There has recently been much discussion of the State of Israel’s “bleak
diplomatic situation,” and a dismissal of Israel’s foreign policy over the
last two years as a string of failures. The declaration by a number of South
American countries that they recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967
borders ostensibly proves this assertion.

Although Israel faces many serious diplomatic challenges and there have been
many failures in the past two years, this assessment is both insufficiently
balanced and insufficiently sensitive to Israel’s complex foreign policy
arena. Israel has in fact had important foreign policy achievements, some of
them a result of Israel’s activities and some a result of international and
regional developments. This essay focuses on Israel’s diplomatic
achievements vis-à-vis the Obama administration.

The starting point of relations between the Netanyahu government and the
Obama administration was inauspicious. Netanyahu’s first meeting with
President Obama (May 2009) and President Obama’s speech at Cairo University
(June 2009) in many ways seemed to augur a new low in bilateral relations.
It appeared that the administration was seeking to ignore the understandings
reached between the Sharon and Olmert governments and the Bush
administration on the issue of settlements. The administration announced a
goal almost impossible to achieve, the total cessation of building in the
settlements, and presented it as a unilateral diktat by the United States,
rather than as an objective achieved through dialogue, as is required by the
relationship that has developed between Israel and the United States over
the years. The demand for a total cessation of building in the territories
is completely contrary to the ideological basis of the prime minister’s
party and the platform on which he was elected to lead the country. Finally,
the president explicitly placed the institution of the presidency and his
personal prestige around the publicly announced framework for action.

Obama’s speech and his unequivocal demands of Israel seemingly gave the
Netanyahu government two difficult options. The first option involved a
clash with the Obama administration while the president was at the height of
his power and his popularity, with all the serious risks this entailed. The
second option involved accepting the president’s demand and risking the
collapse of the government and new elections.

Ultimately, the Netanyahu government managed to escape these two options. It
succeeded in redirecting the president’s demands into an ongoing dialogue
with Middle East envoy George Mitchell. At the end of this dialogue, rules
of the game were established that were rather comfortable for Israel, and
were largely different from those that the Obama administration had sought
to establish. First, the administration recognized, even if halfheartedly,
the existence of the previous understandings between Israel and the United
States on the issue of building in the territories, even though in practice,
it made them irrelevant for the situation that had developed. Second, in
practice the administration accepted Israel’s position that the peace
process must be advanced within the framework of negotiations between the
two sides, and not through imposed dictates. Third, the administration in
effect accepted Israel’s position that the goals presented about the
settlements should be realistic. This set of understandings and these rules
of the game were not insignificant achievements for Israel in its relations
with the US administration.

In the wake of the serious crisis on building permits in Jerusalem during
Vice President Biden’s March 2010 visit to Israel, the Obama administration
attempted to implement a similar squeeze tactic in connection with the
building freeze in East Jerusalem. In this case as well, the Netanyahu
government managed to redirect the administration’s firm demands to provide
clear answers to a set of challenging questions into a dialogue between the
two countries. At the end of the long, difficult discussion, it was made
clear to the administration that Jerusalem is a red line for the State of
Israel and that at least on the rhetorical level, as opposed to the
practical level, Israel cannot accept a demand to freeze building in its
capital. The lack of a firm counter-response from the administration to
these clarifications by Israel created a de facto understanding – important
from the diplomatic standpoint, and comfortable for Israel – on the issue of
Jerusalem’s standing and Israel’s right to build there.

The last chapter in the dialogue between the two countries focused at first
on the administration’s request/demand to freeze building in the settlements
for a period of three months. In the negotiations about this request,
another important principle was established in the rules of the game between
Israel and the United States, namely, the understanding that the
administration’s request for a continued freeze is dependent on giving
Israel appropriate compensation for its agreement. Thus, the principle that
had previously driven the administration – that Israel would accept the
administration’s demands unilaterally and without compensation – was to a
large extent overturned. Israel demanded compensation for its agreement, and
when it became clear that the administration was not prepared to give this
compensation, the issue of the freeze dropped off the agenda.

Over the past two years an additional understanding, very important in the
US-Israel relationship, has been reinforced: recognition that there should
be a clear separation between the US-Israel strategic relationship and the
positions the United States takes in international organizations, and the
diplomatic process leading to an agreement with the Palestinians. Despite
the serious disputes and the public disagreements between the two countries
regarding the peace process, the strategic connection between the two
countries has been maintained, and even strengthened. Furthermore, for the
past two years the United States has been meticulous about demonstrating
impressive support for Israel in the face of serious attacks against it in
the international arena. This is a situation that did not always exist in
the past, and it undoubtedly gives expression to an important Israeli
diplomatic achievement, at least for now.

Finally, in her speech at the Saban Forum, Secretary of State Clinton
expressed – implicitly and overtly – the administration’s willingness to
meet Israel halfway in some of the demands about the peace process. In this
framework, the United States has made clear that an Israeli-Palestinian
agreement must bring about a complete end to the conflict between the two
sides “once and for all.” This means that the administration has accepted,
even if indirectly, the prime minister’s demand that once an agreement is
reached there will be no additional demands. She made clear that the
administration accepts Israel’s position that the Sate of Israel is the
state of the Jewish people and that the Jewish people has a
religious-historical bond to the land of Israel. Finally, she recognized the
need to ground an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in a comprehensive regional
Arab-Israeli agreement that will also include a dimension of normalization,
as Israel has demanded for years and has been emphasized by its present

Thus at least at this stage, the State of Israel has succeeded in
maneuvering well in sensitive areas. Nonetheless, in relations between the
two countries, there are still serious diplomatic disagreements and large
pitfalls. The achievements by the government of Israel are still not so
firmly entrenched that they cannot be undermined. They are definitely not
irreversible – for example, if President Obama decided to demand that Israel
give him a “deposit” with explicit and detailed clarifications about its
positions on the core issues, particularly the country’s borders, the
refugee issue, and the status of Jerusalem. This is definitely a reasonable
possibility, and the government of Israel would do well to prepare for it as
soon as possible.



  1. Obama still doesn’t understand the root cause of the entire ME conflict. This is the continued refusal by the Palestinians and Arabs to acknowledge that the Jewish people have ANY historical connection at all to ANY of the land between the Jordan river and the sea. This is the reason they rejected the Partition plan in 1947, and never built or tried to build a Palestinian state when Jordan and Egypt occupied the West Bank and Gaza. This is the reason they rejected Prime Minister Barak’s generous offer for a state in 2000 and PM Olmert’s in 2008. This is the reason they claim the Western Wall is Muslim, and this is the reason they continue to look for every excuse not to negotiate with Israel. They don’t really want peace with Israel. They really do want to destroy Israel and they are using lawfare to accomplish this now (except for Hamas which is still trying out warfare).

    Only when Obama finally "gets" this and finally starts pressuring the Palestinians to accept that the Jewish people do have an ancient connection to this land might there be some compromise on their end, and then there might be a chance for real peace.


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