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Saturday 6 June 2015

US President Barack Obama told Israelis this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cares greatly about their security, but that he does as well

A Video clip from December 4, 199, is currently making the rounds, showing a younger, darker-haired Benjamin Netanyahu, then the country’s deputy foreign minister, at a press conference in Washington alongside then-ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval.

It was just after the Madrid Conference, and in the midst of the intense procedural jockeying taking place before the start of bilateral talks between Israel and Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.
This was nearly 24 years ago, before YouTube was born, when there were only 1 million Internet users, when Silence of the Lambs was a new hit movie, the airbag was just invented and Boris Yeltsin ruled Russia.

Yet the relevance of what Netanyahu said back then is astounding in the context of the diplomatic jockeying taking place today.

“Israel is 50 percent of the negotiations that take place in any of these forums,” he stated, speaking at a faster clip than he generally does these days. “It cannot be that the Arabs sit back and expect that the US deliver by fiat or dictate Israeli concessions. What they have to do is talk to us directly.”

Netanyahu continued: “Going into the negotiations, and probing into the substantive issues, we are not going to get very far if the Arabs believe they can simply sit back and have the US deliver Israel, that’s not going to work. And I think in many ways, it is important to air that as early as possible… The issue is to get an agreement, as President [George H.W.] Bush said in Madrid, of the parties, from the parties, for the parties – from the parties themselves, and not by outside imposition.

“An imposed settlement on anything does not work for very long.”

Fast-forward to Wednesday, and a meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu held with New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully in Jerusalem. “The main thing we have learned is that peace is achieved, as we did with Jordan and with Egypt, through direct negotiations between parties, and not by fiat – it just doesn’t work that way. I hope it works, but it has to work through direct negotiations.”

Twenty-four years later, and Netanyahu is using the same argument – even the same words – to try and deflect the same thing: efforts to impose an agreement on Israel.

Netanyahu made his comments to McCully not because New Zealand is a diplomatic heavyweight, but rather because it is punching above its weight these days as a member of the UN Security Council (it will assume the rotating presidency of the council next month).

It is also, according to reports, working together with France on a proposal that will be brought to the UN Security Council before September, to enshrine in a UN resolution the parameters of a two-state solution, and set a deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state and an Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, in an interview early in the week with The Washington Post, described some of these efforts.

“We need outside intervention from the UN, from the superpowers, from the US. Once there is a resolution, whether it is the UN asking for Israeli withdrawal or the establishment of the state, this has to be guaranteed by the superpowers,” he contended. “Otherwise, it will be just a paper. We hope that the US intervention can help us.”

Israel, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed to the move, concerned the resolution will give the Palestinians what they want – a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps and a capital in east Jerusalem – without spelling out any of the concessions the Palestinians will need to make regarding Israel’s security issues or their demand for a right of return for refugees.

In other words, Israel is concerned this is just the newest incarnation of an oft-tried attempt to impose a solution from the outside.

NETANYAHU’S most recent comments against the idea came at the top of a meeting with McCully, but they could have just as easily been said in response to US President Barack Obama’s sitdown Tuesday night on Channel 2.

Netanyahu was careful this week not to respond directly or get into a tit-for-tat with Obama over the interview – an interview at times very critical of him and his policies.

Tuesday’s interview was part of a concerted effort by the president over the last few weeks to assuage Jewish and Israeli fears over the impending Iran deal and US Mideast policy. Prior to that, he gave an interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that dealt heavily with Israel and Jews, and delivered a speech a few days latter to the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington.

In the Channel 2 conversation, Obama was tellingly noncommittal regarding how the US would react to moves at the UN. He stressed that when it comes to the “most important thing” the US provides Israel – security, military and intelligence assistance – those elements were sacrosanct and not “conditioned on any particular policy.”

Yet regarding the UN, he said that “up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts, for example, or other efforts, because we’ve said that the only way this gets resolved is if the two parties work together.”

But now, he stated, it is becoming more challenging to do so, because Israel does not seem committed to a two-state solution.

“If, in fact, there’s no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there’s a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation. It’s more difficult for me to say to them, be patient and wait because we have a process here; because all they need to do is to point to the statements that have been made saying there is no process.”

This interview, taken together with The Atlantic piece and Obama’s synagogue speech, help create an impression that Obama is placing the preponderance of the onus for the failure on Israel and Netanyahu – who he indicated was playing “the politics of fear.”

“I am less worried about any particular disagreement I have with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I am more worried about what I described earlier, which is an Israeli politics that’s motivated only by fear and then leads to a loss of those core values that, when I was young and admiring Israel from afar, were what were the essence of this nation,” he told Channel 2.

Here, as well as in his previous interview and speech, Obama spoke of a concern that “if the status quo is not resolved,” Israel risks losing its “essential values.”

“In my mind, there is a direct line between the Jewish experience, the African-American experience, and as a consequence we have, I hope, a special empathy and special regard for those who are being mistreated because of the color of their skin or the nature of their faith,” he asserted.

Earlier in the Channel 2 interview, he spoke about youth in Ramallah who feel constrained by the status quo, and later about well-meaning Palestinian students and businessmen whose travel and opportunities are limited.

Even perhaps without intending to do so, the impression one could reasonably take away from these words and stories is that Israel is limiting opportunities for Palestinian because of the color of their skin or the nature of their faith, and not because of anything the Palestinians have done – either through maximalist demands or violence.

And that impression will lead many Israelis to conclude that Obama is not being fair with them or their reality, an impression borne out in poll after poll.

But why is is that important? Why should the US president really care whether Israelis think he is being fair? Because in the same breath, in the same interview, he is asking them to trust him – to trust him regarding the Palestinians, and trust him regarding Iran.

Regarding the Palestinians, Obama maintained he has never suggested that “Israel should ever trade away its security for the prospect of peace.” In fact, he emphasized that in the heat of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations in 2013-2014, he sent over top US military advisers and asked Jerusalem what it needed to protect itself against “the worst-case scenario.”

“And the truth is,” he said, “we have ways we could deal with issues like the Jordan Valley. “ The problem, however, is that Netanyahu and his military advisers don’t think that in the current, uncertain Middle East, those ways are sufficient. As he said last week in a briefing with Israeli journalists, Israel will need to retain a security presence under any agreement throughout the entire West Bank.

Not only along the Jordan River, to prevent arms smuggling from Jordan, but throughout Judea and Samaria – to keep tunnels from being built into Israel, or rocket manufacturing facilities from sprouting up in Nablus and Jenin, like they have in Gaza.

And as far as Tehran is concerned, Obama said Netanyahu “cares very much about the security of the Israeli people, and I think that in his mind, he is doing what’s right.”

He then added, “I care very much about the people of Israel as well, and in my mind, it is very much in Israel’s interest to make sure that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.

And I can, I think, demonstrate – not based on any hope, but on facts and evidence and analysis – that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement.”

Both Netanyahu and Obama want to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. The difference and the problem is that while Obama feels his path will do just that, Netanyahu believes it will have the opposite effect.

The American president has, over the last few weeks, articulated abundant empathy and sympathy and respect and appreciation for Israel, Jews and his interpretation of core Jewish values.

But by being perceived as placing most of the onus for the status quo on Netanyahu, and creating a construct that if only the prime minister would do more, then there would be peace, Obama is – as he did in 2009 – misreading an Israeli public that just recently went to the polls and made it clear it doesn’t see Netanyahu as primarily responsible for the moribund diplomatic situation.

This connects to the Iranian issue in that Obama – by saying that he, like Netanyahu, cares greatly about the people of Israel and has concluded that the current, negotiated path is better for Israel’s security – is essentially asking Israelis to choose who they trust more.

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