POLITICS JULY 28, 2009
Are we in the early stages of an American-Israeli crisis? Or are the growing and public disagreements between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over settlements and Jerusalem merely arguments "within the family," as President Obama insisted in his recent meeting with American Jewish leaders?
According to one poll, only six percent of Israelis consider Obama a friend. That perception of hostility is new. Israelis welcomed Barack Obama when he visited here in July 2008 and many responded enthusiastically to his election. But Israelis sense that Obama has placed the onus for restarting negotiations on Israel. Worse, he is perceived as showing weakness toward the world's bullies while acting resolutely only toward Israel. Many Israelis--and not only on the right--suspect that Obama actually wants a showdown with Jerusalem to bolster his standing in the Muslim world. If those perceptions aren't countered, the Israeli public will reject Obama's peace initiatives.
On the assumption that the pessimists among us are wrong and the Obama administration isn't seeking a pretext to create a crisis in American-Israeli relations, here are some suggestions for Washington about how to reassure increasingly anxious Israelis.
1. Make clear that renewing the peace process requires simultaneous Israeli and Arab concessions.
The impression conveyed by the administration's relentless public focus on the settlements is that a settlement freeze is the sole prerequisite toward jump-starting peace talks. After the disastrous consequences of the Oslo process (which led to more than five years of suicide bombings in Israeli cities) and of the withdrawal from Gaza (which led to three years of rocket attacks on Israeli towns near the Gaza border), the Israeli public is in no mood for unilateral concessions.
The administration insists that its intentions have been misunderstood, that it expects the Arab world to offer gestures of normalization to Israel. But unlike its hectoring tone toward Israel, there has been little public rebuke directed toward Arab leaders. True, Secretary of State Clinton recently did note that America expects a more forthcoming Arab attitude toward Israel. But that statement has hardly resonated, and the media focus remains on the settlements as the main obstacle to renewing the peace process.
2. Reaffirm the Israeli status of the settlement blocs in a future agreement.
In weighing the future of the settlements, Israelis will be looking not only for tangible signs of Arab goodwill but also of American goodwill--specifically, a reiteration of the Bush administration's endorsement of Israeli sovereignty over the major settlement blocs as part of a peace agreement. In return, a future Palestinian state would receive compensatory territory from within Israel proper.
The administration is right to insist that the current Israeli government must be bound by the commitments of previous Israeli governments (a position that Prime Minister Netanyahu has in fact upheld). But that same principle should also apply to Washington. Obama should not dismiss previous administration promises to Israel--even those made by George W. Bush.
3. Actively confront Palestinian demonization of Israel.
In his Cairo speech, Obama called for an end to Palestinian incitement against Israel. A systematic culture of denial--denying any historical legitimacy to the Jewish presence in the land of Israel--is being nurtured not only by Hamas but by the Palestinian Authority. In recent months, for example, the Fatah media has promoted a campaign denying the historical attachments of Jews to Jerusalem.
Challenging that campaign of lies would be a good way for the administation to begin proving its seriousness on incitement. Negating any Jewish rights to Jerusalem reinforces the very rejectionism among Palestinians that led to the collapse of the Oslo proces--surely no less a threat to peace than building 20 apartments in East Jerusalem.
4. Affirm Israel's historical legitimacy to the Muslim world.
In his Cairo speech, Obama rightly noted that the key obstacle on the Arab side toward making peace is the ongoing refusal to accept Israel's right to exist. Crucially, he has made clear that he intends to carry the issue of Israel's legitimacy into his dialogue with the Muslim world. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for Muslims to hear Israel's case. So far, though, the president has failed to make it. By referring only to the Holocaust, and ignoring the historical Jewish attachment to the land of Israel, the president has inadvertently reinforced Muslim misconceptions regarding Jewish indigenousness. The Holocaust helps explain why Israel fights, not why Israel exists. It doesn't explain why thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked across jungle and desert to reach Zion; nor for that matter why some Jews leave New York and Paris to raise families in a Middle Eastern war zone.
5. Make clear that the impending nuclearization of Iran, and not the Palestinian problem, is the region's most urgent crisis.
Continuing to publicly reprimand Israel over settlement building while only reluctantly and belatedly criticizing the Iranian regime for suppressing dissent has further alienated Israelis from the Obama adminstration. In one recent cartoon in the daily Maariv, Obama is depicted as a waiter serving Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Obama offers him two plates: On one is a carrot, and on the other--a carrot.
Israelis need to know that there is no substantive difference between Obama and Netanyahu on the need to prevent an Iranian bomb at all costs--or to put it more bluntly, that there is as much urgency over a nuclear Iran in Washington as there is in Riyadh and Paris.
6. Don't treat the Netanyahu government as a pariah.
For weeks Israelis have been reading in their newspapers about a near-total breakdown in trust between Washington and Jerusalem. For his part, Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Obama’s friendship for Israel, and refused to attack his Iran policy. During his meeting with Jewish leaders, Obama reaffirmed his friendship for Israel but seems to have mentioned no words of friendship for Israel's prime minister. Israelis need to hear some words of warmth from the White House toward their elected leader. That's what one expects from friends, to say nothing of family.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.