A hallmark of U.S. President Barack Obama's approach to Israel has been to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly about areas of disagreement almost every time they meet. The headlines are always about settlements, occupied territory in Jerusalem, restraining Bibi on Iran, and pushing Israel on borders. Obama's theory seems to be that you have to show daylight with Israel to get progress on peace and win friends in the Muslim world.
But what if the president tried the opposite approach? He could begin by using his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference this coming Sunday, March 4, to build trust and win the confidence of the Israeli government as a foundation for future diplomatic cooperation. What could Obama do to set a new tone? Here are four ideas.
1. Obama should sharpen the message his administration is sending to Iran. Netanyahu believes recent comments by senior U.S. officials cautioning Israel against striking Iranian nuclear sites have reassured the Iranians and encouraged them to press ahead with their nuclear program. Particularly disturbing were remarks by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who referred to the Iranian government as a "rational actor" and said an attack by Israel would be "destabilizing" and "not prudent." To restore credibility to the threat that "all options are on the table," what if Obama repeats this weekend the exact words Senator Obama said at the AIPAC conference in June 2008, during his presidential campaign: "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything." Hearing those words from a sitting president would be hard to ignore.
2. For more than three years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to sit down with the Israeli prime minister for serious top-level peace talks. In taking this position, Abbas is openly violating the solemn pledge he made in November 2007 in front of the foreign ministers of 47 countries at the Annapolis peace conference. There he said: "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations … [and to] engage in vigorous, ongoing, and continuous negotiations." Abbas is now ignoring the core commitment his predecessor Yasir Arafat made to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993: "The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process … and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations." And he is defying the Middle East Quartet's appeal of March 2010, which called for "the resumption, without preconditions, of direct bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues as previously agreed by the parties." On more than 13 occasions, Obama and his top officials have publicly rebuked Netanyahu on points of disagreement. Not once has any Obama official similarly remonstrated with Abbas. This Sunday is an opportunity for Obama to restore some balance in how he assigns blame for the sorry state of the peace process. It is time to single out Abbas's refusal to negotiate with Israel.
3. At last year's AIPAC conference, Obama upset Netanyahu by pressing Israel to accept the 1967 borders with land swaps as a starting line for negotiations. This year, Obama could restore some balance by bringing up a final status issue for which he believes the Palestinian camp needs to take a similar forward step. He could call on Abbas to acknowledge that it is unrealistic to expect that the 5 million people now registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as Palestinian refugees will be "returning" to Israel (where, in any case, more than 90 percent never lived). Yes, Palestinians will find this upsetting as a rejection of their "narrative," but no more so than Israelis when they are told that the lands of their ancestors are occupied territory that rightfully belongs to the Arabs. And it would support the administration's plan, announced in June 2011, to get both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to adopt Obama's principles "as a basis for negotiation."
4. George W. Bush's administration announced in July 2002 that it would veto one-sided anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolutions, a policy known as the Negroponte Doctrine. The Obama administration has never revealed whether the United States remains committed to this doctrine. As a presidential candidate, Obama wrote to Zalmay Khalilzad, then Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, urging him to "ensure that the Security Council issue no statement and pass no resolution" that fails to blame the Arab side for the attacks that provoke Israeli responses. "The Security Council should … make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions," Obama wrote. "If it cannot bring itself to make these common sense points, I urge you to ensure that it does not speak at all." Obama's ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said in July 2010 that the United States would "combat all international attempts to challenge the legitimacy of Israel -- including and especially at the United Nations." In February 2011 she said the United States was vetoing a unilateral statehood resolution because it "could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse." At AIPAC on Sunday, Obama could add deterrent value to these principles by pledging that the United States will veto all one-sided resolutions against Israel at the Security Council.
If Obama decides to work with Netanyahu, instead of confronting him, the president might get some surprising results. Unlike Israeli leaders from the left, prime ministers from Netanyahu's center-right Likud party who are prepared to take bold steps -- like Menachem Begin giving up the Sinai or Ariel Sharon disengaging from Gaza -- might not advertise in advance the concessions they are willing to consider. It is time to recognize that Netanyahu is the Israeli people's clear choice to lead their nation, and the president of the United States does better when it works with him than when it works against him.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as a senior official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is now the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.