Letter from Washington: Can They Work It Out?
May 9. Can’t they just get along? This is a question many are asking about the relationship between United States President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their poor relationship has cast a shadow over United States-Israel relations, despite the frequent and close consultations at high levels on critical issues such as Iran.
Indeed, if Obama and Netanyahu cannot find a way to work together in advancing the goals of Israeli-Palestinian peace, this raises questions about whether they can overcome their differences to make key decisions about ways to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Yet, if one had to predict the future of their relationship, it seems unlikely the two will find a way to heal their differences. They differ conceptually about approaches to peace, the role of time as it relates to a strategy and the role of a political base in securing the objective of peace.
Obama has come to Washington with a To-Do List. Whether it is health care or financial reform, he prides himself on being programmatic. Moreover, he is cerebral. Obama does not bond with foreign leaders instinctively. The one way for Obama to build trust is to share a common strategic vision and a programmatic strategy to achieve the objective.
The history of American-Israeli relations illustrates that when the United States and Israel agree on a common strategic vision, as they did during the period of Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, Washington is less focused on where they differ.
The corollary is when they do not share a common direction; then the United States is hard-nosed on the differences, as it was when George H.W. Bush was opposite Yitzhak Shamir.
Therefore, Netanyahu needs to do something he has not done in his previous meetings with Obama. He needs to let him know how he sees the dimensions of a two-state solution, and a plausible strategy of how to achieve it. Obama feels he has gained this sense from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, even if Israelis remain skeptical that Abbas has made such a commitment.
Some critics believe Netanyahu does not have that vision, and that this is the main problem. However, it is also possible that, given how politically explosive these issues are in Israel, Netanyahu fears misplaced trust could be exploited by rivals at home. So if the absence of a shared vision has contributed to a lack of trust, the absence of trust also contributes to a lack of shared vision.
A second set of differences between the two is over urgency, and it is actually related to the issue of a shared vision of peace. Despite recent comments by United States armed forces head Gen. David Petraeus and United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, senior administration sources sharply deny that Obama only sees the issue of Israel through the prism of how it impacts American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the Palestinian issue is certainly evocative, there are over a dozen factors driving anti-Americanism in the region. Even if the Palestinian problem were solved, virtually all the layers of anti-Americanism would remain. (Nonetheless, it is believed that many military officials sense this issue has risen in importance as America fights two wars in the wider Middle East. As such, they come perilously close to the myth of linkage that holds that the Arab-Israel conflict is connected to other conflicts—a topic Dennis Ross and I discuss at length in our recent book.)
Obama believes time is of the essence. Despite criticism of his tactics related to Israel in the American Jewish community, Obama feels his motivations are unassailable. He truly believes he has Israel’s best interests at heart because he views the two-state solution as an answer to Israel’s demographic challenges.
Moreover, Obama sees Hamas waiting in the wings in the West Bank in the event the current Palestinian Authority leadership, under Abbas and his Fatah Party, is defeated due to the failure of peace. Additionally, while it is hard to find any shred of evidence that the Arab regimes will take any steps against Iran based on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, Obama believes movement in the peace process could only be helpful in creating a regional public environment in the Middle East against the regime in Tehran. He also believes progress on peace means it will be harder for Tehran to play the rejectionist card as a way of diverting attention from its nuclear program. This last point is a debatable proposition since rejectionists like Hamas will be even more motivated to torpedo peace if they see any progress.
Netanyahu sees time differently than Obama. He thinks conveying to others a sense that you are in hurry is only seized by the other side as weakness in the Middle East bazaar.
A third profound difference between Obama and Netanyahu’s respective outlooks is how they view the relationship between politics and policy. Obama believes that a true leader acts against his or her political base if necessary when there is a difficult issue at hand. He feels he has done so by dispatching 100,000 troops to Afghanistan and staging Predator drone strikes in Pakistan at a frequency higher than the previous Bush administration. Obama did not tell his liberal political base that he would be signing 60 to 70 letters per month to families who lost a loved one fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Given his own experience, it seems to be hard for Obama to believe that Netanyahu cannot do more to act against his own political base within the Likud coalition. Netanyahu is fond of saying he has domestic political constraints. However, this argument is less salient to Obama when Netanyahu has the option of putting forward a set of policies regarding a two-state solution that would enable Kadima opposition leader Tzipi Livni to join his government (see Livni interview, page 18). In other words, Obama sees these constraints by Netanyahu as self-imposed.
Of course, Netanyahu sees it differently. Specifically, he sees Obama not giving him political credit, as a Likud leader, for declaring support for a two-state solution or lifting most West Bank checkpoints.
Furthermore, Israel has a parliamentary coalition government and not a presidential system. The Netanyahu view is that Obama knows he will be in office for a full four years and has a chance at being around for eight years. Yet, in the rough world of Israeli coalition politics, Netanyahu feels he could lose power in any Knesset no-confidence vote.
However, this argument will not likely carry a lot of sway in the Obama administration so long as the Livni option to widen the Netanyahu government remains ignored.
Some critics of Livni within Likud say she does not want to join Netanyahu because she thinks the status quo is the way for him to ultimately fall and for her to become prime minister. Yet, there is also a possibility that Livni does not want to be a fig leaf if she does not believe Netanyahu is serious about a two-state solution. Many in Washington think if Netanyahu would hammer out a plausible strategy to reach a two-state solution, she would join his government.
In summary, the lack of a common strategy toward peace, different views of time in achieving that strategy and the role of politics in supporting such an effort add up to a conceptual divide between Obama and Netanyahu. As such, it is hard to be overly optimistic about the new relationship between the two leaders.
While some critics of the America-Israel relationship may gloat, they should be careful what they wish for. A number of European and Arab diplomats stationed in Washington—almost all of whom have traditionally favored pressure on Israel—admit that such friction at the top of United States-Israel relations will not translate into progress for peace. They say that an insecure Israel will not take risks for peace.
Moreover, there is no sign of real rupture between America and Israel—the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship are not at risk. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say “there is no space” between the two countries when it comes to security.
Indeed, Obama and Netanyahu cannot walk away from each other. At minimum, they need to manage their differences on the Palestinian issue, even if they cannot solve them. This alone will take work.
Furthermore, they need to work together to make sure that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. In the words of Obama, a nuclear Iran is a “game changer.” Trust between these two leaders needs to be built not as a favor to either, but because it is needed to prevent a destabilized Middle East.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He is the coauthor of Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking/Penguin).