On March 28, 2011, President Obama was in the Situation Room for a secure video conference with David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel. The President periodically held such calls with his British, French, and German counterparts on a host of issues. Now, looking ahead to the G-8 Summit, to be hosted by President Sarkozy in Deauville, France, they discussed the upheaval in the Arab world and how economic support from the G-8 countries, as well from the larger circle of the G-20, could help the transformations in Egypt and Tunisia succeed. As the Special Assistant to the President on the National Security Staff responsible for an area that ran from Morocco to India, I was there to provide any support President Obama might need on Libya, which was bound to be raised. The discussion, however, took a turn that I had not expected. After first discussing Libya, plans for the upcoming summit at Deauville, and the multinational means that could be mobilized to support Egypt, the three European leaders shifted their focus, launching into a diatribe against Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. They spoke with a venom seldom heard when leaders talk about other leaders, taking turns excoriating Bibi, describing him as a liar, as unreliable, as someone who rendered peacemaking impossible and whose unwillingness to take the steps needed for peace would help to radicalize the “Arab Spring”—and thereby threaten all of our interests in the region. They literally accused President Obama of “enabling” Netanyahu’s obstinacy.
But what was driving the popular uprisings in the Arab world was the profound sense of injustice in the different Arab countries—and not the Palestinian issue, as important as it might be. This “awakening” among Arab publics was about their own self-determination and future, not the destiny of the Palestinians. Yet you would not have known that from these leaders’ preoccupation with Bibi and the consequences of the stalemate on Israeli-Palestinian peace. They did not evince even the slightest recognition that Israel might have needs or that Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, might bear some of the blame for the absence of movement on peace. The President sought to redirect the discussion and to explain to his European counterparts some of these realities and Bibi’s predicament. These three leaders were having none of it. They made it clear that if the President did not present American principles on peace to force Netanyahu’s hand, they would do so.
I was struck not only by the vitriol but also by who was conveying it. These leaders prided themselves on being friends of Israel. Sarkozy and Merkel were publicly outspoken in this regard. Sarkozy had very consciously dissociated himself from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and his demonstrably pro-Arab legacy. And yet here they were seemingly holding Bibi solely responsible for the breakdown in the peace process and for what they perceived to be the dire ramifications for the region of the unresolved conflict. I could not help thinking about the irony of President Obama—who had been consistently vilified in parts of the American Jewish community for being too critical of Israel—being cast in the role of Israel’s defender before our closest allies.
I would remain in the Obama Administration until the end of 2011. During that time I witnessed—and was often in the middle of—the constant pull-and-push in our relationship with Israel. There were moments of tension—even anger—between the leaders. Yet the areas of cooperation continued to deepen. Moreover, our support for Israel, even in tough budgetary times, had expanded. True, there was a Congressional push for increased support, but it was rarely the case that Congress had to impose it on a reluctant Administration. Nevertheless, no one knew better than I that a constituency within the Administration was not enthusiastic about our relationship with Israel.
I also knew that every Administration since Harry Truman’s had such a constituency. Indeed, in earlier times, it had been far stronger in its impact. It is not new for Israel to be singled out in the international arena. After all, the UN General Assembly adopted the grotesque “Zionism is Racism” resolution in the 1970s. Resolution 3379 embodied the effort to reject and delegitimize Israel, led by the Arabs, but supported by the so-called Non-Aligned Movement and backed by the Soviet bloc in its competition with the West during the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, that era of ostracism and rejection of Israel seemed to be over. The resolution was rescinded. And, with the advent of the Madrid conference, which brought Israel and its Arab neighbors to the same peace table, and the emergence of the Oslo process, which produced mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel could do business everywhere in the world.
But today, Madrid and Oslo seem to signify a bygone era. The once-significant promise of peace is gone, and what is left is a constant competition between Israelis and Palestinians to see who can score more points against the other, rather than who can be responsible for resolving differences. Twenty years of peace efforts have not ended the occupation of the Palestinians; and the Palestinians have become far more adept internationally at presenting themselves as victims and Israel as victimizers. By contrast, Israel presents a different face to the world than it once did. Benjamin Netanyahu is not Yitzhak Rabin, a leader who took initiatives on peace and commanded respect internationally as a result. By contrast, Netanyahu publically focuses far more on the threats Israel faces than on the steps it will take to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. For his part, Obama tended to identify with the Palestinians as victims and tended to be skeptical of Netanyahu’s intentions.
Nonetheless, there was one short-lived point in his presidency when President Obama thought Netanyahu was serious about peace with the Palestinians. In early July 2010, Netanyahu came to the White House and privately told the President that, if we could get the Palestinians to negotiate with him directly, he would address their needs on territory—provided they dealt with Israeli security needs at the same time. He also needed to know that the U.S. government would meet Israel’s security requirements in the context of a peace deal. After their discussion, the President, for the first time, told several of us assembled in the Oval Office that he believed Netanyahu would move “if he is talking directly with the Palestinians and knows that we accept Israel’s security requirements and will meet them if there is a deal. I want to move on this.”
He then told his Deputy National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, to have James “Hoss” Cartwright, the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lead a team to review Israel’s requirements and find the best way to meet them—and he asked me to go with Cartwright to be sure this got handled in a way that addressed Bibi’s concerns.
Cartwright and I left a few days later for Israel and would take several more trips during the remainder of the summer to meet Bibi, Ehud Barak, and the Israeli military.1 By August, George Mitchell, the envoy for the Middle East, found that Abu Mazen, though he had let nearly nine of the ten-month moratorium on new Israeli settlement construction go by, was now also ready to resume direct talks. With Bibi looking serious and Abu Mazen now prepared to go to direct talks, there was only one problem: Abu Mazen said the moratorium must not end on September 26. As part of the deal in getting Cabinet acceptance of the ten-month moratorium in November 2009, Netanyahu had promised it would not be extended. In late August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked me to raise the issue of a possible extension with him. I raised it with his close adviser Yitzhak Molho first, who said he thought it would be very hard for Netanyahu given his earlier promise. When I asked the Prime Minister about an extension, he said there was no way. Even if you were getting something of strategic value for doing so, I asked? Being coy, he asked me what I had in mind. I said you know what is of value to you—what I am raising is that is that you would get compensation for such an extension. Again, he wanted me to offer him something. I demurred, saying I did not know what could be on offer to him but presumably it would be something he could use to justify an extension and a change in his position.
I reported to Secretary Clinton that Bibi’s response suggested that, though it might be hard and the price tag high, he was prepared to do a deal on this. She followed up on my conversation with him and it went much like mine. The problem would have been more manageable, of course, if, in his discussions with Abu Mazen, Netanyahu was putting enough of real substance on the table to build our leverage on the Palestinians not to walk away from the negotiating table.
However, even though the talks that began on September 1-2 in Washington were initially good, Netanyahu was not prepared to say much about the scope of withdrawal without seeing that the Palestinians were serious about security. But Abu Mazen spoke only in generalities about Israeli security needs. Worse, he argued that the security issues had been settled by a plan General Jim Jones had proposed in the last year of the Bush Administration.2 But there was no Jones plan, something that General Jones, now the National Security Advisor, acknowledged. Even though Abu Mazen would not offer more concrete assurances on security, he still wanted to know when the IDF would be out of the West Bank entirely. Full withdrawal, for him, spelled the end of Israeli occupation—and he would speak of three or four years for this. Netanyahu’s timeline was very different. He saw an extended Israeli military presence, even if small, in the Jordan Valley for decades. At one point in their discussions, in front of Secretary Clinton and George Mitchell, when Abu Mazen pressed Bibi, he spoke of an Israeli presence for forty years. Abu Mazen’s response was “then you can keep the territory.”
Once again, Abu Mazen was saying he would not stay in the negotiations if the moratorium was ended. Netanyahu was saying he could not extend it, especially since Abu Mazen had refused to negotiate directly for the first nine months of the moratorium, and now after a few weeks of direct talks was insisting on its extension.
President Obama, who had found Netanyahu serious in July, now was again suspicious of the Israeli Prime Minister. He felt Bibi had promised to put a real proposal on territory on the table and he was not doing it, proving again that he talked a good game, but never acted on his words.
In this setting, the President met Abu Mazen in Washington. Later, when he was asked about the moratorium in a press conference, he surprised me by saying that he thought it best to extend it for a short period—even though he understood the political difficulties in Israel.
Not surprisingly, with the President publicly supporting the extension of the moratorium, Abu Mazen was unwilling to budge on his position: He would not stay at the table if the moratorium on new housing starts lapsed. We made an effort to reach an understanding on building restraint with the Israelis—and initially did so, but Abu Mazen was not interested. For him, it was all or nothing. He was not interested in a limitation on what might be built now.3
We were stuck. Negotiations had begun only on September 1 and with the September 26 deadline just days away, they were going to collapse. Again, I raised the idea of a compensation package for Israel, asking Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Molho, who were in New York for the annual session of the UN General Assembly, whether this would allow Bibi to justify an extension. Barak raised a series of political and military pay-offs, including support at the UN and additional F-35 stealth aircraft; Secretary Clinton was prepared to consider them. Molho reported that for Bibi, the only thing that could make it politically palatable for him was for us to release Jonathan Pollard. That would be an achievement that the “Right” would swallow. For me, it was déjà vu—I was taken back to Wye River and Bill Clinton. Secretary Clinton raised it with President Obama and, though hesitant, he allowed us to take a few soundings of departmental reactions. Once again, the intelligence community was dead-set against it—and in the end, no decision was made and Bibi ended the moratorium.
However, not long after he had allowed the moratorium to lapse and new building to begin again, Netanyahu came back to the Secretary and offered to impose a halt on new construction within thirty days in return for a compensation package.4 This set in motion a complicated negotiation over the coming month, involving what units would be grandfathered, how long the moratorium would continue, and what we would provide Israel. On November 1, Secretary Clinton met with Netanyahu for eight hours in New York and reached an agreement in principle—and subsequently we drafted a letter spelling out the package of assurances and the military hardware we were committing to Israel. But it all came to naught when Bibi informed us he could not gain Cabinet approval for a new moratorium on building in the West Bank without announcing 1,200 new units in Jerusalem at the same time. With such an announcement, Abu Mazen would not come back to the table and we would be buying nothing with our package.
Though the President had allowed Secretary Clinton and me to pursue these talks, it was clear he was relieved when we pulled the plug. He told us he did not feel we were getting enough for this. For such compensation he wanted to know what Bibi would actually present on borders. Obama made clear he was still willing to offer compensation, but only if Netanyahu would move on withdrawal—and he doubted the Prime Minister would. Though Abu Mazen had shown little flexibility and squandered the moratorium, President Obama, seeing the Israelis as the stronger party and the Palestinians as the weaker one, put the onus on Israel.
Secretary Clinton had invested in the direct talks in September and worked hard to sustain them. When we had to pull the plug on our efforts to revive the talks, she discussed with Mitchell and me the need to focus on the substance of borders and security.5 She decided—and the President accepted—that we would shift our effort back to a parallel discussion on the core issues, only now she would do more of it directly and separately with the leaders.6
The Secretary then launched her own version of parallel talks with the leaders and replicated what had happened in past peace efforts. Just like Kissinger’s conversations with Eban and Rabin, Carter’s at Camp David, Bill Clinton’s (and mine) with Barak, and Condoleezza Rice’s with Olmert, Hillary asked Netanyahu in two long, secure calls what he could do. Echoing her predecessors, Secretary Clinton said: “We are your only friends. Why can’t you share this just with us? I am not going to tell the Palestinians. I need to have a sense of what you can do, and, what might be possible in light of that.” Netanyahu answered in generalities about Israeli security needs—what settlement blocs were required to be secure, the importance of the Jordan Valley—and finally, after repeated prodding, he would say that Israel could withdraw from most of the territory. He did not want to give percentages, but he understood what the Palestinians wanted and if the Israeli security needs were accepted by us and met, he could be generally responsive.
Secretary Clinton marveled at how tough it had been to extract even this. And I told her, it is not unique to Bibi. For Israeli Prime Ministers, it is seen as a slippery slope: whatever they give as an answer, they are convinced will be an opening for us to ask for more when it proves insufficient with the Palestinians. Moreover, they believe that territory is their sole leverage with the Palestinians; therefore, they seek to withhold giving it until they see what they get from the Palestinians.
Conversely, although Abu Mazen’s style was less grudging than Bibi’s, he gave very little. Often he would revert to saying “we Palestinians have given our concessions already—accepting June 4, 1967 meant agreeing that Israel would be getting 78 percent of historic Palestine.” Of course, this left out security—which mattered most to Israel—refugees, and Jerusalem, not to mention the fact that the June 4 border without adjustment was acceptable to no Israeli leader.
Secretary Clinton’s conversations convinced her that the best thing we could do, at some point, would be to do a variation on the Clinton parameters and present them as a basis for negotiations. She raised this with President Obama in January, and this might well have become the focal point for our internal discussions at that time had it not been for the eruption of the Arab Awakening.
While the Arab Awakening would consume all the policymaking oxygen for the next few months, the Israeli-Palestinian issue did not go away. Abu Mazen began to press the “internationalization” button. This was his “Plan B”, his alternative to negotiations. Going to the UN was a way for Palestinians to put pressure on Israel by isolating it internationally. In 2011, the Palestinians sought a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, calling it illegal and setting the stage for what could be sanctions later on.
On the settlements, the quandary was clear: If the United States vetoed the resolution it would be the first veto in the UN Security Council of the Obama presidency—and it would have been on something the Obama Administration fervently opposed. And yet, if we failed to veto, we would be countenancing a shift away from negotiations and to international fora, where Israel was isolated and the deck was stacked against it.7 Our efforts to dissuade our European allies from going down this path went nowhere thanks largely to their sympathy for the Palestinians and their opposition to settlements, which they saw through the lens of their own benighted colonial past.
There were several high-level meetings on what to do about the resolution. In the first one, Secretary Clinton brought Jeff Feltman, her Assistant Secretary for the Near East Affairs bureau, and he described his concerns that a U.S. veto of a settlements resolution would suddenly make us a target in the demonstrations on the Arab street. Feltman said, until this point, no one was making the United States an issue in the squares in Tunis or Cairo or Sana‘a or elsewhere, but he feared they would now.8 Robert Gates chimed in after Feltman, endorsing his concerns and saying it would be a grave mistake to veto the resolution. Susan Rice was even more adamant, claiming a veto would undo all the good we had accomplished at the UN through the first two years of the Administration and vitiate our ability to get anything done in the future—not to mention the “grave damage” it would do to us with the Arabs.
I could barely contain myself. I interjected at this point that everything I had just heard reflected a set of assumptions about a region that failed to reflect the new realities:
No one in Tahrir Square or elsewhere in the region is thinking about settlements or Palestinians. No one is paying attention to this. They are thinking about self-determination for themselves, justice for themselves. They are preoccupied with defining the relationship between ruler and ruled. I am not saying they are indifferent to the Palestinians but they are completely absorbed by what they see as an internal revolution—it is a moment of release and loss of fear. We should veto this resolution because we told the Palestinians not to do it. And we can veto this resolution because the people in the region are consumed by upheaval that has nothing to do with the Palestinians or Israelis.
Vice President Biden agreed with me and Secretary Clinton also nodded approvingly. The President kept his own counsel at this point, saying he would decide later what to do on the resolution. For now, he said, let’s see if we can head off the resolution.
After consulting with the Europeans, we put together a package designed to give the Palestinians a payoff for walking back the resolution. Among other things, we were prepared to formally to accept 1967 with mutually agreed swaps as the basis for the final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.9 With the UNSC getting ready to move on the resolution, the President would take one last stab at Abu Mazen, calling him and asking directly whether he could accept what we were offering in return for dropping the resolution. I was alone in the Oval Office with the President for the call, and, when Abu Mazen said he needed to consult with his colleagues, I wrote a note to the President saying, “This is his way of saying no.” President Obama nodded and after he ended the call, he said to me, “When we veto this, it is not going to produce any response in the area, is it?” I repeated what I had said in the earlier meeting: “No one in the region is paying attention to this.” And, in fact, when we vetoed, there was no reaction.
But that did not dissuade the Europeans, who remained riveted on the Palestinians and Israel’s occupation. For them, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was still the center of the Middle East and they were prepared to blame Bibi for turning the Arab Spring into an Arab Winter. Just how exactly this was the case was never explained but simply taken as a given, and they were insistent that the United States must present parameters spelling out the political horizon for resolving borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem—and if we did not do so, they would.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, understanding that doing nothing was only feeding the European pressure on us and their own impulse to do something, would visit Germany in February 2011 and tell Chancellor Merkel that he would come out with an initiative. But Bibi rarely moved quickly, and, in any case, he wanted U.S. support for whatever the Israelis would offer. He sent Yitzhak Molho to see me in March and April, and we tried to reach an agreement on the content of an Israeli initiative. Molho acknowledged upfront that Israel must present something that would be credible to the world, and as a result he was much more forward-leaning than Netanyahu had been with Secretary Clinton. However, to go as far as he was prepared to go on territory, he needed the United States to support Israeli demands on security and refugees and accept that at this stage Jerusalem would be deferred.
Although wanting to encourage him, given his forthcoming position on borders, I told him the Administration would see the initiative as unbalanced. Palestinians would be conceding on Israeli needs on security and refugees and Israel only on territory and not on Jerusalem. If Jerusalem was left out, Palestinians would not have a capital for their state even as they were conceding that refugees could return only to their state but not Israel. While Molho told me he could not touch Jerusalem at this juncture, we both saw great promise in our discussions and wanted to continue them.
But I was instructed to put them on hold. The internal debate on the settlements resolution at the UN had rekindled the discussion over whether we should offer our own initiative in which we would present U.S. parameters for ending the conflict. I had briefed Tom Donilon, now the National Security Advisor, and Hillary Clinton on the Molho discussions, and felt that if I continued the conversation with Molho, we could actually present a proposal the Israelis could accept.
Mistakenly, I raised the idea of sharing in advance with the Israelis what the President might say in a speech, suggesting that this would give Bibi a stake in cooperating with us and being responsive on any initiative. But Denis McDonough and Susan Rice vehemently objected, insisting that “we can’t let them tell us what to say”, and “we cannot trust them, they will go to the Congress and try to ‘screw’ us.” With partisan politics in high gear and Speaker of the House John Boehner having already invited Netanyahu to address a Joint Session of the Congress in May 2011, their arguments trumped mine with the President—and we would not share anything with the Israelis.
Before Mitchell left his post in April, he favored laying out our positions on all the issues in the President’s speech. He and I were in agreement that we needed to lean toward the Palestinians on territory and toward the Israelis on security. We disagreed, however, about laying out positions on refugees and Jerusalem. He wanted to present our positions on all four of the core issues; I felt that would guarantee only that we would get two no’s. Abu Mazen would not be prepared to concede on refugees—the animating myth of the Palestinian national movement—and Netanyahu was clearly not prepared to concede on Jerusalem by accepting two capitals for two states. If neither was prepared to move on the narrative issues, we would surely get two rejections—and gain nothing. On this issue, my arguments prevailed, and the President decided we would do parameters only on borders and security.
The internal debate over the speech soon spilled over into the public—with my role erroneously portrayed—when, on May 11, the lead story in the New York Times quoted unnamed officials saying President Obama and Secretary Clinton were both in favor of doing the speech—and only I was against it. Ultimately, President Obama gave the speech on May 19, the day prior to Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington. Netanyahu, convinced that the President was trying to “jam him”, attacked the speech, focusing only on the part that called for the border to be based on 1967 and mutually agreed swaps, and declaring that Israel would not be forced to an indefensible border. Another lead article appeared in the Times two days after the speech and a day after what appeared to be a contentious meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Mistakenly, this article focused on my putative opposition to the speech and raised the question of “how much of a split the President was willing to make not only with the Israeli leader, but with his hand-picked Middle East advisor.”10
This was Saturday morning, May 21, 2011. The President was still smarting over the previous day’s meeting with Netanyahu. But not because the meeting itself had gone badly; it had not. During their private meeting, the President asked the Prime Minister why he was so upset over the speech, and Bibi said, because you did not coordinate with me in advance—“If you had worked with us and not just confronted me with this speech, I would have reacted differently.” When I entered the Oval Office after their one-on-one meeting, the President walked over to me and said that I had been right to suggest that we coordinate with the Israelis on the speech. Then, in front of Bill Daley, Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, and Dan Shapiro, he said the meeting was good. Bibi had explained why he was upset and, “I explained the timing on the speech and my need to go to Europe, having framed the issue and seized the initiative” so that America and Israel would not be confronted by an ill-considered European approach driven by Sarkozy at the G-8. This, in fact, was why the President felt he had to give the speech before he left for the G-8 on Sunday May 22—and when he explained this to Netanyahu, he “got it” just as Obama now appreciated why the speech had set the PM off.
What happened next changed the mood dramatically. The two leaders had not met the press before their meeting. Following the meeting, Netanyahu huddled with his team and after fifteen minutes the two leaders talked to the media. Had they met the press before seeing their respective teams, I am convinced things would have been different. President Obama did his part, welcoming the Prime Minister and saying they had held a very constructive discussion—putting a good spin on the meeting. No doubt, because Netanyahu’s team insisted he needed to maintain his strong public line for his political base, Bibi proceeded to lecture Obama in front of the press, as if the President had called for Israel to roll its borders back to the 1967 lines.11 As Netanyahu was talking, Bill Daley, the White House Chief of Staff, was standing next to me muttering, “outrageous, outrageous, how can he do this in the President’s office.” As soon as the meeting with the press was over, with Obama not in bad spirits, but with Daley and others suddenly decrying what Netanyahu had done to him, the President’s attitude changed.
Obama was scheduled to give a speech at AIPAC on Sunday, May 22, before he left for Europe. I came in with Ben Rhodes, Denis McDonough and Tom Donilon on Saturday morning to see him. With the front page New York Times article essentially portraying me as opposed to him, the President glared at me as I walked into the Oval Office and said, “I am not giving a red-meat speech; I am not backing off what I said on Thursday.” And, I responded, “I am not asking you to do that.” And with that we got into a thoughtful discussion about what should be in the speech: The President described what he wanted to say, and I made a number of suggestions. Ben wrote it beautifully—and President Obama worked carefully to fine-tune it. The one thing he wanted to confront was the disingenuous point that he had called for Israel to go back to the 1967 lines—he had not. The border would be adjusted by having settlement blocs and swaps—that is what mutually agreed swaps meant.12 In the speech, the President said:
And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what 1967 and mutually agreed swaps means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on the issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.
He went on to say that,
If there is a controversy, then, it’s not based on substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades or another three decades to achieve peace.13
Obama achieved his dual aim of not backing off while defusing a seeming crisis with Israel. Molho thanked me immediately after the speech; no one could now create a default position that the border had to be June 4, 1967, he said, because the President was clear that the border had to be adjusted. Netanyahu welcomed the President’s speech—even though, in fact, its meaning had not changed. And we would spend much of the summer trying to take President Obama’s two speeches, three days apart, and make them the basis for a Quartet document, meaning one issued by the United States, the EU, the Russians, and the UN.
After much work with Netanyahu, Tony Blair, and Lady Catherine Ashton, we forged a paper that was agreed between us.14 Abu Mazen, however, rejected it because it described as an outcome of the talks, not a principle for them, that there would be two states for two peoples: Israel the state of the Jewish people and Palestine the state of the Palestinian people. He would not accept anything that suggested Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Was this a tactic, because Netanyahu had made it a public issue and he wanted to get something for it, or was it strategic because he was not willing to acknowledge Israel this way? The answer was not clear in 2011—and it would be no clearer when Abu Mazen put up similar resistance to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state during Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace effort in 2014.
There was always a duality in President Obama’s position toward Israel: He was comfortable working closely with Israel on security, but tilted against it on the peace issue—not because he was anti-Israeli or lacked sympathy for Israel’s position but because he genuinely believed that the onus for acting boldly was on Israel. Israel, in his eyes, had the power and the means to shape the future—much more so than the Palestinians. He expressed his views on this asymmetry very clearly in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in March 2014. He made the point that time was running out for a peace settlement and that Abu Mazen’s presence created a unique opportunity. But he would say nothing about what Abu Mazen had to do; the responsibility for acting was exclusively Netanyahu’s. Indeed, he would go so far as to say that Bibi would need to act if Israel was to preserve itself:
What I’ve said to him privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on. And, for Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize the moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis. But it’s hard. And, as someone who occupies a fairly tough job himself, I’m always sympathetic to somebody else’s politics.15
Neither in this interview nor in any subsequent public comments would President Obama suggest that there was a moment for Abu Mazen to seize. Even when Abu Mazen visited the President later in March—at the moment when the Administration was trying to bring the Kerry peace efforts to fruition—and President Obama presented to him principles that went beyond what had been agreed with the Israelis and went far toward meeting Palestinian needs on all the permanent status issues, including on Jerusalem, the Palestinian President still would not respond to the U.S. principles. And yet the Administration offered no criticism of him. On the contrary, it gave him a pass by effectively blaming his “shut-down” on Israeli settlement policy.16 For the President, Abu Mazen was too weak to criticize. At one point he said Netanyahu was too strong and Abbas too weak to make peace—and Israel did not seem aware of where its policies were leading it.17
Here was a President who genuinely worried about Israel and our ability to prevent its isolation internationally. Several times in the Oval Office, the President said in my presence that whoever occupied this office would stand by Israel, but if Israel did little to help itself, we would be less able to mobilize others to support it.
President Obama was a friend of Israel. He would always respond to Israel’s security needs. When during the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, Tony Blinken, the Deputy National Security Advisor at the time, told him Israel was making an urgent request for funds for more Iron Dome defensive missiles, the President gave immediate approval. There was no impulse to withhold this as leverage on Israel’s behavior in the conflict, even though Obama was concerned about the casualties among Palestinian civilians that Israel was inflicting. Moreover, even when he was prepared to speak of re-evaluating our approach after Israel’s elections in March 2015, Obama went out of his way to emphasize that our re-evaluation was
not in reference to our commitment to Israel’s military edge in the region, Israel’s security, our intelligence cooperation, our military cooperation. That continues unabated. And I will continue to do whatever I need to do to make sure that our friends in Israel are safe.18
Even at this moment of real tension and genuine anger toward Netanyahu, Obama was offering a reminder about the depth of the relationship, particularly on security. He would be even more poignant after the conclusion of the framework understanding with the Iranians on their nuclear program, saying: “I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch, or as a consequence of work that I had done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable.”19
But Israel’s security was one thing, and peace, for Obama, was another. He believed Israel was capable of doing more on peace. And it could help change the regional realities—and our place in the region—if it would only move on the Palestinians. But what if the Palestinians were not prepared to move? What if they were not capable of moving, regardless of Israeli actions? He never seemed to ask that question.
Obama came into office believing that we needed to distance ourselves from Israel given Bush’s closeness to Israel and the legacy he left us in Muslim-majority countries. He would evolve. He would defend Israel in international fora. He worried about the de-legitimization movement if Israel did not take the initiative toward the Palestinians to arrest this development. He realized that the United States distancing itself from Israel was not the answer. But an uncritical embrace would also never be the hallmark of his policy toward the Jewish state. His inclination to see the Palestinians as the victim in the conflict remained too strong, and if, in the last years of his presidency, that meant showing the Israelis that there were consequences for their policies, so be it.
1Cartwright put together teams to go over all of the Israeli requirements, including border security, early warning, airspace protection, naval and sea, electromagnetic spectrum functions and needs, security, strategic and missile defense requirements, counter-terror, and infrastructure protection. The Israelis had counterpart teams in each of these areas. The work went on until early 2011 and General John Allen, who would participate in this effort, would take the lead in an even more ambitious effort to develop a layered approach to Israeli defense needs in 2013–14.
2Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had appointed Jones as envoy on security issues. She asked him to assess what Israel and the Palestinians would need if there were to be a peace agreement, and Jones put together teams to evaluate what would be necessary if the Israelis withdrew. At one point, Jones told Abu Mazen that NATO forces could replace the IDF. But he and his teams had not completed their work by the end of the Bush Administration. General Cartwright and I would evaluate and build on their efforts, and later Secretary Kerry would have General John Allen develop both our work and theirs still further.
3With neither side budging on the moratorium, we tried a new tack. We told the Israelis that if they could not extend the moratorium the only chance we had of getting Abu Mazen to stay in the negotiations was to offer him a new American position on the substance—meaning we would promise him that our position would now be that the border should be based on 1967 lines and mutually agreed-upon swaps. They did not like it, but still did not move. Abu Mazen however, treated this move as if it was nothing and turned us down. Mitchell and David Hale, his well-respected deputy, were convinced that offering this position on the substance would be a big gain for the Palestinians and Abu Mazen would be able to trumpet it. But he blew off Hale when he presented it.
4Netanyahu seemed to be motivated by a desire to reconcile two conflicting needs: He did not want everything stuck with the Palestinians and yet he wanted to manage his political base highly sympathetic to the settler movement.
5I told her we had made some headway on the security discussions with the Israelis—though the Israeli military was hesitating, now reluctant to look like they were making political recommendations on the border.
6The Secretary gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in December in which she described this approach, making the point that we would ask direct, tough questions on all the core issues and expect “substantive answers” from both sides—and we would offer our ideas “and bridging proposals at the appropriate time.” See Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy Seventh Annual Forum”, December 10, 2010.
7More resolutions were adopted against Israel than any other country. The serial abusers of human rights sat on the UN Human Rights Council and made Israel their target. For a discussion of this issue see Rosa Freedman, “The United Nations Human Rights Council: More of the same?”, Wisconsin International Law Journal (2013).
8Feltman explained his concerns to the group, saying we would have to beef up security at U.S. embassies, and that the UAE Foreign Minister said he hoped we would veto because it would shift the focus from anger at Mubarak to us.
9The package also included a readiness to support a UN fact-finding visit to the territories as a way of providing for some UN involvement—showing how much the Administration wanted to avoid a veto.
10Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, “Obama’s Peace Tack Contrasts With Key Aide, Friend of Israel”, New York Times, May 21, 2011.
11What is noteworthy is that on two occasions over the previous eight months, Bibi knew we were about to adopt this position on 1967 and mutually agreed swaps—first to try to keep the talks going in September, and then in February to head off the settlements resolution at the UN.
12This had been the position of Barak at Camp David, and effectively what Sharon got in the Bush letter in 2004; it was also the Olmert and Livni position in 2008. It was true Netanyahu had not adopted it, but I believed, perhaps incorrectly, that was more for tactical than strategic reasons.
13Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011”, May 22, 2011.
14Blair was the Quartet’s Middle East envoy. Lady Ashton was the European Union’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy.
15Goldberg, “Obama to Israel—Time Is Running Out”, BloombergView, March 2, 2014.
16Martin Indyk, the American envoy to the negotiations, would publicly acknowledge that Abu Mazen had “shut down”, even though Netanyahu had moved, in Indyk’s words, to “the zone of a possible agreement.” But Indyk would also say that the Israeli settlement activity had been the reason for Abu Mazen shutting down—effectively justifying it, even though what the U.S. government was prepared to present dealt with all the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem. Indyk was widely reported to have been the unnamed American official who had given an interview to the Israeli press after the breakdown of the talks that also blamed settlement activity for sabotaging the talks—and this interview was apparently authorized and reflected Obama’s views. See Martin Indyk, “The Pursuit of Middle East Peace: A Status Report”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 8, 2014; Mark Landler, “Mideast Peace Effort Pauses to Let Failure Sink In”, New York Times, May 15, 2014.
17Interview with Barack Obama by Thomas L. Friedman, “Obama and the World: President Obama Talks to Thomas L. Friedman About Iraq, Putin and Israel”, New York Times, August 8, 2014.
18Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama and President Ghani of Afghanistan in Joint Press Conference”, March 24, 2015.
19Barack Obama, interviewed by Thomas L. Friedman, “Iran and the Obama Doctrine”, New York Times, April 5, 2015.
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