Posts Tagged ‘Netanyahu’

Concrete versus Sand

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Richard Cohen has an important column in the Washington Post this week (“Obama, don’t forget Jerusalem.”)

There are some nuggets in the piece that should reassure the Jewish community vis-a-vis the recent dust-up between the U.S. and Israel.

For starters, Obama did not snub Netanyahu by interrupting a meeting with the prime minister so he could have dinner with his family. “There was no snub, say the most informed of informed sources,” Cohen writes.

Moreover, in some important arenas, U.S.-Israeli cooperation is actually greater than it’s ever been.

In fact, Israelis and others say that when it comes to military aid and intelligence operations, the two countries have never been closer. As an example, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz tell us that three American-made Hercules transport aircraft are in the pipeline to Israel. …

… Most Israelis still like Obama and approve his approach; they, too, want a two-state solution.

The problem, Cohen argues, is one primarily of perception.

[Obama] gives every appearance of not “getting” Israel; not appreciating its fears or its history. Israel is not half of the equation, as if both sides are right. It is a democracy with American values that has tried, over and over again, to make peace with a recalcitrant and unforgiving enemy.

Israelis would give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem for peace — but they fear, and with good reason, that more concessions won’t work, and will leave Israel more exposed. Many believe Hamas would quickly over-run a weak Palestinian Authority, and Israel would be suddenly faced with not one but two terrorist mini-states breathing down its neck. (Hamas was elected, after all, in Gaza; what’s to prevent that from happening in East Jerusalem?)

Obama “needs to address Israelis’ fears,” the Israeli philosopher Carlo Strenger wrote recently in Haaretz. So far, Obama has done just the opposite, even going to Cairo to assure the Palestinians and the greater Arab world that he appreciates their plight without assuring Israelis that he appreciates theirs. His coolness toward Netanyahu, earned or not, has chilled the Israeli public and encouraged Palestinian defiance. He is on the cusp of an enormous diplomatic blunder.

Cohen concludes by saying that Obama has the “right policy,” but needs to go to Jerusalem to address Israeli fears. (I’ve repeatedly advocated the same thing with this blog, as early as this post, from July 9, 2009: “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.“)

There’s another way Obama can start changing perceptions. When his administration pressures Israel, he asks for concrete concessions (freeze settlements, open checkpoints, declare support for a two-state solution, etc.) When pressure is exerted on the Palestinian Authority, it’s much less concrete. Just this week, for example, Hillary Clinton called on the PA to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

We’ve heard that trifecta before.

But what does a crackdown on corruption look like? How should the Jewish community measure PA efforts to ingrain a culture of tolerance? Can you show us any hard steps the PA has taken to end incitement? From our vantage point — when we see, for instance, Fatah naming a square in el-Bireh after a Palestinian terrorist — it seems like just the opposite is occurring.

With the Israelis, so far, this administration is asking for concrete. With the Palestinians, it seems to be asking for sand.

Until Obama demands painful concessions from the Palestinian side — let’s see the Palestinian police arrest Hamas leaders, or others inciting violence against Israel, for example — trust is going to be in short supply.

G-8 Tightens Timetable on Iran

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Talk about a swing and a miss.

Coming out of the G-8 talks in Italy, much of the media seems intent on arguing that the summit didn’t go far enough on the issue of a nuclear Iran. See, for example, Time: “The G-8 Speaks Softly on Iran’s Nuclear Program.”

This completely ignores the fact that Russia, which in the past has been the stumbling block to a united front against Iran, signed on to what President Barack Obama today described as “a strong statement calling on Iran to fulfill its [nuclear non-proliferation] responsibilities without delay.”

And there seems to be a bigger, more fundamental point that the media is totally missing.

In May, when Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met President Barack Obama in the White House, Obama said that while he would try to engage Iran, he wouldn’t do it indefinitely, saying the Islamic Republic had until the end of the year to respond on its nuclear program. At the time, the New York Post said the two leaders “agreed an aggressive timetable is needed to deal with Iran’s nuclear intentions.”

That timetable just got a whole lot more aggressive. The leaders of the G-8 nations, with Russia’s assent, said they would “take stock” of the situation again at another international meeting in Pittsburgh in just two months.

As Politico reported:

“What that does is provides a time frame,” Obama said. If Iran does not take up offers to resume talks over its nuclear program, “you have on record the G-8 to begin with [and] potentially a lot of other countries that are going to say you need to take further steps …”

Obama said a ‘door’ is open to Iran, but he warned that the patience of the world community is finite. “We’re not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of nuclear weapons in breach of international treaties and wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.”

As I write this, Haaretz is running an AP article on its homepage headlined: “Obama: U.S. Won’t Allow Iran to Develop Nukes.”

Here’s the lead:

U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday the world would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a day after a senior Iranian official vowed his country would not back down “even one step” over its nuclear work …

“I think the real story here was consensus in that [G8] statement, including Russia, which doesn’t make statements like that lightly,” [Obama] said. “Now the other story there was the agreement that we will reevaluate Iran’s posture towards negotiating the cessation of a nuclear weapons policy.”

“We’ll evaluate that at the G20 meeting in September.”

Despite what Time says, I imagine the clerical leaders of Iran hear the message loud and clear.

The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Reading the Akron Beacon Journal today, I came across this headline: “Obama tries to win over skeptical Russians.”

After reaching out to the Islamic world in speeches in Turkey and Egypt, President Barack Obama sought once more to speak directly to the hearts and minds of another audience that has been hostile to the United States: the Russian public. …

Just as the president sprinkled his speeches in the Middle East with references to the Quran and partnership with the Muslim world, Obama spoke knowledgeably to Russians about issues close to their hearts.

It was vintage Obama, reaching out directly to the people, speaking honestly — “he quietly criticized Russia’s increasingly authoritarian politics and aggressive foreign policy — without lecturing or accusing the Kremlin” — and earning their trust.

Several times, Obama made references that might sound like platitudes anywhere else — but which struck a powerful chord with Russians.

It’s time that Obama went to Israel, and made the same kind of appeal to skeptical Jews.

I understand why he didn’t start with Israel. Obama has reached out first to those — in Iran, the Arab world, and Russia — who are most suspicious of the United States and its foreign policy, after eight years of tough talk and sabre-rattling by George Bush. That makes sense.

Now, though, he has an Israel problem. According to a recent Jerusalem Post Poll — much discussed and emailed in the Jewish community — only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama pro-Israel. A whopping 50 percent believe he is pro-Palestinian — up from only 14 percent in May.

This, about a president who went to Cairo — the heart of the Muslim world — and declared that America’s bond with Israel “is unbreakable.”

Clearly, there is a growing credibility gap.

There’s an article in Haaretz today by Aluf Benn, who I’m not prone to agree with, but who makes a good point. Benn notes that while many Israelis might actually support a settlement freeze, when Obama called for exactly that, absolutely no one on the political left in Israel sided with him over Netanyahu. One reason, Benn writes, is that:

Obama did not try to communicate with the Israeli public and convince them that freezing settlements will be an important and positive step to contribute to peace and a better future. Obama addressed the Arabs and Muslims, but not the Israelis.

For the Obama administration, it’s not just an issue of assuaging the Israeli public, and thus making American Jews feel better. If the Israeli public understood they had a true friend in the White House, a large segment might line up behind Obama, increasing pressure on their prime minister to compromise on settlements and other tough, intractable issues coming down the pike.

The other day, a U.S. Congressman with unassailable pro-Israel and pro-Obama credentials put it this way: “[The Israeli] public needs to be predisposed to follow” the United States’ lead on peace talks.

The best way for that to happen is for Obama to go to the Jewish homeland and speak to Israelis directly, honestly, and from the heart.

Why Obama Waited

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

“What took you so long?” Fox News correspondent Major Garrett heckled the president of the United States at his news conference this week, after the president condemned the Iranian government’s bloody crackdown on protestors.

And, as I predicted in my post the other day (you hardly needed a crystal ball), President Barack Obama’s critics have pushed each other out of the way to pile on this point.

“I’m glad the president finally did rise to the occasion here,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told CBS, in one of the more muted statements, adding: “The president should have spoken from the very beginning expressing the fact that we will always stand with the forces of freedom throughout the world and we will oppose tyranny.”

It’s been well documented from the start that, before the Iranian revolution turned bloody, President Obama was trying to walk a fine line so as not to be seen as meddling. He didn’t want to give Iranian hardliners material that they could use as propaganda against peaceful protestors in the street.

But there is another, broader strategic reason he waited, as well. As Helene Cooper reports in The New York Times today:

“The White House and the West are calculating that … Mr. Obama’s measured stance will put the United States in a far better position to get Russia and China to agree to tough sanctions against Iran than if Mr. Obama had struck a strident note early on.”

As President Obama indicated to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he doesn’t intend to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program beyond the end of the year. One form of pressure the United States can exert is the threat of economic sanctions — but that’s a paper tiger without the participation of Russia and China. If President Obama had come out hurling fire and brimstone the first day, as his detractors wanted him to do, he could have severely undermined the likelihood of assembling a broad international coalition, including Russia and China, to impose meaningful sanctions.

(Which, by the way, is exactly what Netanyahu is pressing for this week in Europe.)

In other words, despite what Major Garrett and the fulminating critics on the right apparently wanted to hear, President Obama’s measured response was not only thoughtful, it was strategic, and in the best long term national security interests of both the United States and Israel.

Obama Praises Netanyahu’s Speech

Monday, June 15th, 2009

President Obama had a pitch-perfect response today to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s speech, calling it “positive movement,” and adding: “What we’re seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.”

“He acknowledged the need for two states,” Obama said.

The president took time at the end of a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi to praise Netanyahu, and reiterate his support for Israel:

Now, I’ve been very clear that, from the United States’ perspective, Israel’s security is non-negotiable.  We will stand behind their defense.

What struck me about the President’s comments was that he agreed with Netanyahu that the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and also put “an end to incitement against Israel and an end to violence against Israel.”

According to the AP: “To the Palestinians, Obama repeated that leaders must end anti-Israeli rhetoric in schools and recognize Israel.”

“Israel’s security concerns extend beyond simply the Palestinian Territories,” Obama said. “They extend to concerns that they have in a whole host of neighbors where there’s perceived and often real hostility towards Israel’s security.  So I’m glad that Prime Minister Netanyahu made the speech.”

My point is that yet again, the president is going out of his way to stress the extent of the U.S. commitment to Israel and Israel’s security.

You can read the full transcript of Obama’s remarks here.

Netanyahu’s Olive Branch

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu mentioned the word “peace” 43 times in his much-anticipated speech at Bar-Ilan University today. He invoked the path of Yitzhak Rabin. This, from Israel’s leading hawk. It was a remarkable, must-read speech (here’s the text from the Prime Minister’s Office), with an unmistakable message to President Obama: We want to work with you. Our hand is unclenched.

Netanyahu is already being criticized by Palestinians and those on the political left — a drum beat that will no doubt intensify — for not going far enough. But critics miss a key point.

To understand just how big a gesture Netanyahu made today, you have to go back to Wednesday. That’s when he met with Likud Members of Knesset at his Jerusalem office. Here’s the Jerusalem Post’s take:

Every MK who spoke at the meeting pleaded with him not to utter the catchphrase “two states for two peoples” when he delivered his policy address on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University. The MKs reminded him of statements he made at a Likud central committee meeting in 2002, in which he warned against the dangers of even a demilitarized Palestinian state, and urged him, “Don’t found a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan.”

Despite the intense pressure from his own party, today’s headline will be: Netanyahu Backs Two States. Here’s what he said:

In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.  Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government.  Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.

These two realities – our connection to the land of Israel, and the Palestinian population living within it – have created deep divisions in Israeli society. But the truth is that we have much more that unites us than divides us …

If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.

We have much more that unites us than divides us, Netanyahu said. That language might very well have been lifted verbatim from an Obama campaign speech.

It’s true that Netanyahu said he could not meet Obama’s call for no natural growth in Israeli settlements. But he did say: “We have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.”

Again, to understand the extent of this give, the political context is necessary.  Here’s David Horovitz’s analysis, in the Post:

The prime minister’s refusal to halt natural growth at existing settlements still leaves him in direct conflict with Washington. But Netanyahu will have privately explained to the Americans that meeting that restriction would not merely counter his own outlook, but also doom his government, and his Sunday night mention of the Gaza disengagement served as a timely reminder of Israel’s demonstrable willingness to dismantle even entire settlement communities – albeit, in Netanyahu’s view, for entirely misconceived reasons.

The New York Times said the White House reaction was “positive, if limited, focusing on what it called ‘the important step forward’ of Mr. Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

That is clearly a genuine recognition that this speech was a major Israeli give, especially given Netanyahu’s political realities. This White House, more than most, understands that words matter — words make worlds — and it no doubt appreciates that Netanyahu used the word “peace” more than forty times, stating unequivocally that “the advancement of peace” is “exceedingly important.”

“I also spoke about this with President Obama,” Netanyahu said, “and I fully support the idea of a regional peace that he is leading.”