U.S.-Israel: Time For An ’Honest’ Talk

President Obama’s scheduled meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should stress that continued rejection of a peace settlement will erode the U.S.-Israel relationship, says Middle East diplomatic historian William B. Quandt.

March 22, 2010 9:49 am (EST)

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After a series of new setbacks on the settlements issue, President Barack Obama should have "honest talks" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they meet on March 23, says William B. Quandt, a leading historian on U.S. Middle East diplomacy who worked on the National Security Council staffs for Presidents Nixon and Carter. Obama should make clear to Netanyahu that continued rejection of a peace agreement--along the lines of the plan discussed by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas--will mean an erosion of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Quandt says.

In January 2008, you were mildly optimistic that talks that had just started between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would enable the next administration to firmly push forward a two-state solution. But it’s been a frustrating year, hasn’t it, for the Obama administration’s Middle East efforts?

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Both Olmert and Abbas were moving toward negotiated compromises, which is always welcome in Middle East diplomacy, but they were both weak leaders, and I think there was always a question whether either side would have delivered on the concessions they were discussing. So we weren’t at the end game even with these two relatively moderate leaders on each side. And then things really fell apart dramatically at the end of 2008 with the explosion of the crisis in Gaza and Israel’s decision to launch the three-week military Operation Cast Lead. The way that played itself out really undermined the chance of a moderate Palestinian response being sustained.

Olmert’s resignation because of a corruption scandal led to the election victory of the Likud bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which is opposed to major concessions to the Palestinians.

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As a result of Netanyahu’s becoming prime minister, we have had to take into account that we are not dealing with the same Israel that we were dealing with in 2008. Netanyahu’s coalition takes a different stance. And then the Palestinian camp is still deeply divided, which makes it hard for the Palestinians to negotiate. They don’t have consensus within their own community and it’s not clear to me that we, or the Egyptians, or the Israelis or anybody else has really been trying to help them produce a coherent national unity between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, under Abbas, which controls the West Bank. This makes it very difficult for Abbas to move forward without being subjected to criticism from a significant Palestinian faction.

How did the Obama administration react to those election results in Israel, which came in the early weeks of the presidency?

The new administration wanted to move forward, and certainly the president gave lots of early signals of this, but the reality hit him in the face. The Israeli elections turned out differently than perhaps he and others had expected and hoped. They decided to take a strong position on Israel’s settlement activity, saying it has to stop as a prelude to negotiations, and that became a test of wills.

Why do you think the Obama team did that? Every administration has been critical of settlements, but none had made that a condition for negotiations.

I suppose it was part of Obama’s plan to show that the United States was going to put some muscle behind what has been a longstanding rhetorical policy and try to show the United States’ new determination to move the peace process forward. The problem is you either have the instruments to make the pressure work so that you get the results, or you need to have a credible plan B.

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Obama should tell Netanyahu bluntly that we’ve been unable to move forward, and that a vacuum in the peace process will have consequences, and that we will feel obliged at some point to go public with our concerns, and with our expressed preferences on an eventual outline of a two-state solution.

I’m afraid they got themselves too fixated on the settlements freeze as the precondition rather than one of many other desirable things we want the parties to do. It turned out to be a test of wills we were not able to win. That’s always an awkward moment in the

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Israeli relationship. We think that we’re the big power and we should be able to get the Israelis to do what we want them to do, but they’re not puppets. They push back and sometimes they can win these types of battles. When they do, it always makes us look weak and kind of pathetic and perplexed, and that’s kind of where we’ve been in the last six months.

That’s true, too, of the flap over the East Jerusalem housing plans.

It’s beginning to look that way, because we had dramatically scaled back our objectives in order to get something called "proximity talks" going--which, for anybody of our age who’s been through all this, is what we used to do back in the 1970s when the parties really weren’t on speaking terms at all. And you know I don’t really think it matters a whole lot whether they’re sitting in the same room or whether they’re sitting next door, or whether we’re going back and forth to speak to them. But the rhetoric is like going back in a time machine to a much earlier era, and yet we were presenting this as a success. And on the very day we want to make it sound like this is the summit of our achievement for the last year and three months of effort, we get a finger in the eye with the announcement of settlement constructions in East Jerusalem.

What do you make of that announcement?

Whether it was an accident or whether it was deliberate, it certainly made us look rather silly. And it ensured that the "breakthrough" on the proximity talks would not take place, at least not right away. So yes, we’ve been through yet another little flap. And I think rather than get all riled up about whether this is the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in the last thirty years or forty years or fifty years, what strikes me is that this is one in a series of U.S.-Israeli moments that tend to overlap very strongly with Likud governments in power drawing a line that makes it clear that they’re not going to make a concession on some crucial element of substance in the negotiations.

Can you elaborate on that?

Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Jimmy Carter had these problems over Begin’s unwillingness to even contemplate any withdrawal from the West Bank--what he called "Judea and Samaria"--to say nothing of Jerusalem. That caused real friction between the two. Again when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister and George H.W. Bush was president, we had tensions over precisely these issues: East Jerusalem settlement activity and the Bush administration’s attempts to use U.S. loan guarantees as leverage on that. Ultimately, the pressure helped to weaken Shamir so that he was not reelected, but it was a real arm wrestling contest. It was very reminiscent of what looked like what was beginning to happen this past week, except that the Obama administration is trying to ease the tensions rather quickly. Bush senior chose not to.

How about President Clinton?

Clinton, who was one of the most pro-Israeli presidents we’ve had, got along wonderfully with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, all Labor Party leaders. He got along terribly with Netanyahu during his first prime ministership from 1996-99. They didn’t like each other; there were times when Clinton wouldn’t meet with him. There was real tension--even though they did have one summit meeting where they reached one agreement, but it was never implemented. Talk to people in the Clinton entourage from those days, and they will describe a very tense relationship between the president and the Israeli prime minister. Well guess what? That prime minister is now back.

He has a very tough cabinet, too.

And he’s chosen to have a tough cabinet. He decided not to include Kadima, and to base his political strength on right-wing parties. These are choices, they’re not inevitabilities.

Do you still think a two-state solution is feasible? Some Palestinians now talk about a "one-state solution."

The problem is people who have talked about a "one-state solution" are talking about the possibility of a one-state outcome that nobody is going to agree to. When the Palestinians talk about one state, they are imagining a future in which their demographic weight eventually gives them a majority, and therefore in a democratic process they would have the votes to run things their way. I don’t think the Israelis are going to allow that to happen. They’re not going to allow themselves to become a minority in a bi-national state. That’s not what Zionism was all about.

Israelis willy-nilly, by continuing the occupation of the West Bank--if that’s what they’re going to do--may end up presiding over what looks like a kind of one-state outcome, but without citizenship rights for the Palestinians living there, which is what it has been for the past forty-plus years [since the 1967 war]. So that’s a kind of outcome that looks like it’s one state, but Palestinians don’t have equal rights, and therefore they’re not going to agree to it. We know that Israel’s not going to all of a sudden say, "Fine, we’re going to stay here, but we’ll make you citizens and give you the same status as other Arab citizens of Israel have." They just won’t do it. It’s inconceivable.

So I can’t see how you get to the one-state agreement. If this drifts along, it’s going to look to much of the world as if Israel is in charge of a place where the Arabs are becoming the majority. But that’s not an agreement, that’s just a situation.

At some point Netanyahu is going to meet with President Obama. If you were advising the president, what would you tell him when he meets with Netanyahu?

Well if you’ve made the decision to meet, the goal should not be to just paper over serious disagreements. It should be to try to either reach some new level of shared understandings, or to really make it clear that if Netanyahu chooses to reject a peace settlement, that’s going to erode the U.S.-Israeli relationship in ways that neither of us really wants.

If this drifts along, it’s going to look to much of the world as if Israel is in charge of a place where the Arabs are becoming the majority. But that’s not an agreement, that’s just a situation.

It’s a time for some honest talk. They should kick the advisors out of the room and have maybe the smallest number imaginable there, and really talk about what’s going on. And if at the end of the meeting, Netanyahu says, "I absolutely cannot, will not ever negotiate about the future of East Jerusalem, and I will not, cannot even come close to what Olmert and Abbas were talking about," then Obama ought to draw the conclusion that we shouldn’t go through the charade of these negotiations because it’s simply going to fail and once again look like a fiasco. Obama should tell Netanyahu bluntly that we’ve been unable to move forward, and that a vacuum in the peace process will have consequences, and that we will feel obliged at some point to go public with our concerns, and with our expressed preferences on an eventual outline of a two-state solution, knowing perfectly well that this will put us at odds with the Netanyahu government.

Should Obama put forward "a peace plan" as other presidents did?

We have the basic principles that the United States can enthusiastically support, and it wouldn’t sound very different from the Clinton parameters or what Abbas and Olmert were talking about. It’s going to be two states, the pre-war 1967 borders with mutually agreed modifications but with swaps for any land that is annexed in order to keep major settlements within the borders of Israel. [It will have] one more sentence: "Jerusalem--West, Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, however you want to say it--the capitals of the two states"; settlement of refugee claims with rights to return to a Palestinian state; rights to request family reunifications within Israel; and a generous international fund to compensate those refugees who lost their homes, and their descendants.

There should be security arrangements that are mutually acceptable, and that’s it. There would be strong international endorsement of these principles from our European allies, from our Quartet partners [Russia, the EU, and the United Nations], and from the Arab world. It wouldn’t work immediately, but it would put us in a position where I think we’d be sending the most plausible principles for any future agreement that would have broad international support. Some Arab states might come forward and say, "Yes, we endorse that," and do the things they’d been unwilling to do in the past. You’d have a debate in Israel. Half of Israelis would say, "That doesn’t sound bad." And among Palestinians! You’d have a debate among Palestinians, because what is Hamas going to say? This is terrible? If they do they’re actually going to lose some support.

There doesn’t seem to be much political agitation in Israel against Netanyahu. Is that because of the anger at Hamas among Israelis?

No, I think it’s that Netanyahu was smart enough to co-opt Ehud Barak, a Labor Party leader, into his cabinet as defense minister. So the Labor Party, which traditionally would have been out on the center-left side of this debate, is embittered. And Kadima--which really is a kind of center-right party, and its leaders are all former Likudniks--is still a little reluctant to go public with positions that will make them somewhat unpopular with some of their own members.


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