’s a reality. It is not something the U.S. or the international community has chosen to make an issue. It’s an issue because there are settlements being built in the West Bank. That’s not going to go away  that’s going be an issue of international concern. There is no alternative that people can just forget this issue and say, ‘You know what, it is just going to work itself out.’ It is only going to get more difficult over time,” he elaborates.

If there’s one thing that really frustrates Rhodes, it’s Obama’s negative image among the Israeli public. The great enthusiasm and affection with which former President Bill Clinton was received in Israel two weeks ago only underscored this.

Rhodes believes Israelis  leaders and the general public alike  are quite mistaken about Obama, and don’t properly appreciate what the president has already done and could yet do for Israel.

“Barack Obama has been an enormous supporter of Israel. He has done more for Israel’s security than any other president, and he understands Israeli history very well. He has been and can be an enormous asset for Israel. He believes in Zionism. He believes in how just Israel is as a Jewish state and a democracy, and he can make that case to the world. He is more than happy to go around the world and defend Israel and Zionism. If anything, the fact he was in the Oval Office prevented and slowed other international efforts  certain actions in the UN or by some of our EU allies. He has been a brake on efforts to single out Israel. He should be seen as an ally, as a friend and as an asset to Israel’s standing in the world.”