Many American and Israeli officials worked hard to smooth over the differences between Jerusalem and the White House before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set out for the United States Sunday, March 21.
They tried to hammer out a formula, fueled by a string of Israeli concessions to meet President Barack Obama's demands, to let Netanyahu declare the crisis in US-Israel relations over and done with and the two governments back on their normal working track.
On the American side, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the reconciliation effort, supported by Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, Washington's secret contact-man with Damascus, Fred Hoff, and the president's special adviser at the National Security Council, Dennis Ross.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak held the effort together at the head of a team which included Netanyahu's national security adviser and senior aide, Dr. Uzi Arad, and the prime minister's veteran personal adviser and right-hand man, Yitzhak Molcho.
Lengthy phone wrangling between Barak's office at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and Hillary Clinton's office in Foggy Bottom, Washington, produced an agreed four-point paper for bridging the acute differences marring US-Israel relations:
A package of ambiguities and concessions
One: Israel agrees not to catch the United States off guard on Iran.
Netanyahu promised not to order the Israeli Defense Forces to strike Iran's nuclear facilities before prior consultation with the Obama administration. The two sides decided to stick to this wording although both interpreted it differently: Washington read into the pledge an implicit Israeli undertaking to call off the attack if it faced administration objections, meaning an Israeli strike would be contingent on a green light from the US.
In Jerusalem, the pledge was taken to mean no more than advance notice of any Israeli action – military or diplomatic – against Iran with no obligation to await US approval.
The gap between the two interpretations was admittedly critical. Clinton said she counted on Barak personally not to put the Obama administration in the position of receiving notice of Israel's intention a few hours before its missiles and warplanes were in the air on their way to Tehran.
Barak slid past this request by commenting that, even if this happened, there would still be time for Jerusalem and Washington to discuss the matter.
Netanyahu's colleagues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were severely critical of his consent to this stipulation, because they interpreted it as the prime minister's surrender of Israel's freedom of military action in its defense. They said, therefore, that a way must be found to circumvent him.
More than one power center
In a conversation in Tel Aviv (the site of Israel's defense ministry and security establishment) last week, before the prime minister left for Washington, an Israeli defense official remarked to an official American that he assumed Washington realized the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem was not Israel's only power center and decision-making body.
(See the next item: Can Obama Hold Israel Back from Striking Iran?)
He also advised taking into account that Netanyahu's inability to stand up to arm-twisting in Washington applied equally to pressure at home (for attacking Iran). The suggestion that the pledges given by Netanyahu and Barak regarding Iran may not be watertight was certainly instrumental in keeping the crisis between Israeli government and the White House going at full blast before and after the Obama-Netanyahu showdown in the Oval Office.
Two: Netanyahu agreed to a near-total freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem for the duration of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Barak warned that domestic pressures prevented this decision being advertised. So the prime minister promised a new mechanism in his own office to ascertain no new projects were started; he would also set up the bureaucratic machinery, again without public fanfare, for overseeing the stoppage of Jewish property purchases, mainly by Americans, in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods.
Choice tidbits for Abbas
Three: In his talks with peace envoy George Mitchell, the prime minister offered certain gestures to tempt Mahmoud Abbas out of his long sulk on talks with Israel.
They included the release of some 150 Palestinian prisoners, the dismantling of more IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, and the building of new highways for linking the West Bank's main Palestinian towns.
Four: The Prime Minister further assented to the automatic extension of the West Bank settlement building moratorium, offered the Obama administration in December 2009, when it runs out in September 2010 for as long as negotiations, direct or indirect, are in progress with the Palestinians.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that Jerusalem believed optimistically that this document would write finis on the "Biden crisis." which erupted over construction in E. Jerusalem during the US vice president's visit to Israel in early March. Israel trusted that its concessions would placate the White House and permit the restoration of "rational working arrangements" – as the defense minister put it in one of his conversations with Secretary Clinton.
This expectation turned out to be unrealistic, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources explain – primarily because Obama's advisers don't trust anything Netanyahu tells them – whether directly or through his emissaries.
In short, the profound mistrust between the US and Israel lingers on – even after an intense diplomatic effort to paper it over and, at this stage, defies all efforts to bridge it.
The Roots of American Mistrust
• Washington doesn't believe Netanyahu has truly renounced a unilateral Israel military option against Iran.
After all, his campaign platform led off with a strong pledge to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities as his primary mission if he were re-elected prime minister. The sense in the White House is that somehow, the Israeli leader will confront the US with a fait accompli and so drag America into war in its wake.
This suspicion prompted the administration to order Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia – including Iran, to offer this testimony to the Senate's Armed Services Committee on March 16:
"The (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel."
Petraeus' comments suggested that US military officials were coming around to the idea that failure to resolve the Middle East conflict had begun to imperil American lives and harm vital US national security interests. The administration used the Palestinian issue to illustrate its point, but was referring to Iran.
• The administration does not believe Netanyahu's promises on the Palestinian issue.
The Israeli prime minister is not trusted to follow through on his promises to hold up construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank to help restart talks with the Palestinians. The administration is certain Netanyahu is keeping more 'traps" or "surprises" up his sleeve – just as they believe he engineered the "Ramat Shlomo trap" for Biden's visit to Israel.
The Roots of Israel's Mistrust
• The Obama administration has not kept any of its promises to Israel regarding Iran.
The administration has never followed through on its commitment to enact tough sanctions against Iran.
According to intelligence reaching Israel (and also Saudi Arabia), the administration is actually pursuing the reverse policy, trying its luck again on engagement with Iran, this time with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (as first revealed in DNW. 436 of DNW on March 12 – Obama Engages a New Iranian Partner).
• President Obama has begun enforcing an arms embargo against Israel without prior notice.
As soon as Vice President Biden was out of Israel, the president stopped a shipment of JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) bound for Israel, diverting it the American air force base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. This betokened the start of an American military embargo to deny Israeli the tools for attacking Iran.
According to American military sources, the shipment contained 387 sets of advanced bunker-busting bombs of two types: 195 sets of the BLU-110 model and 192 sets of the BLU-117 model.
• The administration is working actively to bring the Netanyahu government into international isolation.
Jerusalem is convinced the British foreign secretary David Miliband had Washington's encouragement when he ordered a senior Israeli diplomat, the Mossad representative in London, expelled on the day Netanyahu was received at the White House.
• No right-wing or centrist Israeli government can accept the proposition the Obama administration is trying to hawk that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict imperils the lives of American troops. This claim is seen in Jerusalem as another blunt weapon misused by Obama to corner Israel into ceding its national security interests when they impinge on the Palestinian issue.
For all these reasons, the Israeli prime minister's Washington visit landed him in the middle of a major crisis with the administration. It was exacerbated rather than calmed in his meetings on March 23 with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton. Netanyahu found himself pushed hard against a wall by an administration which he saw would not scruple to bend him – or even break his government – if necessary to meet their objectives.
At the same time, Netanyahu determined not to bow as long as his hosts persisted in what he saw as their "irrational behavior."