Obama Tells Rivlin: With No Peace Process, U.S. at a Loss on How to Defend Israel Diplomatically

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U.S. President Barack Obama listens to remarks by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington December 9, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama listens to remarks by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington December 9, 2015. Credit: Reuters

WASHINGTON – The stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will make it hard for Washington to continue blocking international initiatives on this issue, U.S. President Barack Obama warned President Reuven Rivlin during their meeting Wednesday.

Senior Israeli and American officials who were briefed on the meeting said Obama didn’t threaten, nor did he criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He simply described the diplomatic situation, and Israel’s eroding international status, as he saw it, officials said.

Obama and Rivlin during a bilateral meeting at the white House in Washington D.C., December 9, 2015.Credit: AFP

Obama noted that initiatives against Israel in international forums are nothing new, and he has helped Israel fight such initiatives since taking office in 2009. For the last three years, this job has mainly been done by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry did it by telling his colleagues overseas, especially in Europe, that he was trying to advance the peace process and asking them to please not interfere. But after Kerry’s last visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, it will be hard for the administration to continue using this argument, Obama told Rivlin.

The U.S. president said that under the current circumstances, Washington has no tools with which to fight efforts to isolate Israel internationally.

“Kerry returned without answers,” the officials quoted him as saying. “I can’t know whether we’ll continue to be able to block” such efforts, “because we can’t promise them anything. ... What will we tell them?”

It’s no accident that in his Oval Office press statement, Rivlin publicly thanked Obama for the diplomatic backing America gives Israel. If there’s one issue that has worried Rivlin ever since he took office, it’s Israel’s international standing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met with Rivlin a few months ago, told him roughly the same thing Obama did – that the lack of a diplomatic process makes it very hard for Israel’s friends to defend it in international forums.

A senior Israeli official said Rivlin believes that at a time when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is rejecting all of Kerry’s proposals and prefers to work against Israel in international institutions, Israel needs Washington more than ever. Rivlin said as much to Obama, but didn’t emerge from their meeting reassured.

What most likely bothered him was his sense, even if Obama didn’t say so explicitly, that Israel could no longer count on a U.S. veto in the UN Security Council. The only Security Council veto Obama has ever cast was against a 2011 resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction. Under the current diplomatic circumstances, it’s not clear he would do so again.

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015Credit: AP

One of the first things Rivlin did after his White house meeting was to call Netanyahu and brief him on it.

Military aid

Prior to his arrival in Washington, Rivlin met with Netanyahu to coordinate their positions, especially on the negotiations with the U.S. administration over a new security aid package for the next 10 years. Rivlin also met with senior defense officials to hear what Israel is seeking from the Americans.

The two key people in these negotiations are both women. One is Yael Lempert, who holds the Israel portfolio at the U.S. National Security Council and is heading the talks on the American side.

The second is National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is considered one of Obama’s closest and most influential advisers on the entire political-security sphere in the United States. What she says goes. When she wants things to move they move and when she wants them to get stuck, they get stuck. Since Rice assumed her post three years ago, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has not sat in her office even once. The people she preferred working with were former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror and his successor Yossi Cohen, who a few days ago was appointed head of the Mossad.

The channel between Cohen and Rice has been crucial many times over the past two years, especially during the serious crisis over the nuclear agreement with Iran. They trusted each other, and even when there were sharp disagreements, they were able to work together and prevent a total collapse of the relationship between the White House and the prime minister’s bureau in Jerusalem. It is still not clear how long it will take Netanyahu to appoint a successor for Cohen and who that will be. At this moment, the vacuum and lack of a direct line of communication with Rice could harm talks over the security agreement.

The Israeli security establishment would like to receive security assistance from the Americans worth $50 billion over the coming 10 years, as opposed to the $30 billion Israel received over the past decade. The Americans are not talking about this sum. From their point of view, increasing security assistance to $40 billion for the coming 10 years is more than enough. Netanyahu, who wants to show that his struggle with the administration over the nuclear agreement with Iran did not harm American security assistance to Israel, and perhaps even led to its increase, is talking about $40 billion and more.

President Reuven Rivlin, lights the menorah and sings joined by President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Nechama Rivlin, Washington, Dec. 9, 2015.Credit: AP

In his statements both public and behind closed doors, Rivlin reiterated his thanks to Obama for the extensive and unprecedented security assistance the United States has given Israel over the past seven years. A senior Israeli official said that during the meeting with Obama, Rivlin made clear that the nuclear agreement with Iran and the latter’s growing support for Hezbollah and other terror organizations required upgrading of the IDF’s defensive and offensive capabilities. Rivlin asked Obama to make every effort to conclude the negotiations and that the memorandum of understanding be signed before Obama left the White House in January 2017.

“This will be part of your legacy as president,” Rivlin told him.

If it is up to Obama, the agreement will be signed while he is still in office. He also sees upgrading the assistance, and security military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, as part of his legacy as president. Israeli and American officials said that it is precisely because of this that Obama did not hide from Rivlin the frustration and pain he feels over the attitude of many Israeli government ministers toward him.

“How can people in Israel say that I’m hostile?” Obama asked Rivlin.

After the meeting, when the Hanukkah party was over, Rivlin went out to the journalists waiting at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House. “I found a friend and a brother in the White House,” Rivlin said. “I met a president who cares about Israel and is completely committed to its security.”

Rivlin and Obama did not agree on everything. For example, they differ considerably on the solution to the Palestinian conflict. On other subjects they have much in common – especially regarding democratic values.

For example, during the meeting, Obama mentioned Jews in Israel a number of times. At one point Rivlin stopped him and said, “Mr. President, say Israelis,” adding: “There are 8 million citizens in Israel and they are not all Jews. Two million of them are Arabs. If they want to define themselves as Palestinian Israelis, that is their right.”

It was also hard to miss the chemistry between Rivlin and Obama and the fact that they chose to emphasis the points of agreement between them.

“This was a very different meeting,” a senior American official said diplomatically. In the White House they especially liked Rivlin’s remarks at the Hanukkah party after his meeting with Obama. He said that the Maccabees had not fought against something, but for the values of freedom. He quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was active in the 1960s in the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King, and spoke of Hanukkah as a holiday that symbolizes equality and human rights. Obama himself could have given that exact same speech.

In contrast, it is hard to imagine Netanyahu, who promises that Israelis will live by the sword forever, delivering such a speech. Indeed, when Netanyahu lit the candles with Border Police personnel at the Western Wall a few days earlier, he preferred to talk about Antiochus, the Syrian oppressor of the Jews in the Hanukkah story.