What Obama Must Do in Israel

It’s time to stop focusing on personalities and get down to the more important business of identifying common interests.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

This week, when Air Force One lands in Tel Aviv, the newly reelected American president and the Israeli prime minister with a new government will turn the page on a new chapter in their relationship. And they will discuss how to manage the strategic challenges we both face in ways that protect our respective interests.

Much has been made and said about the personal relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. Some of it is even true: It has been far from tension-free, and is very much in need of a reboot. But I also think that too much has been said about it, as if the bilateral relationship could be reduced to their personal rapport — as if the strategic dimension of the two countries’ ties were either anecdotal or purely a function of personal chemistry.

We should leave aside some of that background noise and focus more on where the strategic relationship stands today, what challenges it faces, and how this visit can help overcome them.

First, it has been said before but bears repeating, for it is neither propaganda nor spin: Military and security cooperation between the two countries has never been stronger. That is a fact confirmed by both sides and witnessed in countless ways: intelligence sharing, joint military exercises, extraordinarily close consultation on questions like Iran and, of course, joint efforts on the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. That is far more important than whether the two leaders can be best friends.

Second, it is true that in some respects the two countries experience events in the Middle East somewhat differently. When Israelis look out their windows, virtually in any direction, what they see is far greater uncertainty, volatility, and even peril than ever before.

And so, it is only natural that, when the United States invests in negotiations with Iran, engages with the Muslim Brotherhood, supports democratic transitions, and urges progress in the peace process, some Israelis suspect it of misunderstanding the region or, worse, of naiveté. Yet my sense is that the president is anything but naïve. True, Israel lives in the region and we do not, and differences in outlook and different threat perceptions are inevitable byproducts of our respective locations.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate into divergent strategic pursuits, nor should it. And a principal goal of this trip is to clarify that point. Take the issues one by one:

First, Iran. Both Obama and Netanyahu have made clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that they will act — militarily if necessary — to prevent it. Both men mean what they say. The task at hand is to manage the nuances in their approach in a way that protects their countries’ respective interests.

The United States is convinced that the door for diplomacy has not yet closed. That is partly because, as Obama said again last week, he believes Iran is at least a year away from being able to acquire a bomb, and partly because the sanctions are taking a tremendous toll, which he believes might affect the Iranian leadership’s strategic calculus. Chances are uncertain, but at the very least the administration believes the United States should allow the Islamic Republic to reflect on its economic predicament before closing the door on a negotiated settlement. The administration also believes that by going the extra mile diplomatically, it will be in a far better position to forge an international coalition for whatever is required should diplomacy fail. This is not naiveté. It is prudent statecraft.

And so, while Israel might be skeptical about the prospects for diplomacy, Netanyahu needs to give the president the time and space necessary to play this out. And Obama’s challenge is to persuade the prime minister that the United States will act in a timely manner to ensure that Iran will not acquire a bomb. Granted, this is no easy thing for any leader in Israel — a country that has learned not to rely on others for their survival. But it is essential given the considerable stakes.

Second, the issue of the Arab transition, notably Egypt and Syria. That things look gloomy and ominous from the Israelis’ perspective is only natural, and who can blame them? The question is what to do about it. And the question is whether U.S. and Israeli interests are better served by keeping the Islamists at a distance or by engaging them.

As far as I can see, there are no real substantive differences between Israel’s and America’s interests in this regard. Take the case of Egypt: Both countries want the Camp David accords to survive and the Sinai to be stabilized, its jihadist elements curbed and arms trafficking halted. Each wants Cairo to take steps to shut down the tunnels leading into Gaza; wants Egypt’s political leadership to engage more openly with its Israeli counterpart; and wants to avoid a collapse of the Egyptian economy that could have dangerous spillover effects while radicalizing its politics.

All of these interests are more easily pursued by engaging the elected Egyptian leadership — albeit critically — than by snubbing it. Regardless of what some Israelis might say publicly, they too recognize this: Last year, when war erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, U.S. mediation with Cairo was instrumental in restoring calm; when security frays in Sinai, Israel urges the United States to press Egypt to crack down on terrorist cells; and Israel wants Obama to keep pressing President Mohammed Morsy’s government to engage directly with its Israeli counterparts.

Of course the United States does not see eye to eye with Cairo on a whole range of issues. Obama should be clear about the principles he believes are essential in its domestic struggles – pluralism, inclusiveness, tolerance, rule of law. But America’s policy of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood is one on which the United States and Israel can agree. 

The same principle holds in Syria. Both Obama and Netanyahu are being pulled into the vortex of the Syrian crisis more than they would like. After extracting the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is hardly eager to become entangled in another Middle East conflict — one with uncertain players on the ground, swirling sectarian cross-currents, and no clear-cut exit strategy. As it watches jihadi groups gain a foothold not just in Syria, but in the Golan itself, Israel too is hardly sanguine about the country’s future after President Bashar al-Assad.

But neither country can escape the consequences of Syria’s unraveling. More than a million refugees now pose a threat to the stability of Syria’s neighbors, including Jordan and Lebanon, a prospect that spells more trouble for the region, the United States and Israel. Sectarian clashes in Syria are deepening sectarian battle lines in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Islamic jihadists — some of the best equipped and most capable fighters in Syria — are establishing a strong position.

Syria’s disintegration could unleash the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical and other weapons. Hezbollah, with the support of Iran, might shift rockets and other sophisticated weapons from Syria to Lebanon. And after years of a relatively stable border with Syria along the Golan Heights, Israel now faces growing jihadist threats there and a U.N. monitoring mission under pressure. 

The United States and Israel thus share the common goal of expediting Assad’s departure in a way that minimizes risks to regional stability and of an imploding Syrian state. In his recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry — building on the work done by his predecessor Hillary Clinton — opened channels of direct aid (though still non-lethal) to the opposition and lent full public support to the assistance by others. The United States should do more to help shift the balance of forces on the ground — to increase the pressure on Assad before a bloody battle over Damascus. U.S. agencies are gaining greater knowledge about the groups on
the ground. The battle today over the ouster of Assad is the prelude to the battle over the future of Syria after Assad goes. The United States can’t expect to have much influence on that future, nor much leverage on those who will decide it, if it is not working to strengthen more moderate groups now.

Finally, the third topic for Obama and Netanyahu is Israeli-Palestinian peace. This arguably is the one most fraught with disagreement: Whereas the United States sees this as an important issue that must be tackled with some urgency, many in Israel see things differently. They believe progress is highly unlikely, that concessions at a time of regional volatility are unwise, and that the world must first take care of Iran.

It is important from the outset to clarify a few points: The argument made by those in the United States on behalf of movement on the peace process is not — nor has it ever been — that resolving the conflict is the key to resolving all other regional issues. No, the argument made by those of us who advocate efforts on behalf of a two-state solution is different: It is that the status quo is not stable and does not serve U.S. interests, Israel’s or those of moderate Palestinians.

In the West Bank, the combination of rising economic distress, anger at the Palestinian Authority — which has problems paying salaries — and loss of faith in negotiations, is combustible. Clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are increasing. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel is fraying, leading to an increase in incursions by the Israeli military. The danger of a misstep quickly escalating out of control is real.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas probably is the last Palestinian leader for some time with the authority and inclination to sign a peace agreement with Israel. What comes after him is uncertain at best; in particular, if Hamas’s narrative of resistance dominates, there will be no prospect for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Israel rightly argues that the regional situation is bleak, and then often evokes this as a reason to be cautious on the Palestinian question. I would turn that around: Yes, the region is volatile. And, yes, there is very little Israel can do to mitigate the risks it faces in Egypt, Syria, and beyond. But there is one place where it can act to mitigate risks and take the initiative, and that is the West Bank. It is the place in the region where it possesses the greatest ability to protect itself, to change dynamics, to ensure that forces of moderation prevail.

Of course, the future of the peace process is far from being exclusively in Israel’s hands. We would need to see far greater risk-taking on Abbas’s part as well: willingness to compromise on core issues, end incitement, and move forward on the path to peace. But Israel, with U.S. military, diplomatic, and political support, can and should do its part to bend the arc of history where it can — which could then have positive repercussions elsewhere.

The president has made clear that he is not carrying a peace plan, nor does he intend to launch a high-profile peace initiative when he is in Israel. That is the right posture for this trip. There is a new Israeli government and the groundwork has not been laid. The last thing that is needed now is a grand gesture that is an instant flop.

Instead, this visit is the beginning of a conversation intended to explain why the United States believes progress is important for Israel. No one benefits from negotiations for negotiations’ sake. But Obama should make the case — publicly and privately, both in Jerusalem and Ramallah — that a two-state solution is the only path to durable peace and security, that time is running out, that all alternatives (a de facto one-state outcome, another Palestinian uprising, the triumph of Hamas’s narrative) are far worse. Obama needs to signal that, if the parties are ready, he and Secretary Kerry are willing and able to invest time and energy into this effort.

Like a pendulum swing, many have gone from exuberant optimism about the region when the so-called Arab Spring first began, to extraordinary gloom and doom. The former was as premature as the latter is unjustified. There is absolutely no doubt that the collapse of state structures, rise of Islamist groups, and chaos present real challenges to U.S. and Israeli security.

But if the Arab uprisings taught us anything, it is that the future is not preordained. The region is writing its own history, and there are limits to how much it can be shaped from the outside. Still, our two countries can and should do what they can to bend it in a direction that best comports with our strategic interests. As Obama and Netanyahu sit together over the next few days, that is what they should be dealing with — together.

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