Improving relations between the US and Israel

Jul 30, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

July 30, 2009
Number 07/09 #11

This Update contains a number of views on ways in which the relationship between the Obama Administration and Israel –  especially the Israeli public –  can be improved in the wake of recent public disagreements over a “settlement freeze” and other issues. As was pointed out in a previous Update, a recent poll showed only 6% of Israelis viewing US President Obama as pro-Israeli, against 50% who said he was pro-Palestinian.

First up, Haaretz journalist Aluf Benn had a piece in the New York Times arguing problems stem in part from a lack of communications. In particular, he wants the US President to attempt to communicate directly with the Israeli public, something President Obama has not really attempted to do, he says.  He also discusses a number of ways he believes that the Obama Administration has misunderstood Israelis and offered a variety of policies and statements which do not resonate well in Israel. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Obama Administration officials responded to Benn’s piece in an interview with American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Finding their arguments unconvincing was Barry Rubin.

Picking up the same themes was another top Israeli journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in the New Republic. Halevi basically agrees with Benn’s diagnosis, and offers six concrete suggestions he believes will improve Israeli perceptions of the US efforts. Among these are re-affirming past US commitments to support Israeli efforts to trade other land for West Bank settlement blocs, stressing the need for commitments also from the Arab and Palestinian sides, and affirming Israel’s right to exist to the Arab world in a way Israelis would find more sympathetic. For all of his recommendations, CLICK HERE.

Finally, this Update offers the views of veteran American Jewish leader David Harris, who participated in a recent major meeting between President Obama and Jewish community leaders earlier this month. He gives”a caring critique from a friend” to a US Congressional delegation concerning elements of current Washington policy that Jewish leaders have concerns about. He focuses on three – apparently justifying Israel’s right to exist solely on past Jewish persecution, comparing Palestinians to black Americans, and appearing to make political demands to kickstart peace efforts only of the Israeli side. Harris also offers some ideas to help overcome these concerns. To read his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

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Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?


New York Times, Published: July 27, 2009


IN his global tours and TV appearances, President Obama has spoken to Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Russians and Africans. His words have stirred emotions and been well received everywhere.

But he hasn‚t bothered to speak directly to Israelis.

And the effect? Six months into his presidency, Israelis find themselves increasingly suspicious of Mr. Obama. All they see is American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements, a request that‚’ been interpreted here as political arm-twisting meant to please the Arab street at Israel’s expense ˜ or simply to express the president’s dislike for Mr. Netanyahu.

This would seem counterproductive, given the importance the president has placed on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Israel is part of the problem, it‚’s also part of the solution. Yet so far, neither the president nor any senior administration official has given a speech or an interview aimed at an Israeli audience, beyond brief statements made at diplomatic photo ops.

The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence.

This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price. Though Mr. Obama has succeeded in prodding Mr. Netanyahu to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has failed to induce Israel to impose a freeze on settlements. In fact, he has failed even to stir debate about the merits of one: no Israeli political figure has stood up to Mr. Netanyahu and begged him to support Mr. Obama; not even the Israeli left, desperate for a new agenda, has adopted Mr. Obama as its icon.

As a result, Mr. Netanyahu enjoys a virtual domestic consensus over his rejection of the settlement freeze. Moreover, he has succeeded in portraying Mr. Obama as a shaky ally. In Mr. Netanyahu‚s narrative, the president has fallen under the influence of top aides ˜ in this case Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod ˜ whom the prime minister has called „self-hating Jews.‰ Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu is the defender of national glory in face of unfair pressure, someone who sticks to the first commandment of Israeli culture: thou shalt never be the freier (that is, the dupe).

So far, Israelis have embraced Mr. Netanyahu‚s message. A Jerusalem Post poll of Israeli Jews last month indicated that only 6 percent of those surveyed considered the Obama administration to be pro-Israel, while 50 percent said that its policies are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. Less scientifically: Israeli rightists have – in columns, articles and public statements – taken to calling the president by his middle name, Hussein, as proof of his pro-Arab tendencies.

What went wrong? Several explanations come to mind.

First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness – something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama came to office determined to repair America’s broken alliances in Europe and the Middle East. One way to do this – to prove that he was the opposite of his predecessor – was to place some distance between Israel and himself.

Second, Mr. Obama’s quest for diplomacy has appeared to Israelis as dangerous American naïveté. The president offered a hand to the Iranians, and got nothing, merely giving them more time to advance their nuclear program. In Israeli eyes, he was humiliated by North Korea‚s nuclear and missile tests. And he failed to move Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel. Conclusion: Mr. Obama is a softie, eager to please his listeners and avoid confrontation with anyone who is not Mr. Netanyahu.

Third, Mr. Obama seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis. We are close emotionally and politically, but we are different. We speak Hebrew and not English, we live in the Middle East and have separate historical narratives. Mr. Obama‚s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle – not guilt over the Holocaust – brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Fourth, as far as most Israelis are concerned, Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze. For starters, mainstream Israelis rarely have anything to do with the settlements; many have no idea where they are, even when they’re a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.

More important: in the past decade, repeated peace negotiations and diplomatic statements have indicated that larger, closer-to-home settlements (the „settlement blocs‰) will remain in Israeli hands under any two-state solution. Why, then, insist on a total freeze everywhere? And why deny with such force ˜ as the administration did ˜ the existence of  previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction? There is simply too much evidence proving that such an understanding existed. To Israelis, the claim undermined Mr. Obama’s credibility – and strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s position.

Perhaps there are good reasons behind Mr. Obama‚s Middle East policy. Perhaps the settlement freeze is in Israel’s best interest. Perhaps the president is truly committed to Israel‚s long-term security and well-being. Perhaps his popularity in the Arab street is the missing ingredient of peacemaking.

But until the president talks to us, we won’t know. Next time you‚re in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly. We will surely listen.

Aluf Benn is the editor at large of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.


Family Feud

Six ways that Obama can regain Israeli trust.

Yossi Klein Halevi , 

The New Republic, 
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jerusalem, Israel – 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.


Taking Stock of U.S. Policy toward Israel

David Harris

Executive Director
American Jewish Committee (AJC), July 23, 2009

The following is adapted from my remarks to a meeting of the U.S. Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, attended by about 20 Democratic Senators, on Capitol Hill on July 22.

Thank you for the privilege of speaking once again before this distinguished group.

I represent AJC ˆ the American Jewish Committee. We have been active for decades in supporting Israel and advancing peace. I would describe our outlook in the words of President John F. Kennedy, who said, “I‚m an idealist without illusions.”

We welcome President Obama‚s groundbreaking speech in Cairo on June 4th.

We applaud his statement that the bonds between America and Israel are “unbreakable.”

We praise his principled condemnation of the Holocaust denial that is all too common in Arab and Muslim societies.

We fully embrace his commitment to peace ˆ peace among Israel, its Palestinian neighbors, and the larger Arab world.

And we share his vision of a region where “children grow up without fear.”

At the same time, I wouldn‚t be honest if I didn’t tell this audience that we have some specific areas of concern. This is a caring critique from a friend, and we hope that these issues can quickly be put behind us.

Let me cite three.

First, in his Cairo speech, the President implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation. That is unfortunate – and factually incorrect.

Israel was born out of an ancient vision unique in the annals of history. In the words of its Declaration of Independence, Israel “was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

This was understood by President Harry Truman, who defied the advice of his State Department to recognize the re-establishment of Israel in 1948.

His favorite Psalm, according to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, was Number 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Why is this important now? Because the Arab world has long challenged Israel‚s legitimacy by arguing that it is a Western implant in the Middle East, created to appease the conscience of a Europe with Jewish blood on its hands.

President Clinton encountered this view when his valiant efforts to make peace were rebuffed, as Yasser Arafat outrageously denied the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Indeed, more than any other issue, this gets to the root of the conflict. The United States must take every opportunity to reinforce Israel‚s rightful place in the region.

Second, the President juxtaposed the Palestinian condition with that of black Americans and other suffering people “from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.”

Whatever its intent, this seemed to create a regrettable equivalence.

I would not for a minute deny that Palestinians have suffered. I have visited the West Bank and Gaza and know that the lives of many Palestinians have not been easy.

Yet I also know that the Palestinian condition is, above all, self-inflicted. That is to say that the Palestinian people have been ill-served by their own leaders.

Where are the Martin Luther King and John Lewis, the Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, and the Mahatma Gandhi of the Palestinian people ˆ individuals of visionary greatness and deep commitment to non-violence?

According to a senior British official, Palestinians are the world‚s largest per capita recipients of foreign aid. Yet corruption and mismanagement have siphoned off too much from the intended recipients.

To suggest that Palestinians are the modern-day version of those who endured inescapable oppression is to give them, and especially their leaders, a free pass. Those leaders should be held accountable for failing to move Palestinian society from victimization to responsibility.

On this front, there are glimmers of hope today in the West Bank, but there remains a long road yet to be traveled. Meanwhile, of course, Gaza is in the iron grip of Hamas, which continues its implacable hostility toward Israel, and, indeed, toward the Palestinian Authority.

And third, the President, in his speech in Cairo, made a specific demand for action by only one country. He said, “It is time for these settlements to stop.” Like the Secretary of State, the President made clear that he was referring to all settlements, everywhere.

The President has said that friendship entails honesty, and that he is being honest with a friend.

Yes, but among all the countries of the region, it was unusual to see our President single out only Israel ˆ our “stalwart democratic ally,” in the words of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) ˆ with such sharp focus.

To be sure, the settlements are an issue. We at AJC have said so more than once.

But they are not the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They should be addressed in the context of negotiations, not treated as a sine qua non for talks, as Palestinian leaders are doing now.

In fact, Palestinians seem to have interpreted ˆ or misinterpreted ˆ President Obama‚s stance as a license to sit back while Israel is forced into concessions. As President Abbas said in a revealing interview, “I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements.  Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality. The people are living a normal life.”

In the end, Israel cannot and will not return to the fragile armistice lines of 1967. This was acknowledged by Presidents Clinton and Bush, and we hope that it will be reaffirmed.

As the late Abba Eban, an Israeli diplomat and peacemaker par excellence, said, “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967.  The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger.”

Distinguished Senators, no nation other than Israel has experienced the daily trauma of more than six decades without peace. Today, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah openly call for its destruction.

No other nation in the Middle East has been a more steadfast friend and democratic partner of the United States.

No other nation, victorious in wars thrust upon it, has demonstrated more willingness to make painful concessions to advance peace.

The UN embraced the idea of two states ˆ one Arab, the other Jewish ˆ as early as 1947. Prime Minister Netanyahu‚s call for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not new. It was embraced by a majority of UN member states six decades ago.

An agreement, however difficult, remains possible today. Indeed, four consecutive Israeli prime ministers have called for a two-state accord.

Yet their Palestinian counterparts have not reciprocated, even when Prime Minister Olmert made what the Palestinians themselves acknowledged was an unusually far-reaching offer.

As Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently said, “I believe negotiations will be successful only with a renewed commitment from the Palestinians to be a true partner in peace.”

In that spirit, why has Saeb Erekat, the PA‚s principal negotiator, refused to negotiate with the current Israeli government, while holding talks with the Iranian foreign minister instead? Shouldn’t it be the other way around – spurning the Iranians and meeting the Israelis?

It‚s no wonder that many Israelis are skeptical about the chances of achieving a solution. They seek reassurance that the United States, their indispensible friend and partner, stands with them in their quest for lasting peace and security.

President Obama has laudably reiterated his deep and abiding friendship for Israel on numerous occasions. Quite frankly, though, the polls show that many Israelis are not convinced.

Perhaps he could soon find an opportunity to pay a visit and speak with Israelis directly. It might do a lot to advance understanding among the Israeli public ˆ and to reaffirm America‚s belief, expressed by President Truman, that Israel is “not just another sovereign nation, but  an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”

Thank you.

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