Obama's Pressure Will Backfire
BIU.ac.il – 2010-03-25
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Obama administration is repeating a pattern of behavior towards Israel that, as in the past, will achieve exactly the opposite of what was intended. The intense and exclusive pressure on Israel will result in the hardening of Arab and Palestinian positions, and will scuttle, rather than initiate, real negotiations.
Barack Obama has already made history by being elected as the first black president in United States' history and by being the first to bring about a substantial reform of the American healthcare system. He was elected on the basis of his promises to change the world order. Obama would like to enter history as the man who promoted and achieved a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and who brought about reconciliation between America and the Muslim world. In problematic fashion, he regards Netanyahu and his government as the main element foiling his initiatives and aspirations.
March 2010 was supposed to be a month of reconciliation and overcoming misunderstandings and deteriorations in US-Israeli relations. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's follow-up visit to Washington were carefully planned to achieve these objectives. Instead, the two visits revealed profound disagreements that the two sides have had difficulty overcoming.
Three recent incidents testify to the troubled relations between the US and Israel: the speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu to the annual conference of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, which highlighted the contradictory views on the building in Jerusalem; the meeting between Netanyahu and Biden that was described as fraught with disagreements; and the Netanyahu-Obama meeting that was closed to media coverage and not even photographed. The only friendly meeting was between Netanyahu and House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congress supports Israel, reflecting the strong backing for Israel and its policies in US public opinion. Congress has already rebuked Obama for his treatment of Israel in a letter signed by 71 bi-partisan senators in August 2009.
Although the announcement of Israel's plans to build in Ramat Shlomo during Biden's visit to Israel set off a crisis, the United States exacerbated it. Senior Obama administration figures, who cannot stomach Netanyahu and do not trust him, wanted to exploit the crisis so as to improve the conditions for entering proximity talks, and to show that the US can pressure Israel and alter its policy.
Upon taking office, Obama sought to renew the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations immediately. He set a timetable of two to three years for reaching a solution and establishing an independent Palestinian state. This timetable was determined according to the time frame of the US political system and not according to the existing conditions in the region. Obama wants an historic achievement exactly before beginning his re-election campaign, to improve his chances for victory.
To resume the negotiations, Obama presented demands for concessions from the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians, and the pro-American Arab states. The only leader who acceded to the demands, albeit in partial and qualified fashion, was Netanyahu. In his June 2009 speech at the BESA Center, he accepted the principle of two states for two peoples. In November-December 2009, he announced a freeze on construction in the West Bank. In contrast to the past, which was characterized by winks back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington on the settlements issue, Netanyahu in fact clarified the limits of his undertakings and excluded Jerusalem from the freeze. For their part, however, the leaders of the Arab states rejected all of Obama's requests for gestures toward Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to resume the negotiations. Nevertheless, Netanyahu was the only one to draw harsh criticism from the Obama administration.
The criticism continued even when, with an eye to his visit in Washington and seeking to end the crisis, Netanyahu sent Hillary Clinton a letter in which he again partially accepted American demands for a resumption of the negotiations. The US demanded the cancellation of the building plan for Ramat Shlomo, the release of Fatah prisoners, the further removal of restrictions on movement in the West Bank, and Israeli willingness to discuss final-status issues in the proximity talks and not only in the direct talks as Netanyahu had wished.
Since Obama has been in the White House, the Palestinian Authority has refused to renew negotiations with Israel and has set preconditions. Among other things, the PA has demanded that construction throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem be stopped and that the negotiations resume from the point where they ended with the Olmert government. Until more than a year ago, the building in the West Bank and Jerusalem did not prevent Mahmoud Abbas from holding intensive negotiations with the Olmert government.
The US demand for a total construction freeze hardened the Palestinian position. Even when Netanyahu announced a temporary freeze in the West Bank and the United States welcomed this step, the PA persisted in its refusal to restart the negotiations and demanded that the United States abide by its original position. Obama's policy achieved exactly the opposite of what it aimed to accomplish. It hardened the Palestinian position and delayed negotiations.
General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East, has reported to Congress that the pro-American Arab states are losing their confidence in the United States because it is unable to bring Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. The lack of negotiations and a solution to the conflict makes it hard for the pro-American Arab states to stand beside the US in stopping the Iranian race toward developing nuclear weapons. Petraeus added that the lack of a solution enables the radical Islamic terrorist organizations to recruit operatives and supporters. The inference was that Israeli policy thereby endangers the lives of American soldiers. These statements were quoted by Obama's adviser, David Axelrod, and other members of the administration. This is a grave assertion which could damage the US public's staunch support for Israel.
Patraeus' claims are baseless. Netanyahu criticized them in his speech to the members of AIPAC. Netanyahu said the situation is exactly the reverse, that Israel assists the United States in the fields of intelligence, weaponry, and warfare, and this assistance saves the lives of American soldiers.
Indeed, in the Obama era, American credibility has eroded in the Middle East. This loss is in no way related to Israel or to negotiations with the Palestinians. It began, in fact, with Obama's historic, conciliatory address in Cairo in June 2009. Arab and Muslim states, friendly and hostile, saw it as a revelation of weakness. Obama's credibility was damaged even further by the widening gap between his declarations about US determination to deny Iran nuclear weapons and the ongoing failure to achieve that goal.
There is no connection between Islamic terrorist organizations and the state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Sunnis in Iraq are fighting the United States because they view its values and culture as a threat to Islam and because of the ongoing US military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petraeus' statements and the Palestinians' recalcitrance are among the causes for the Obama administration's decision to intensify the dispute with, and the pressure on, Netanyahu. Obama wanted to achieve better conditions for opening the proximity talks and to show the Arab states that the United States is pressuring Israel, and that pressure is bearing fruit. Hillary Clinton made statements in this spirit after she received Netanyahu's letter of clarification. This is apparently the main reason that Netanyahu has had a hard time in Washington.
Obama's approach can succeed only in the short term. In the longer term it will bring, as in all the previous cases, the opposite of what it seeks. The Palestinians and the Arabs have long dreamed that the United States will do “the work” for them; that is, to pressure Israel into accepting their terms for a settlement without having to make hard concessions themselves. The latest crisis plays into their hands and will harden their positions. Thus, it is likely to thwart, rather than improve, the chances for a comprehensive peace settlement.Prof. Eytan Gilboa is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University.
BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
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WHAT’S HAPPENING BEHIND CLOSED DOORS IN THE OBAMA-NETANYAHU MEETINGS? NETANYAHU STOOD HIS GROUND.
Joel C. Rosenberg
JoelRosenberg.com – 2010-03-25
March 25, 2010
Israeli PM Netanyhu and Defense Minister Barak leaving the White House Tuesday night after tense meetings with the President. (photo credit : AFP/Saul Loeb)
(First posted: Washington, D.C, March 24, 2010, 9:35pm eastern. Updated at 8:15am, March 25) – What in the world was going on behind the scenes of the Obama-Netanyahu meetings? Why were the talks so tense, and so shrouded in secrecy? Wednesday night, I was able to gain some clues. It’s not good.
The Obama administration has been applying intense and unprecedented pressure on the Netanyahu government to make huge unilateral concessions to the Palestinians even before direct peace talks begin. One advisor who has been briefed on the talks told me: “President Obama is insisting that Israel sign a document that specifies Israel’s commitment to a peace deal with the Palestinians that will be based on 1967 lines. This means no building in Jerusalem, and a time table to address other core issues, like the ‘right of return.’” The source, one that I trust a great deal, also noted that President Obama spoke by phone in the last 24 hours with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make sure each of them are on board with pressuring the Israelis to make such unprecedented unilateral concessions. The White House apparently wants the document to become the blueprint for final status negotiations, even though the Palestinians refuse even to come to the table and sit down face-to-face with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu.
The Netanyahu team delayed their departure out of Washington Wednesday afternoon to continue meeting almost non-stop together at the Israeli Embassy. Several key officials also met with special Mideast envoy George Mitchell and other key administration officials. The team finally left for Israel late Wednesday night. Thus far, a virtual news blackout has been imposed on President Obama’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The good news: Netanyahu had a very good week. He looked strong and principled. He was gracious and diplomatic. And he stood his ground. He did not cave into the intense pressure from the White House and State Department. He refused to divide Jerusalem. In a masterful AIPAC speech, he calmly and clearly explained why Israel would never give up the right to build homes in her capital. He sent the U.S. and the world a straightforward and sobering message that if they don’t move quickly and decisively to stop Iran from getting the Bomb, then Israel will do it herself. He didn’t threaten. He didn’t swagger. He simply stated the facts, in their historic context, and nobody does it better than Netanyahu. What’s more, he did all this with Defense Minister Ehud Barak standing in solidarity at his side, which was important because it sent the White House — and his critics back in Israel, and enemies back in Iran — the message that the Israeli government is united. No small thing. Barak came to Camp David with Yasser Arafat in 2000 willing carve up Jerusalem and give away the West Bank. God bless Netanyahu for opposing this approach in principle, and for having and (thus far, at least) maintaining Barak’s support in the process.
What’s more, the AIPAC speech, plus the warm and engaging meetings with Members of Congress significantly strengthened Netanyahu’s hand. It reconnected him in a very important way with grassroots pro-Israel activists from all over the U.S., Jews and Christians alike. It also significantly strengthened his alliance with Congress, which continues to prove itself as the pro-Israel end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both are critical in counter-balancing the hostile Obama administration.
The President and Prime Minister met twice at the White House on Tuesday night for a total of about two hours, from 5:30pm to around 7pm, and then again from about 8:30pm to 9pm. Senior aides to both leaders then stayed up until nearly 1:00am Wednesday morning continuing their talks. The White House, however, has refused to treat Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak with the dignity and respect afforded other world leaders. No joint press conferences. No photo ops. No still shots released of the two leaders meeting. Pretty much ”no comment” to any of the substance.
The Netanyahu team, apparently following the request of the White House and trying to be sensitive to the desire of its host, hasn’t been talking either. On Wednesday morning, the Israelis canceled all interviews. Several news outlets have noted the silence related to the talks is “deafening,” and I agree. It’s hard to remember the last time a world leader of Netanyahu’s caliber — particularly a strong friend and ally of the United States — was subject to such treatment from an administration that claims to be hitting the “reset” button to improve relations between the two countries. Except for last year when Netanyahu came to Washington and also met with Obama without a photo op, press conference, or any of the diplomatic trappings of mutual respect and true friendship.
I believe that Netanyahu was wise to cancel his media interviews on Wednesday. He didn’t grandstand. He didn’t purposefully stick his finger in the President’s eye. Having effectively made his public case to AIPAC and Congress on Monday and Tuesday, Netanyahu, Barak and their team worked hard on Wednesday to show the administration their willingness to negotiate in good faith, and to do so without immediately and publicly airing their differences with the administration. That said, Netanyahu and his team should soon do many media interviews with U.S. and foreign media. He should also dispatch senior government officials to speak to Jewish and Christians groups throughout the U.S. in the weeks and months ahead. He has the support of the American people, but he should never take that for granted.