Less than a year into new administrations in Washington and Jerusalem, diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel are bleak, but not that bleak, Middle East experts in an academic conference here agreed this week.
The participants in “U.S.-Israel Relations: In the Era of Obama and Netanyahu,” held at the Schottenstein Cultural Center in Manhattan, said the continuing pressure on Israel by the Obama administration to halt the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories is not likely to improve the relations.
“The peace process has been derailed by an overemphasis on the settlements,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt. Kurtzer, who now holds the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University, served as a member of President Obama’s transition team earlier this year.
But, he added, “it’s too early” in both administrations to predict what shape the U.S.-Israeli relationship will take.
Kurtzer said the president’s initial high-profile involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, symbolized by Obama’s appearance during his first week in office at a State Department ceremony naming former Senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy, has been eclipsed by a concentration on such matters as the American economy and changes in the national health care system. “The president’s priorities,” he said, are now “directed on domestic reform.”
Obama was sworn in as president in January two months before Benjamin Netanyahu began his second tenure as Israel’s prime minister.
Kurtzer appeared on a panel discussion that also featured Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York, and Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal. The all-day event was sponsored by Yeshiva University and Bar-Ilan University, in advance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to the U.S. next week.
Shariv likened ties between Israel and the U.S. to a normal marriage. “I have a lot of arguments with my wife,” he said, but we still get along.
“It’s true” that the two allies “have arguments,” Shariv said, “but the relations are very close.”
Earlier speakers in the conference focused on other aspects of the Middle East political and military situation, especially Iran and Iraq.
The differing Israeli and American perspectives on the growing threat posed by Iran’s development of its nuclear capabilities are a major example of “a yawning gap in perceptions,” Stephens said. While a belligerent Iran is among several diplomatic issues to be handled by the Obama administration in the Middle East, it is, in the eyes of many Israelis, the most immediate, existential threat, said Stephens, who served as editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post in 2002-04.
Kurtzer said problems between the U.S. and between Israel often stem from “a communications gap,” representatives of the nations either misunderstanding each other’s words – most negotiations are conducted in English, a second language to most Israelis – or making errors in understanding based on their respective cultural backgrounds. “It’s not unique to the Israeli-U.S. relationship,” he said. “There are no magical answers to any of these issues.”
He gave as an example the story of an Israeli official who returned from a meeting with U.S. representatives and declared, “We have an understanding” on a particular issue.
“No you don’t,” said Kurzter, who knew the U.S. position. Kurtzer asked the Israeli to explain what he had said.
The U.S. representative had said “Now we understand your views,” the Israeli explained; he thought that meant the U.S. and Israel had reached an “understanding.”
Another problem that complicates bi-lateral relations is a multiplicity of voices speaking for each government, Kurtzer said. In recent years, he said, both the U.S. and Israel have named special envoys to take part in the peace process.
The envoys don’t always espouse the same positions, he said.
The U.S. sent three envoys to Israel in the weeks before President Bush was to deliver an important Rose Garden speech about the Middle East in 2002, Kurtzer said. Each brought a different message about the president’s intentions.
Kurtzer met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after the last envoy had left. “I don’t know what our policy is,” he told Sharon, “but neither do you.”