Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Upcoming Obama-Netanyahu meeting/ Misremembering Rabin's Legacy

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Update from AIJAC

November 6, 2015
Number 11/15 #02

This Update features two previews of the upcoming Netanyahu-Obama meeting on Sunday - the first between the two leaders in more than a year marked by often bitter disagreement about the nuclear deal with Iran. It also features a piece correcting some myths which have appeared in some of the numerous comments about the legacy of murdered Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin written to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

First up is noted Israeli journalist and commentator Shmuel Rosner, who says that the visit will probably go smoothly, and lead to some soothing of the troubled relationship, but also canvasses how it might not. He pretty much rules out either misunderstandings or a Netanyahu effort to surprise the President, so argues that only an Obama effort to surprise Netanyahu, something he done in the past, is likely to disrupt the meeting. More importantly, Rosner outlines three things Obama will want, and three Netanyahu will want - on mutual cooperation, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and especially Iran - from the meeting, and which of them may be difficult to reach agreement on. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Next up is the Washington Institute's David Makovsky, who offers a more detailed analysis of three broad issue areas on which the visit will likely centre: Iran deal follow-up; Washington's desires regarding the Palestinians, settlements, and Israel's energy arrangement; and the lead-up to the 2016 US election. The first, the most important, will concern military aid to Israel and the Israeli desire for a joint committee to deal with monitoring and planning for alleged Iranian violations of the agreement. On the last, Netanyahu will want to try to rebuild bipartisan support for Israel damaged over the past year, while Obama will be seeking to re-assure pro-Israel Democrats that it is safe for Israel to vote for a Democrat as his successor. For all of Makovsky's analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine takes on those remembrances of Yitzhak Rabin which insist his death killed realistic hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian final peace. Starting with Rabin's final speech to the Israeli Knesset, in which he set out his position on negotiations with the Palestinians, Rosenberg notes that not only have subsequent Israeli leaders made peace offers well to the left of what Rabin said he was prepared to offer, but that, contrary to widespread impressions, current Israeli PM Netanyahu actually has positions remarkably similar to Rabin, and even to the left of him in some ways. Rosenberg concludes - much as AIJAC's Allon Lee did in the piece linked in the last Update - that Rabin's legacy was actually to a catalyse a "massive shift in Israeli public opinion toward peace and the two-state solution" which persists to this day. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. An effort to put Rabin and Netanyahu's statements on the peace process side by side is here.

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What to expect from the Obama-Netanyahu meeting

by Shmuel Rosner
Jewish Journal, Nov. 3, 2014

There are three ways the Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the White House on Nov. 9 - the two leaders'€™ first meeting after more than a year of talking mostly past each other -€” can go wrong.

1. If President Barack Obama decides to surprise the prime minister and ruin the meeting.

2. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to surprise the president and ruin it.

3. If a misunderstanding, or miscalculation, ruins it.

Other than that, as most analysts agree, the two men are more likely than not to - put on a professional, perhaps even a friendly show - as David Horovitz wrote in Times of Israel.

From what I understand, both sides are preparing for the meeting with attention and care. The fact that the personal relationship between the two leaders is not very good; the fact that they'€™ve fought time and again in the last year; the fact that everyone knows they fundamentally disagree on many issues; the way Obama thinks Netanyahu is a leader with no vision and no courage; the way Netanyahu thinks Obama is a leader with no real grasp of the issues and dangerous ideological tendencies -€” all this makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings. This is not a meeting that anyone takes lightly by assuming that things can take care of themselves.

So let's rule out misunderstandings.

Also, from what I understand, the prime minister does not want to put on yet another show of belligerence in Washington. The agreement with Iran is a done deal, and Netanyahu needs to move on, hoping for a better president in 2017, hoping for something down the road to be a game changer in the Middle East, possibly planning for something down the road through which Israel can change the game.

In fact, in their past meetings, Netanyahu never initiated confrontation. He did, of course, initiate confrontation over Iran in his decision to speak to Congress. But when he was invited to the White House, the plan was always for him to be on his best behavior, and when that did not happen - for example, when he lectured Obama back in 2011 - it was in response to a surprise move by Obama: The president decided to include an allusion to the 1967 line in his remarks. Netanyahu "offended and shocked"€” decided that this was not the time for silence.

So let'€™s rule out a decision by Netanyahu to surprise the president and ruin it.

This leaves us with the president. He has surprised Netanyahu in the past, and he has, time and again, made their White House encounters uncomfortable. Does he want to make it uneasy yet again?

Why would he want such a thing? Obama won the battle over Iran; he understands that a real achievement on the Israeli-Palestinian track is unlikely to materialize before the end of his term; he is busy with Syria, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign-affairs issues more pressing than anything in which Israel plays a major role. He has no reason to ruin the meeting -€” except that Obama'€™s logic tends to be somewhat different from what Jerusalem calls logic. And, of course, there is this tiny thing called ego. Obama might decide that there is a score to be settled.

Everybody'€™s tired

There is no great enthusiasm in Washington or Jerusalem in preparation for this meeting. No great hope for reconciliation. If, in past meetings, there was always a shred of hope that maybe this time the two leaders would finally begin a more cordial period in their relations; if, in past meetings, there were people who still said that it doesn'€™t have to be this way -€” this time, everybody is realistic. There is a need for a meeting, possibly the last meeting before Obama'€™s departure. But there will be no clean slate, no new page, no "€œLet'€™s try again."€

Obama is tired of Netanyahu; Netanyahu is tired of Obama; observers are tired of the Obama-Netanyahu relations; Congress is tired of having to deal with Iran; AIPAC is tired of having to clean up the mess; Hillary Clinton is tired of having to explain that she will not be another Obama when it comes to Israel; Republican candidates are tired of trying to outdo each other in statements of support for Israel; Israelis are tired of an American that seems lost in this region; and American Jews are tired of feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Truthfully, all these players and observers are just killing time before the next games -€” be it the American election or another Middle East eruption -€” begin.

The agenda

Here is what Netanyahu wants from this meeting:

1. Weaponry that could one day be useful in battling Iran, if and when the need arises.

2. Some measure of understanding regarding possible Iranian "€œbreaches"€ of the agreement.

3. An understanding that what the Palestinian front currently needs is quieting down -€” not grand initiatives.

Here is what Obama wants from this meeting:

A. To make sure that Israel lets the Iran agreement run its course without interruption.

B. To satisfy Israel and its supporters (in Congress and elsewhere) enough for them not to harass him with more demands.

C. For Israel to avoid any moves in the West Bank that will further complicate the prospect for a future two-state solution.

Points 1 and 2 are somewhat problematic: The more weaponry Israel gets, the more it might be tempted to use it against Iran and disrupt the agreement from running its course.

Point A is very problematic: Obama is not going to tell Netanyahu what Iran needs to do in order for it to be considered a breach worthy of retribution. Netanyahu is going to suspect -€” for good reason -€” that, for Obama, no breach will be worthy of retribution.

Point 3 is the easy one ,€” that is, unless the president decides to ruin the meeting by deciding to revisit his initiatives for the Palestinian front (or by surrendering to such a demand from his tireless secretary of state).

Point B is manageable: Israel will get enough to discourage it from complaining, but not enough for it to be fully satisfied.

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Netanyahu Comes to Washington: A Recalibration, if Not a Reset

David Makovsky

PolicyWatch 2519,
November 5, 2015

The Israeli prime minister and U.S. president appear to be taking steps to ensure next week's visit avoids past minefields.

On November 9, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will visit the White House following a year of acrimony stemming from sharp differences over the Iran nuclear deal. As the administration heads into its final year, a full reset for the bilateral relationship is unlikely. All the same, both sides could take various steps aimed at stabilizing, or recalibrating, ties in a manner that avoids future collisions. And preliminary indications suggest both sides want to repair ties. Allowing for possible surprises, the upcoming visit will be guided by the following issues.

Iran Deal Aftermath: The Direction of U.S.-Israel Ties

Unlike during his March U.S. visit, Netanyahu is no longer seeking to persuade lawmakers to overturn the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known. Last week, during his own U.S. visit, Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon publicly affirmed that Israel understands the deal will be carried out. Also, whereas this summer the prime minister refused to discuss a security upgrade with the United States, believing this would compromise Israel's principled opposition to the deal, now Netanyahu is willing to talk. As for the U.S. angle, in the run-up to Congress's JCPOA vote, Obama sought to woo lawmakers by publicly pledging that the security upgrade talks would follow rapidly and smoothly.

Two sets of issues, resources and capabilities, will likely be covered during the visit. On resources, one focus will be on the ten-year extension of the 2007 memorandum of understanding (MOU), a document that covers U.S. foreign aid to Israel. A key question will be whether the United States agrees to provide the specific top-line figure, and how it compares to the current MOU level -- approximately $3 billion a year in military assistance, or a total of about $30 billion over the ten-year period. Notably, Netanyahu seems to have wanted to have this discussion with Obama himself, rather than letting Yaalon handle it during his visit.

As for capabilities, media reports suggest that, in preparing for the prime minister's visit, Yaalon asked his counterpart, U.S. secretary of defense Ashton Carter, for military hardware such as a squadron of F-15 jets and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor planes. For his part, Obama, writing publicly to key members of Congress, highlighted the extent of U.S. military assistance to Israel, noting that Israel will be the first country to receive the F-35 fifth-generation fighter next year and elaborating on different forms of assistance for Israeli missile defense.

On the symbolic level, it should be noted that Maj. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the newly installed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently made his first trip abroad to Israel.

In these days leading up to the visit, however, neither Netanyahu nor Yaalon has focused publicly on either resources or capabilities. This may be because politics is about managing expectations, or it may belie deeper reasons. Such reasons may be embedded in the possibility that no public announcement on a top-line MOU figure and hardware list will be made absent a larger U.S.-Israel understanding on two regional hotspots -- Iran and Syria. Here, questions abound. While Israel and the United States diverge sharply over the Iran deal, individual perceptions vary on the extent to which the JCPOA signals closer U.S.-Iran regional ties. Indeed, a U.S.-Iran condominium in the Middle East feels quite far-fetched, but even the prospect of closer bilateral relations unnerves Israel and the Gulf states. Nevertheless, understanding the broader context and why U.S.-Iran enmity toward ISIS cannot undergird a common regional approach is critical.

On the Iran deal specifically, Israel clearly favors the creation of a joint U.S.-Israel panel to monitor implementation. Trust is an issue here, with the U.S. administration possibly calculating that such close consultation could enable Israel to poke at and ultimately unravel the deal. Alternatively, a panel -- which would assess penalties for violations and evaluate whether the deal's terms are being upheld -- could help build bilateral trust. Likely less sensitive will be consultations about the impact of Iranian cash injections to proxies such as Hezbollah. With regard to Iran's objectionable nonnuclear activities such as terrorism, Netanyahu will probably want to know the extent of U.S. commitment -- at least in general terms -- to imposing additional sanctions.

On the Syrian conflict, a clear U.S. strategy would include a space for U.S.-Israel issues. But absent such a strategy, it is unclear if Netanyahu will feel compelled to consult more closely with the new regional arrival, Moscow, on the war's implications. Somewhat ironically, both Obama and Netanyahu are minimalists when it comes to Syria, each for his own reasons. Their shared desire to avoid getting embroiled could perhaps give them common cause. But without clear communication, Israel will probably assume the worst and view unfavorably the U.S. consultations in Vienna with countries including Iran, given that the war is at Israel's doorstep. 

In short, the visit should be judged less by the announcement of a top-line MOU figure than by constructive, good-faith progress toward a U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue that addresses the region's highly fluid developments. The MOU's scope should therefore reflect new challenges relating to Iran, Syria, and Russia.

Easing the Road to Washington

In two notable areas, Netanyahu has acted to ensure the Washington trip goes smoothly. The first involves demonstrating progress toward finalizing a multibillion-dollar offshore gas deal involving the Leviathan field -- forty miles off Haifa's coast -- with the American firm Noble Energy. The deal has been stalled for close to a year and has become an added irritant in the U.S.-Israel relationship, given a battle within Israel as to whether the Noble deal violates Israeli antitrust laws. To facilitate the deal, Netanyahu has brokered the resignation of Aryeh Deri -- who leads the ultraorthodox Shas Party -- as economy minister, with Netanyahu himself to fill the position and Deri to move to another portfolio. Deri had been reluctant to override the antitrust authority, believing Noble should not be exempt from the monopoly tag. For his part, Netanyahu has sought a compromise for profit sharing, fearing the implications of not finalizing the deal with Noble, which has threatened international legal arbitration over the persistent delay. Broader delay-related concerns have centered on a potential negative impact for future foreign investment as well as Israel's agreed-upon gas arrangements with Jordan and Egypt. As Deri's replacement, Netanyahu will now authorize the deal.

On the Palestinian issue, while fierce debate has surrounded the extent of settlement activity during Netanyahu's 2009-2015 terms, the prime minister seems recently to be avoiding major West Bank settlement drives, despite heading a hawkish coalition. Unclear is whether this restraint is tactical and temporary, or linked to a desire for improved ties with Washington or an effort to lure the Labor Party into his government and thereby broaden its configuration. The Obama administration has itself refrained from contentious moves, opposing a potential divisive UN Security Council resolution favored by France that would impose a final deal on Israelis and Palestinians. It also did not press for a UN Security Council vote on settlements. Instead, with the help of the other Quartet states (the European Union and Russia), it has spearheaded an effort that would broaden Palestinian civilian (nonsecurity) authority and access in at least part of the West Bank under Israel's full authority (Area C), an effort more modest than past U.S. peace initiatives.

2016 and Bipartisanship

Neither Obama nor Netanyahu seems to want another stormy encounter. From Obama's perspective, a harmonious visit could help make the case for a Democrat to succeed him and correspondingly preserve his foreign and domestic policy legacy. He emerged victorious from the JCPOA battle with domestic critics, but this does not mean he seeks more fights. Netanyahu, meanwhile, may have absorbed the message that his March speech to Congress, not coordinated with the White House, risked toppling bipartisan support for strong U.S.-Israel relations, a pillar for decades. Therefore, after agreeing to accept an award from the neoconservative-linked American Enterprise Institute during his visit, Netanyahu is giving a speech to the liberal Center for American Progress.

Such steps hardly ensure that the visit will come off as planned, but both leaders appear committed to avoiding minefields that have sabotaged past meetings.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

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Misremembering Yitzhak Rabin

The paragon of peace held positions nearly identical to Netanyahu


Tablet, November 4, 2014

Nineteen years ago today, on November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a far-right extremist. In a yearly ritual, he is being remembered as a peacemaker and as someone whose death "€œchanged history."€ Rabin, it is widely said, could have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something the Anti-Defamation League vividly portrayed in its alternate history viral video, "€œImagine a World Without Hate."€

But if you read Rabin'€™s final speech to the Israeli parliament, delivered just a month before he died, the picture seems more complicated than this narrative. On October 5, 1995, Rabin laid out his vision for peace, telling the Knesset (italics ours):

We view the permanent solution in the framework of State of Israel which will include most of the area of the Land of Israel as it was under the rule of the British Mandate, and alongside it a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority. The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.

And these are the main changes, not all of them, which we envision and want in the permanent solution:

A. First and foremost, united Jerusalem - which will include both Ma'€™ale Adumim and Givat Ze'€™ev -€” as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty, while preserving the rights of the members of the other faiths, Christianity and Islam, to freedom of access and freedom of worship in their holy places, according to the customs of their faiths.

B. The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.

C. Changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the "€œGreen Line,"€ prior to the Six Day War.

D. The establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria, like the one in Gush Katif.

It'€™s an address that could have been given by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pointedly opposed withdrawal to the 1967 borders-€”most famously alongside President Obama in the Oval Office'€”and insisted upon a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley and a united Jerusalem. Far more generous peace offers than Rabin'€™s, which included the division of Jerusalem, were made by his left-wing successors as prime minister, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Meanwhile, Gush Katif, one of the settlements singled out by Rabin for preservation, was evacuated by right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon'€”along with the rest of Israel'€™s settlements in Gaza.

If anyone can be said to be carrying on Rabin'€™s legacy, it is Netanyahu, who, like Rabin in 1995, is more skeptical of the stability and good intentions of a potential Palestinian neighbor, and insists on more defensible borders and stronger security guarantees in any peace deal. But even Netanyahu has been willing to grant the Palestinians a state-€”rather than Rabin'€™s "€œentity which is less than a state"€, telling CNN'€™s Fareed Zakaria just last month that "€œI remain committed to a vision of peace, of two states for two peoples, two nation-states, one for the Palestinian people, one for the Jewish people."€

And unlike Rabin, the Likud leader froze West Bank settlements for 10 months to jumpstart negotiations, and initiated a "€œsilent freeze"€ on building in Israel'€™s contentious capital of Jerusalem. Even Netanyahu, in other words, has governed -€” both in word and deed -€” from Rabin'€™s left. Needless to say, this is not so much a reflection of Bibi'€™s dovishness as Rabin'€™s hawkishness.

But if Rabin didn'€™t actually possess the most prophetic positions on peace, what then is his true legacy? To answer this question, it helps to look at what it is not. In a series of tweets today, Canadian scholar Jeet Heer claimed that "€œ[Yigal] Amir'€™s bullets achieved what the right wanted: a definitive end to the last real chance for a 2-state solution."€ Added Heer, "€œRabin came as close to a final agreement as any Israeli leader ever has, and since his murder there'€™s been flight from negotiation."€

But as one can see from the history of Israeli peace offers after Rabin, this is decidedly not so. In fact, as those offers demonstrate, the impact of Rabin'€™s murder was quite the opposite. His assassination presaged a massive shift in Israeli public opinion toward peace and the two-state solution. Following Rabin'€™s shooting, the Israeli left moved to his left, while the Israeli right gradually adopted Rabin'€™s own positions from when he led the Israeli left. (Recent Israeli skepticism about the peace process has far more to do with Gaza'€™s rockets than Amir'€™s bullets.) As Ben Birnbaum, the journalist who co-wrote the definitive account of the most recent peace talks for The New Republic, has put it, "€œThe untold story of the peace process is the fact that by any objective measure, Benjamin Netanyahu today is to the left of where Yitzhak Rabin was in the 90s."€

This is what Rabin achieved. He might not have been the revolutionary peacemaker that some of today'€™s hagiography makes him out to be. Few elected leaders in modern democracies can be so far ahead of their time and people within the constraints of politics and history. But what Rabin did accomplish was creating the space for Israelis to recognize the need for Palestinian autonomy. By daring to imagine a different future, and taking the first courageous steps towards it, he set in motion the trends that would ultimately remake Israeli society, and open the door for leaders like Barak, Olmert, and yes, Netanyahu, to take positions far beyond what he initially envisioned.

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