THE PLANK AUGUST 3, 2009
Obama's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, recently visited Israel, just one among a cadre of Obama officials to trek there this summer in an effort to get the peace process moving. As Bill Clinton's chief Middle East peace negotiator, Ross is no stranger to Jerusalem, and his visit inspired me to check his 800-page account of those years for insights about the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ross's book, The Missing Peace, paints a rather unflattering portrait of Netanyahu, whose first term as prime minister ran from June 1996 to July 1999. Writing of one Netanyahu bid to get the peace process moving, for instance, Ross says:
Unfortunately, Bibi rarely seemed to know how to act on his ideas--how to present them, to whom, and even when to do so. Translating an idea into action seemed beyond his grasp. It was not a lack of intelligence; few are more intelligent than Bibi Netanyahu. It was an impulsive lack of judgment, and a lack of a feel for the Arabs generally.
What may be most interesting overall, though, is how much the Obama team's thus-far tense relationship with Bibi may be following the script of Ross's fellow Clintonites. To be sure, Clinton got off to a famously horrendous start with the Israeli leader, as Ross reminds us in his account of their initial 1996 meeting at the White House:
Netanyahu was nearly insufferable, lecturing and telling us how to deal with the Arabs.... After Netanyahu was gone, President Clinton observed, "He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires." No one on our side disagreed with that assessment.
Obama's first meeting with Bibi was much smoother. But the current standoff over an Israeli settlement freeze has some asking whether the Obama team may doubt whether they can accomplish anything with Netanyahu in office--a sentiment shared by many Clintonites in the late 1990s. After Netanyahu seemed to defy the peace process in March 1997 by beginning construction at the settlement community of Har Homa, Ross writes:
[National Security Advisor] Sandy [Berger]'s main concern was about Bibi: Could anything be done with him? [Secretary of State] Madeleine [Albright], joined by [Ambassador to Turkey] Mark Parris, doubted it, even raising the possibility of announcing that we could not work with him.
I had a different position. I had no illusions about Bibi, but also believed we could not wish Bibi away... It was important, I argued, not to lose sight of who Bibi was and what he wanted. He saw himself in historic, grandiose terms.... If we could demonstrate that we were making every effort to work with him, we would have a basis for taking him on later if he did not deliver. Better to let him fail than to cut him off--allowing him to say that we were unfairly pressuring Israel, and making failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Albright and Berger weren't convinced, telling Ross that Netanyahu was intentionally trying to sabotage the peace process begun with the 1993 Oslo accords. Ross disagreed:
Our biggest problem was not that Bibi had a design, but that he didn't. I quoted the line that the British ambassador to Israel had used with Martin [Indyk], likening Bibi to "a drunk who lurches from lamppost to lamppost."
Whether Ross's views of Netanyahu have changed in the decade since, there's no way of knowing. I suspect not, and I'd bet that some very similar conversations have been taking place in the Obama White House in the past several weeks.