Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part II Obama

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part II Obama


Howard Adelman

Ironically, watching the PBS special provided some insight into why Ronald Reagan was such a popular president. He was a politician of fear with a broad smile who played up the hope card. From a street rather than a patrician perspective, Donald Trump, though his smile is more a smirk and his fears far more narrow, may be a politician attempting to marry the two approaches. But in the PBS documentary, they are very much alive and hard at work combating one another.

This Manichaean view of politics may be distorted. The comments throughout made by experts, authoritative as they may sound, may dissolve upon examination. Both should give us pause when we reflect on the PBS documentary. For example, in Part I of this blog I referred to Martin Indyk, once American ambassador to Israel, as making a number of comments about Netanyahu at Rabin’s funeral. When I saw the headline stories this morning, I thought the remark that might get him in trouble was his contention that when an extremist Jewish terrorist assassinated Rabin, that Netanyahu had told him that his chances of re-election went down the drain. But the one that got him in trouble was his assertion that he and Netanyahu had sat side by side at the funeral. At the time, Netanyahu had told him that now that Rabin had been assassinated, he would go down in Israeli history as a great hero whereas if the election went ahead with the two of them running against one another, Rabin would have gone down in history as a loser.

Indyk’s exact words were: “I remember Netanyahu saying to me: ‘Look, look at this. He’s a hero now, but if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician.” Journalists pounced. When video footage showed that Indyk was nowhere near Netanyahu at the funeral, and Netanyahu insisted the claim Indyk made was an outright lie, Indyk revised his version insisting the incident took place the day before at a special Knesset ceremony on 5 November 1995 prior to the funeral. However, only family members were seated at that event; for everyone else, there was only standing room. Further, in the leaked Wikipedia cables to Washington that day from Indyk, nothing is said about the remark.

The cable was entitled “RABIN ASSASSINATION: NEXT STEPS IN ISRAEL’S POLITICAL SUCCESSION.” In it, Indyk discussed the assassination’s ramifications on the Likud. The Israeli right panicked and feared being routed in the forthcoming elections. “The assassination of Rabin is ‘a disaster for the Jewish people, a disaster of Israel and a disaster for the Right which will be decimated if elections are called soon.'” Other than painting Netanyahu as cold and insensitive, does the difference in historical recollection change anything. No. But the portraiture of Bibi is the heart of the documentary. Failure to check facts undermines the credibility of that portrait.

There are, however, greater issues at stake than even Netanyahu’s reputation and personal portrait. In my interpretation of the PBS documentary, I suggested the second intifada was the key event that set off the slide of the left and of the centre-left, of those sympathetic to peace, to relegation to the margins in Israel’s political world. I was reminded of that when Avi Shavit wrote in Haaretz this morning in an article entitled, “The Defeatism of Israel’s Enlightened Zionists,” that, “We of the center-left must rise from our depression, get out of our seclusion and take responsibility.” Events and the narrative of those events have political consequences. And in that ball game, the odds are stacked against the party of hope. For there are four possible attitudes:

  1. Hope about the prospects of peace;
  2. Pessimism about the prospects of peace based on the politics of fear;
  3. Acting hopeful but stoking the fuel of fear as Reagan did;
  4. Viewing hope and fear as alternative positions rotating in a cycle through history, a perspective largely implicitly adopted by the PBS documentary.

The problem is that positions 2, 3 and 4 all feed the politics of fear; the odds are against the politics of hope. Please keep this in mind while I recount the contents of the rest of the documentary. For when Obama is re-introduced into the documentary, he is painted as the quintessential embodiment of the politics of hope. Further, the documentary goes further and claims that he was the most Jewish of American presidents, not only because,

even in his re-election, he still garnered 69% of the Jewish vote, not only because he had many Jewish backers and close friends, not only because he remained married to an idealized view of Israel, but also because, in the documentary, Jews are characterized culturally as a people of hope rather than a people driven by fear, though the biblical narrative might indicate otherwise. “Jews have this instinct towards making the world better.” As Avi Shavit put it, “The real clash is between two versions of Judaism,” universalist, progressive, liberal versus the under siege fortress Judaism (Netanyahu).

So Obama leads the Jewish party of hope in dealing with the Palestinians while Netanyahu is the spokesperson for the party feeding on fear. As depicted, the fight is not so much between the American president and the leader of Israel, but between two sides of Judaism, one predominant in America and the other, given their experiences and what surrounds them, having emerged as predominant in Israel. If you read Israeli newspapers and listen to Israeli news daily, you cannot help but be aware of the clash and the circumstances that feed cynicism in response to the paradoxes rampant in the Middle East.

Again, to take this morning’s news as an example, the politicians who uphold the belief that Israelis can only, in the end, rely on themselves, and Israel is reliant on its enemy, the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas,  to keep the lid on the recent uprising. At the same time, those Israelis drifting towards this pole, increasingly regard Israeli Arabs as a potential fifth column. One Israeli journalist of an unequivocal liberal persuasion will write that nowhere in the world, even in anti-Semitic France, are Jews subjected to a regime of fear, deprivation and ostracism as the Arabs in Israel. At the same time, Hannan Zoabi, a member of the Israeli Knesset on the Arab List, only received a slap on the wrist after she apologized for her abusive behaviour towards two police officers.

In the larger picture of the whole Middle East, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a minor side-show as much as it may preoccupy me. When Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a loud diplomatic war, when their proxies are fighting a life and death war over Syria which lies astride the centre of these two rivals, when Iraq has been lost to the Shia with the help of President George W. Bush, when both Sunni and Shia have developed their own extremist versions at war with one another, to repeatedly hear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of instability in the Middle East from liberal commentators alienates me from my own allies and pushes me towards some cynicism about the politics of hope.

In the documentary, this is reinforced when Barack Obama, in his valiant but futile efforts to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, makes mistake after mistake, admitted to in retrospect by those who advised Obama on his efforts in the Middle East. In the documentary, Obama phoned Abbas first before even any other head of state and long before he talked to Netanyahu, ostensibly America’s closest ally in the Middle East. He announced as his first foreign policy objective a recalibration of America’s relations with the Arab world. In the process, he visited Arab states in the region without dropping into Israel. With the break out of the Arab Spring, Obama abandons an old ally, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, only to see the Muslim Brotherhood, not Egyptian liberals, step into the breach. Obama alienated Saudi Arabia, setting that country on its much more independent course, though also fostered by the politics of fear.

American Middle East policy appears to be a shambles. The attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended up with an empty bag in spite of America’s involvement under Obama. The vision caught up most Americans, as Dennis Ross said, with the vision of Obama as a transformative president, just as Justin Trudeau in Canada is regarded today. Obama first assigned George Mitchell to the task of helping bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was an arduous and eventually totally futile effort. As the commentator on the documentary noted, “On the ground, Obama’s hopes did not match the stark reality,” as the extremist group, Hamas, once again took the militant route in dealing with Israel. But the issue for the White House became, not the facts on the ground, but a clash of attitudes and approaches. And a leftover from the Clinton days, Rom Emmanuel, advised Obama not to play Bibi’s game for Bibi would just practice the politics of procrastination, delays and obfuscation.

The problem was that dealing with Netanyahu as an obstacle only upped the ante so that Bibi became a direct rather than indirect antagonist. As Obama and his White House staff sought an end run around Netanyahu, Netanyahu shifted his game from defence to attack mode. This became clear in Netanyahu’s visit with Obama in the White House following his election. The meeting was a disaster according to all observers. Obama focused on the old trope of freezing the construction of settlements on the West Bank instead of asking how America could help Bibi resume negotiations and request a freeze in return. Further, unlike the past, as Chemi Shalev (Haaretz) opined, Obama signalled the change in the American approach by making the freezing of settlements a demand, and, further, making that demand in public.

Netanyahu returned to Israel angry, suspicious and hostile, according to Ari Shavit, and those feelings only grew over the years in which the two leaders dealt with one another. Netanyahu now faced militant adversaries among the Palestinians and in the Muslim world and a political adversary, indeed enemy, in the White House. Indyk predicted the tactic would lose the Israelis, disabling the honest broker strategy before it even got off the ground. Combining a speech demanding the end to settlements and demanding nothing of the Palestinians, visiting Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and not Israel, could not have been worse as Obama’s advisers realized later, except for Ben Rhodes who envisioned no winning formula in dealing with Netanyahu. Most other advisers in retrospect saw it as a major error. It not only alienated the right in Israel but, for the average Israeli, Obama would become a persona non grata. Only 6% of all Israelis considered him pro-Israel.

Obama tried the same tactic on Egypt when the streets arose in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. He not only told Mubarak that he should leave, but announced that request to the rest of the world. Netanyahu proved to be correct. The policy boomeranged, first with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over. This was followed by a much stronger military dictator than Hosni Mubarak. Obama’s subsequent speech proclaiming a historical change in the Middle East – proven so demonstrably false within a year – also included a glance at  the Israeli-Palestinian peace by setting the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps, as the reference point. This was no change at all in American policy, but a change in articulating that policy by officially endorsing the peace fire lines as the de facto border subject to mutually agreed alterations. The failure was not in the policy but in its articulation, mode and context.

The confrontation and dressing down of President Obama in public  by Netanyahu followed the next day. Rhodes insisted the lines were not controversial since that had always been the basis for U.S. policy. But the difference was context, tone and the imperative behind the statement as I suggested above. It was no longer an American preferred position, but a demand placed on Israel. It was now set amidst the larger conflict between rulers and ruled in the Middle East, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at all in the same ballpark or even league. Bibi repeated over and over again to the President, as if the President was a naïve school child, “Its not going to happen. Everyone knows it’s not going to happen.” One has to go back to the Suez crisis to find a comparable falling out between two such close allies.

Rhodes declared that he had never seen a head of state behave that way to the President. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, it now seemed totally hypocritical. It was ok for Obama to lecture Netanyahu in public, but now it was now insulting for Netanyahu to reverse the tables. Rhodes was clearly the point man in this misdirection in policy-making, but the president’s advisors now rallied around, upset at Netanyahu’s discourteous behaviour towards the leader of the greatest power on earth. They were repulsed by Netanyahu’s gall. One could not imagine the situation getting worse between Obama and Netanyahu, but it did. It was not enough that the two leaders had deeply offended one another. The political war now reached into a positive foreign policy initiative of Obama that would be part of his legacy, of course, provided it worked out. That was Iran.

Obama walked away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran became his sole focus, though he relegated John Kerry during his second term to attempt to resurrect the peace process once again. That was futile. But Obama now had a tiger by the tail, or, a better analogy, a Rottweiler chomping at his pant cuffs. And it was not only the Israelis that were unhappy. So were the Palestinians. For all Obama had offered them were words, rhetoric and not action. The Americans would not, and the President probably could not, back the declaration of the settlements as not only illegal. The building of those settlements had to stop with a cut off of funds to the Israeli government and a cut off of charitable donations from right-wing American Jews and evangelical Christians who supported such settlements. This did not and, probably, could not have happened.

Not only was the Israeli-Palestinian peace that Obama was pushing not going to happen, but Israel was determined that Iran could not and would not become a nuclear power because Bibi honestly and deeply believed that that was the one step that truly threatened Israel’s existence. On this issue, Obama was totally on side. The difference was over strategy. Obama believed that diplomacy was worth exploring. Netanyahu believed that it was a waste of time and, even if successful, Iran would subvert any agreement. But the Israeli military advised Netanyahu that Israel did not have the capacity to act alone even as an enormous build-up of Israeli planning and the preliminaries to execution took place in the first half of 2012. However, as Bibi was strongly advised by both Shin Bet and the armed forces of Israel, Israel needed the backing of the U.S. Netanyahu had now so alienated Obama that imagining he could bring Obama around to his perspective was a waste of time. So Netanyahu forged an overt alliance with the Republicans to win the hearts and minds of Americans and of the majority in Congress to his way of comprehending the issue.

Ronen Berger (The Secret War with Iran) described the situation in which Iran would enter the zone of immunity, the place on the timeline when it would be virtually impossible to destroy Iran’s nuclear program when the uranium nuclear enrichment program would move underground and be effectively immune to Israeli firepower. Israel had to act. Israel was unable to act without enormous and questionable risks. Netanyahu had seemingly painted himself into a corner. But he was a fighter and entry into the domestic arena of American politics seemed to be his only option. There seemed to be no balanced analysis by Netanyahu and his close advisers whether or not Obama’s diplomatic initiative might possibly succeed. From Netanyahu’s perspective, it could not because Iran was Moloch, the political embodiment of evil. More importantly, Netanyahu was unwilling to take the risk that if he attacked Iran and a wider war broke out in the Middle East between the Muslim countries and Israel, Obama would come to his aid, though, probably, domestic policies and the reaction of the American public would force the U.S. to join Israel. The U.S. was faced with a Catch-22 situation in which Obama in tackling Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian issue had now put his Iranian policy to some degree  into the hands of Netanyahu.

However, without Israel being willing to play a high risk game and attack Iran unilaterally, Netanyahu had, in turn, placed his Iranian policy totally in the hands of America, something Bibi vowed Israel would and could never do. And Obama was totally unwilling to give Netanyahu an amber light let alone a green one. Israel backed down from the military initiative and went all out on the political front in the USA, far less dangerous than a unilateral attack against Iran, especially given that in the summer and fall of 2012 Obama was fighting re-election with a drastic drop in his approval rating below 50%. If, and it was a big if, Obama could be defeated and a Republican, any Republican, took his place, there would be just enough time to take advantage of the zone of immunity. Just as Obama had lost Bibi’s ear, now Netanyahu lost Obama’s and could only hear his own voice echoing to applause in Congress and on the American media.

Netanyahu had lost on both fronts. His military strategy of attacking Iran was in a shambles because he was never going to get Obama’s support for an attack and might not even get Obama’s support if Iran retaliated with force against Israel. His political strategy was in a shambles since he had defined Obama as the enemy and Obama had been re-elected. Seeing no other option, Netanyahu adopted a strategy of guerrilla political war against the President of the United States of America. We were traveling along a timeline of one unprecedented event after another.

America had proved to be wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. Netanyahu, at least in the short term of the subsequent four years of Obama’s presidency, proved to be dead wrong on the strategy of dealing with Obama and Iran, though we await history’s judgment of who will be proven right over the long term. Just as Clinton had once entered the domestic political fray in Israel to support his Israeli candidate of choice, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu now entered the American political fray with a full frontal assault and virtually total support for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate. It was the political equivalent of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive. Netanyahu saw the stakes as so high that he was willing to burn a number of bridges with American Democrats and with the majority of Jewish liberals who still voted for and supported Obama. But he lost his bid for the Jewish vote in Florida; Obama emerged with a clear majority.

On that front, and even in the aftermath of Obama’s re-election, Netanyahu simply upped the ante when Obama won and went from political guerrilla warfare to open political war. Obama, on the other hand went underground in his secret meetings with Iran in Oman without informing Israel of the progress. Obama was negotiating with Iran, Israel’s worst enemy, behind the backs of their closest ally in the Middle East. Ridiculous, unjustified, immoral pronounced Tzachi Hanegbi, one of Netanyahu’s advisers. What is worse, the negotiations resulted in an interim agreement. Netanyahu pronounced it a very bad deal, but to independent analysts, whatever flaws there were in the deal, and however much Iran would benefit on other fronts in its expansionist foreign policy, the deal seemed to be a reasonably good deal for both sides. Even worse, in 2014 the negotiations resulted in a full agreement that, contrary to expectations, even improved on the interim agreement. And Obama, in spite of strenuous efforts, could not persuade Netanyahu to at least see his point of view, or to even give the deal a chance. Natanyahu now recognized he had failed and felt both betrayed and alarmed.

Netanyahu’s deep belief that Iranians would only respond to the threat of force proved to be overwhelmingly wrong. Obama, contrary to Netanyahu’s insistence, had never taken the military option off the table; he had only placed it on a back burner. But, contrary to all evidence, and all American assurances to the contrary, Bibi insisted that the Americans had done so. Bibi not only terribly misread the American position, but mindblindly misread the agreement itself. In turn, Obama and Netanyahu had burned the bridges between them. Obama was now unwilling to reach out and try to correct misunderstandings between them.

Further, Obama succeeded in his end run around a Republican dominated Congress and effectively sold the deal to the American people. (See my earlier blogs analyzing the Iran nuclear deal.) Of course, the deal was not intended to stop Iran’s march towards tyranny, subjugation and terror. That was not its objective. But as a side benefit, it might have some influence on slowing it down and even reversing it. That would be an unanticipated benefit. Bibi now shifted his position to make the main goal of negotiations, not the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program, but Iran’s expansionist foreign policy and support for terrorism. The deal clearly failed to measure up to those objectives.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015 won him lots of plaudits and numerous rounds of applause in the illustrious Senate chamber, but Netanyahu was now dead in the water in having any influence over, not just Obama, but any president who was a Democrat. There was even the possibility that Hilary Clinton would be worse for Netanyahu than even Obama who had a sincere and deep love for the Jewish people and for Israel.

It remained possible that the deal would fall apart in the implementation phase. That was another matter, but thus far implementation has been going very smoothly. Netanyahu had lost his battle on all fronts and the costs for Israel were far, far greater than the costs to Obama in failing to advance the peace process. Over the long run, it also meant a deepening of the fissure between the majority of liberal Jews in America and the increasing shift of Israelis to the right. At the same time, the third stabbing intifada broke out. Pessimism and despair had been the results of the politics of fear.

Liel Leibowitz had written, “don’t let the thin grey mist of public television dullness fool you: last night’s prime time offering [the program discussed herein] was every bit as surreal, titillating, maddening, and wonderful as anything the master of pulp fiction has done in years.” Leibowitz is right. The program may not have the broad appeal of “Making a Murderer.” But for professional and amateur observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a must see. The documentary was not perfect. For balance, there needed to be more on the factors that shaped Obama’s views. A meta assessment could have accompanied the cafeteria of observations and critiques. The broad outlines of the development of the Iran deal were reduced to a few sound bites. The cyclical view of alternating hope and despair made the documentary intriguing, but created some distortion. As did serious omissions, such as what had happened to Gaza after Israel left. How much did domestic politics in Iran influence Obama’s initiative? But without a doubt, this documentary is the most compelling and dramatic one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian issue that I have seen in a long time.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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