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Time for an Obama Trip to Israel?

Interviewee: Daniel Brumberg, Democracy and Governance Program Co-Director, Georgetown University; Acting Director, the Muslim World Initiative, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 20, 2010

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U.S.-Israeli relations have been prickly since Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to Israel last month, during which Israel announced plans to build more housing units in East Jerusalem. Since then strains have shown in, among other things, tougher rhetoric from the administration--including a statement by President Barack Obama that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a "vital national security issue." These strains make it impossible for any movement on a peace process, explains Middle East policy expert Daniel Brumberg, who says that to rebuild trust, Obama needs to travel to Israel and talk to not only the Knesset, but perhaps even Israeli settlers who live on the West Bank, in a show of "tough love." Brumberg acknowledges that such a trip, while necessary, would also mean a considerable risk for the administration, which could fail.

How bad is the relationship between these old friends?

U.S.-Israeli relations are in many ways at a new low. The level of strain is palpable in many ways: the recent visit to Israel by Vice President Biden, the failed visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, and Netanyahu's decision not to attend the just-concluded nuclear security conference. But it's also reflected in what are increasingly divergent views in Israel and Washington on the strategic importance of an Arab-Israeli peace process.

I don't think there's much chance of getting . . . negotiations back on track between the Palestinians and the Israelis without a readiness of the United States to become much more involved in promoting them and without a direct readiness of the president to become involved in that process.

This is very much reflected in the remarks that President Obama made at the concluding press conference of the security conference in Washington, where he noted or asserted that Arab-Israeli peace was a "vital national security interest" to the United States, a point of view that has been expressed by General David Petraeus and other members of the military. We heard Condoleezza Rice make similar remarks when she was secretary of State. Now you not only have the president making the case, but he seems willing to follow through with some kind of action plan, in which the United States will become much more active in promoting a Palestinian-Israeli peace.

At the same time, not only do Israelis not see the need for advancing critically on the peace front, but they also believe the opportunities are not there and that they shouldn't be pushed to pursue a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians.

Do you find people in the Muslim world are really that concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

What has happened in the past few years, and partly as a consequence of the globalization of communications, is that the Arab-Israeli issue--particularly in moments of crisis, whether it's in Gaza or elsewhere--has come into the living rooms of middle-class Muslim societies in a way that simply wasn't the case ten or twenty years ago. The Palestinian issue looms large in far-away places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. We would be wrong to belittle the extent to which members of the professional middle class, the elites of the Muslim world, both in the Middle East and beyond, view this issue as really important to them and would hope for some sort of solution in this problem. I don't believe that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict will resolve all the myriad of issues, but certainly an active peace process would go some way to addressing the kind of festering wound that is simply not limited to the Arab world.

Is there any Arab plan that has any chance of success? Or is it really up to the United States?

I don't think there's much chance of getting successful, sustained, direct negotiations back on track between the Palestinians and the Israelis without a readiness of the United States to become much more involved in promoting them and without a direct readiness of the president himself to become involved in that process. One of the things we learned recently on the domestic front in the legislation over healthcare is that this is a hands-on president. This is a man who's interested in the details. Whether he's trying to work out a plan on Afghanistan, or Palestine-Israel, or whatever, he is going to become involved in planning and in executing it.

On this score, the same sort of principle has to be applied to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Senator George J. Mitchell, the special Middle East negotiator, is a bright, energetic, well-meaning man, but he doesn't have the authority or the capacity to really advance this process forward. And if it is as President Obama said, that a solution of this conflict is of strategic importance to the United States, then it's vitally important that he become involved in the solution.

You wrote in a recent article (Newsweek) that Obama should go to Israel, talk to the Knesset, try to stir up Israeli public opinion in favor of the peace talks, and convince the Israelis of his sincerity. You said the administration needs "a Jewish World Engagement" that parallels its effort for a "Muslim World Engagement. Your proposal was in a way seconded (WashPost) by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former New York congressman Stephen Solarz. What kind of reaction have you gotten from that proposal?

I'm gratified that a lot of folks, including colleagues and people that I look up to, like Brzezinski, have been sort of echoing this argument from somewhat different perspectives. My argument is that the administration faces a fundamental trust-gap with the Israeli administration that is in part a consequence of factors I alluded to before, in particular the Israeli perspective that the prospects for peace are limited and that concessions at this point will only undermine Israeli security. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982 and from Gaza in 2005 left those territories under the control of radical Islamist military groups, who then used them to pursue conflict with Israel. So there is great fear in Israel about any further concessions.

The paradox is that Israel is hugely successful, very wealthy, and roughly 60 percent of its people live in and around the Tel Aviv area. The Israelis have a high degree of security, but they feel very insecure at the same time, and very vulnerable. Obama needs to go there and address these fears and these concerns, and make a very strong case for why he, and his administration, believe that ultimately Israel's own democracy and its survival as a democratic Jewish state, will be vastly enhanced.

In other words, make a speech to the Jewish world community, as he did in Cairo to Muslims?

Yes. His Cairo speech last June was meant for the Egyptians, but it was also meant for the Arab world and the broader Muslim world. There is a kind of Jewish angst that is out there. In an open letter by Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, to President Obama, he says, "The administration's desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well-known, but is friction with Israel part of this new strategy?" That's a remarkable perception, and a very dangerous one. It is one that I think is completely off-base. Obama's effort to engage the Muslim world is in part to engage it for peace. But the Israelis are worried and frightened. You can't address those kinds of non-rational, emotional symbolic concerns by sending a representative to the region to talk to the Israelis. As Brzezinski and Solarz said, you need some sort of dramatic effort. That is of course hugely risky for the administration, because it could fail.

Brzezinski's proposal was that the president would be accompanied by a delegation of Arab leaders, but I cannot imagine any Arab leaders other than the Egyptians and Jordanians who have peace treaties with Israel, joining such a group.

It's a great idea, but it's not realistic. It's asking for too much. I do think that it's remarkable that the president hasn't been to Israel as president yet. He needs to go. He really needs to talk to not only the Knesset, but to make the rounds, perhaps even talking to Israeli settlers who live on the West Bank, to demonstrate that we care. This is to show tough love. We've done a lot of the "tough" part; we need more of the "love" part.

Israeli leaders have always argued that the strategic value of Israel comes in part from the fact that it's a democracy. But there's ample evidence that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continued occupation of parts of the West Bank is eroding the quality of Israeli democracy in ways that could really undermine this strategic relationship. There's so much at stake in strengthening and reinforcing this relationship. The emphasis of the president must be on the positive, must be on the opportunities ahead. Israeli public opinion is hugely fickle. You'll get one study that shows this percentage favors peace, and then the next day something else. They respond to these sorts of symbolic initiatives. They're not just all hard-nosed sabras who are impervious to these sorts of appeals. I think there would be a response. The response might also lead--I do not think this would be intended--to some changes in the makeup of the Israeli government because [it] is tremendously constrained in terms of what it can do given the nature of the cabinet and who sits in it.

The Palestinians have taken the position, backed by the Arab states, that they're not going to do anything until Israel announces a freeze on settlements, including East Jerusalem, which the Israelis don't regard as a settlement. Has the whole Jerusalem issue become even bigger because of all the publicity during Biden's trip about additional building there?

The Israelis have a reason to be disgruntled in that respect, from the absence of efforts in the Arab world. We hear time and time again about the Saudi peace plan, but there's not much more out there. There's just a lot of rhetoric, some of which occasionally has an anti-Semitic feel to it.

Yes, and the nine-month settlement freeze that even Netanyahu agreed to did not include Jerusalem. The administration chose to draw its line in the sand on probably the most difficult issue other than the question of the return of Palestinian refugees, and that is Jerusalem. It has realized since then that it's got to step back and draw the bigger picture, and not let the whole thing focus on the Jerusalem question, because that could just explode in everybody's faces.

But the administration does have a wider strategic concern. When Netanyahu came to Washington and he spoke before American-Israeli Public Committee (AIPAC), he said, "Jerusalem is not a settlement." This was a tremendously provocative line, and it got a great applause. But you know, most settlements are not settlements. These so-called "settlements" like Maale Adumim in the West Bank, are towns and cities, with stores and theaters, and movies and regular bus service to the rest of Israel. They have been integrated into the Israeli state, and their expansion over time has made it much more difficult for the peace process to succeed.

If you want to talk about a two-state solution in which there is a viable Palestinian state, how do you do that when significant chunk of the West Bank is absorbed into the Israeli state?

Why hasn't Obama gone to Israel as president?

I understand that there have been efforts within the administration, since day one of Obama coming to the White House, to encourage him to make a trip to Israel. Obama really felt he needed to have a certain success on the domestic level first. The healthcare issue was the battle he decided to fight. My sense from the response I've gotten from my Israeli friends is that they're gratified to see an argument made for Obama engaging the deep emotional concerns of Israelis. At the same time, in some sense, the argument for going there has been made as a consequence of the worsening Israeli-American relations, and there's a concern that this should not be seen just merely as an effort to pat the Israelis on the back and lighten the atmosphere. Since the administration's initiative was launched, things have gotten worse between the two sides. So that makes it kind of necessary and awkward at the same time to have Obama come. That's the situation we face. And he's got to make the effort. Once he goes--assuming there's a successful mission and he's reiterated the American position and gotten perhaps some important concessions and positive responses from the Israelis--he can put that in his pocket and go back to Saudi Arabia and reengage the Muslim world.

He made quite clear when he came to Cairo that the Muslim world has to do certain kinds of things as well. He said Muslim leaders and Muslim elites and Arab leaders have their own responsibilities. One is to engage support for this sort of process of peace making. That hasn't happened. The Israelis have a reason to be disgruntled in that respect, from the absence of efforts in the Arab world. We hear time and time again about the Saudi peace plan, but there's not much more out there. There's just a lot of rhetoric, some of which occasionally has an anti-Semitic feel to it. A lot more can be done by Arab leaders to mobilize their own support for pushing this peace process forward, and that's not happening either.

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