Dennis Ross: Obama, Netanyahu Have a “Backdrop of Distrust”
There’s nothing extraordinary about an American president and an Israeli prime minister having a rocky relationship. It’s happened before, says longtime diplomat and author Dennis Ross, and it will happen again.
But, says Ross, when it comes to President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, there is an undeniable “backdrop of distrust.”
“It may be the first time we’ve seen it on an issue that is seen as so fundamental to each of them,” according to Ross.
That issue is Iran. In the below interview, Ross — who was the U.S. point person for the Middle East peace process during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and a special adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration — speaks with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk about the roots of the Obama/Netanyahu rift, why the president views last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran as a potential game changer for the region, and why Netanyahu “sees it as a game changer in the region too, but in a very profoundly different way.”
This is an edited transcript of a two-part interview held on July 8 and July 22, 2015.
When Bibi comes to town and speaks in the Congress, what was he doing? Why was he there?
I think the reason Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to come to the Congress was because he was riveted on an issue that he views in existential terms. He literally views [it] in existential terms, meaning the Iran nuclear question. It’s almost his Churchillian moment, … almost as if the reason he’s prime minister is because of this issue. …
And a mile-and-a-half down Pennsylvania Avenue, at the White House, what are they thinking?
They’re angry. I mean, they were really angry. They have their own narrative about Bibi Netanyahu, and in that narrative, they see him as kind of hostile to the president. They see him as inclined to work with the Republicans. And the reason it’s not just a normal form of anger is because, in an interesting way, just as the prime minister of Israel looks at Iran as this kind of existential issue that helps define why he’s prime minister, President Obama has defined dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue as maybe his signature issue in foreign policy and national security.
And if he can, in his mind, block the paths to a nuclear weapon, which he sees himself potentially doing with this deal, he thinks he’s doing something good for the country, for the world, and he thinks also for Israel. …
And the apparent bitterness in the relationship between the two, how does that play into this?
It creates a backdrop of distrust, meaning that every step that’s taken is presumed to be driven by hostility. Even though each would deny that it’s personal, I think they each feel it personally, and it has made it more difficult.
It’s not unique, by the way, to their relationship … It’s not the first time we’ve seen an American president and an Israeli prime minister have a real problem, I would even say at a personal level, but it may be the first time we’ve seen it on an issue that is seen as so fundamental to each of them.
… Let’s go back to the Clinton administration. What were Clinton’s aspirations vis-à-vis Israel? What did he want to do?
Clinton comes in, and he’s inherited, for the first time … a negotiating process that exists for the first time between Israel and its neighbors. He inherits as well a changed regional landscape, because we have defeated Saddam Hussein. Iran and Iraq are sort of exhausted. … Israel is now talking to all of its neighbors, including Syria. And there’s also a Labor-led government in Israel that believes it’s in its [best] interest strategically to make peace with its immediate neighborhood.
So what Clinton sees is, there is an enormous strategic opportunity to make peace, and he looks at someone like [Yitzhak] Rabin as a kind of embodiment of everything that you ought to aspire to. He is a soldier statesman; he has been a hero. Now he’s prepared to take that personal credibility and put it on the line to try to make peace with Israel’s neighbors. … For Clinton, there is this sense of great possibility and opportunity.
… Were you in the Rose Garden when he forged the handshake between [Yasser] Arafat and Rabin?
Tell me about that.
There is an interesting back story to this.
The Oslo process begins; we’re aware of it. It’s not that we’re unaware of it; we’re aware of it. … So when we get a call from Rabin, [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher and I are both out in California on vacation, … and he says, “Look, there’s been a breakthrough with the PLO.” Two weeks before, when we’ve seen him, he’s dismissive of this. Now he says there’s been a breakthrough and he wants [Johan Jorgen] Holst, who’s the Norwegian foreign minister, and [then-Israeli Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres to come out and brief us on this. And he still, even in his phone conversation, he’s skeptical. He wants to know what our reaction to this is going to be.
Well, our reaction is, this is a historic breakthrough between Israel and the PLO, two national movements competing for the same space, and for the first time they’re prepared to recognize each other.
Now, Peres tells us, at the time, that there should be a meeting at the White House to sign the Declaration of Principles, but it’s too much for the Israeli public to see Arafat there. It’s just too much to take. So it should be Peres and Abu Mazen [the nickname of Mahmoud Abbas, then an adviser to Arafat] who would come. We actually don’t question this, but when we raise it with Clinton, … he simply dismisses what we’ve told him, and he immediately leaves the impression that if Arafat wants to come, he’s welcome. And he’s right, and we’re wrong, because his instinct is, the only way to bind the two leaders to this is to have this colossal event where they’re kind of obligated before the world. This builds their stake, and they can’t really walk away from it. They can’t keep distance from it.
He instinctively gets that. … We’re telling him how uneasy Rabin is, first to even be there and secondly the idea that he’s going to shake hands with this guy who, in Rabin’s mind, Arafat is responsible for all sorts of acts of terror that, for him, are just very hard to swallow. It’s difficult for Rabin to overcome this. Now, Clinton kind of raises this in private with the two of them before they go out.
So they both agree to kind of come, and they’re hanging around the Oval Office?
Well, you come in advance, before we go out.
To the last minute, Rabin is insisting that Arafat can’t come in anything that looks like a uniform. We’re telling Arafat, “You can’t come with a — you don’t bring a weapon.” You know, always had a pistol. “You don’t bring a weapon to the White House.” …
So they come in, and the president talks to both leaders. He is already encouraging them —
Have they ever met before?
How are they with each other?
Rabin is very uneasy. The idea of personally shaking hands with this guy is physically difficult for him. He couldn’t hide his feelings, and that comes through.
So here is Clinton, who sees this guy give this remarkable speech on the one hand, and physically it’s hard for him to actually shake hands with this guy. So the iconic photograph — he literally envelops them with his arms. But he knows he has to create that image … to make peace, and how can you do that if you’re not prepared to shake hands?
… What do you think the meaning of that handshake, that photograph, that moment is, to Bibi Netanyahu, given his past, his history and his future?
I think he still sees it through the lens of opposition. He’s not adjusting to the PLO. He doesn’t accept them as a partner. When he becomes prime minister, he will accept that he’s inherited an agreement that was passed by the duly elected government and parliament of Israel, and therefore he will respect it. … But the handshake, for him, doesn’t mean that he’s going to suddenly view the PLO differently.
… Who is that Bibi Netanyahu?
He’s someone who has grown up with a view that focuses primarily on the threats to Israel, that Israel faces a hostile world [and that] its margin for error is exceedingly small; that the neighborhood has not accepted Israel. Maybe Egypt has done a peace treaty with Israel, but the neighborhood hasn’t accepted it, … so Israel has to keep its guard up. First and foremost, Israel keeps its guard up. And if you let your guard down just a little bit, you’re exposed, and you’re put at risk. … In a sense, the sharks are out to get you.
He and Rabin, of course, there was no love lost between the two of them.
There’s Netanyahu and the speeches he gives and the presence he brings to the opposition to Rabin, even in the days right before the assassination. How deep was the antipathy between the two of them?
I think the antipathy was probably greater from Rabin’s side. I think Rabin looked at Netanyahu as being more politician, more opportunist than strategic in his opposition.
… Netanyahu receives much criticism now and right afterward for not tamping down the fervor of the super right, whatever phrase you want to use for them. What do you think was happening?
I think they saw a government — and by the way, I include [Ariel] Sharon in this, because he was doing much the same. … You begin to have bombings, so they see the vulnerability of that government, and they see it as a way to potentially bring it down, number one. Number two, they know their own base can be easily mobilized, and they seek to do that. And so I think they’re doing this more for political reasons than for anything else.
But it completely gets out of hand. The ugliness of the demonstrations is unmistakable — the kind of incitement that you see, the portrayal of Rabin, dressing Rabin in Nazi uniforms or putting a kaffiyah on him. … I’m frequently out there at the time, and the level of vitriol and the anger, the scope of these demonstrations, there’s a really ugly character to it.
… I used to see Rabin frequently at his apartment in Tel Aviv on Shabbat afternoons, where we could have relaxed, more strategic discussions. So I’m there one Shabbat afternoon, and we’re talking. It’s just the two of us, and there is a demonstration outside. He’s on the top floor of this apartment building; that’s where his apartment is. You hear a demonstration and chants against him outside, and he says to me, “Dennis, don’t worry, it’s not against you; it’s against me.”
I said to him at the time, I said, “Don’t you worry about some of this?” And he goes, “No.” It’s not that he was completely dismissive of it, but he took it as kind of a given. … He knew, in a sense, what was coming and simply accepted it. Again, I think that when Clinton comes in, he looks at Rabin, and he says, “This is a remarkable figure.”
When the remarkable figure is assassinated, where are you?
It’s on a Saturday. I’ve actually taken one of my kids to the doctor, … and I’m driving back, and I get paged. I go: “Well, I’m 10 minutes from the house. I’m not going to pull off and call. I’ll wait until I get back.” So I get back to the house, and then I call, and I learn that Rabin has been shot. He hasn’t yet died. I learn that shortly later.
How did President Clinton hear about it?
I don’t know who informed him of it. The first I see him is when we actually were both over at the embassy to sign the condolence book together, before we get on the plane to fly out there.
How is he?
He’s comforting me. He looks at me, and he sees that I’m kind of crushed. The first thing he does is give me a hug. I mean, this is kind of classic Clinton. But he’s shaken, too. He’s come to have not just a respect for Rabin, but he almost reveres Rabin, so he’s shaken as well. But he also sees he’s got a responsibility now.
Clinton, before the assassination, is committed to a process, but he doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time on it. He believes in it, but there’s a difference between [believing] in it and investing in it. He’s invested in it after the assassination.
Netanyahu becomes the prime minister. … He comes to the White House for that very first visit. Tell us the story.
To understand this, no one thinks he’s going to win the election. … The right has been completely discredited. Now, what brings the right back are four bombs in nine days at the end of February and beginning of March. [If] you’re ever looking for how violence always tends to trump and redefine the politics, this was a classic moment, because without this violence, Peres would have been elected in a mandate. He would have had a large mandate to fulfill the Rabin legacy.
The four bombs in nine days transformed everything and raised questions: “What is your peace process buying? No one can be secure.” Clinton wants to do everything we can to help Peres, and he probably goes overboard in terms of that.
In what sense?
In the sense that the things we did just prior to the advent of the Israeli campaign, we had Peres come over. He embraces him. We provide additional monies. We’re going out of our way to anoint him and so forth. … But he feels so profoundly that here is Peres, who is going to carry on the Rabin legacy and fulfill it, and Bibi, in the election, is running against Oslo. The choice for him seems so clear.
… When Netanyahu wins, what’s the reaction in the Oval Office?
Depression. … Then we have Bibi come for the first meeting. Now Bibi, again, understand, nobody thought Bibi was going to win, … so when he came in for the first meeting, he came in pretty full of himself, and he was pretty much telling the president how to deal with the Arabs; he understood how to deal with the Arabs. So when the meeting is over, Clinton turns, and he says, “Who does he think the superpower is?”
… When [Netanyahu] tries to run for re-election, [Clinton] gets his A-team and his SWAT squad sent over there.
Well, he’s not unmindful of wanting to be working with those who he thinks are going to be more responsive. The fact is, you have a kind of cottage industry of American political consultants who suddenly get farmed around the world. By the way, it’s not just that his A-team goes over there. That A-team is going to other countries, too. Anybody who’s operating in an electoral context is saying, “Well, who are the best people to help me get elected?” So it’s not just that they go to Israel, but they go to work with Tony Blair; they’re going to a lot of different places around the world. …
But on the scale of defeats around the world, this must have been a sweet one.
You mean in 1999?
No doubt, no question. … And you know, [Ehud] Barak is the natural successor to Rabin.
Another historic military [man] and statesman all in one?
Right. That certainly is the way Clinton looks at him, and that’s the way he presents himself. The night of the election, when he’s won, he says, “We’re going to fulfill Rabin’s legacy.”
[There’s] that wonderful piece of video where they must be at Camp David, where Barak is walking with Arafat, and they’re coming up to a door. Who’s going in first? And he says, “No, you go.” “No, you go.” Then he pushes him in the door. I mean, talk about a metaphor.
It was very similar to what we saw, in fact, in practice there. So it doesn’t work out. And it doesn’t work out in the end mostly because I think that Arafat has decided, in advance, in coming, that he will agree to nothing. Barak has his tactics, which run counter to the tactics that we had planned for, and the president doesn’t want to jam him. The reason he doesn’t want to jam him is because he feels Barak is the guy who’s doing all the tangible giving, and it’s really hard for him to do it, so the president wants to create this space for him to be able to bring him along.
Somebody told me that Arafat said — maybe to them; I can’t remember: “I can’t do this. They’ll kill me.” He said, “If I do this” — he asked the question, because at one point, we proposed a couple of different options for how to reach an agreement, and he said, “If I accept this, do you want to walk behind my casket?” That’s what he said.
What does Bibi take from this?
I think he took from it the fact that Barak was prepared to go very far. And the answer to Barak is not only no; it’s violence. So it’s not just what Bibi takes from it; it’s what the Israeli public takes from it: that it doesn’t matter what the concession is, it will never be good enough. If you look at what kills the Israeli left, it’s that Barak offers a great deal, and the response to Barak is the Second Intifada.
… OK, so let’s jump forward. It’s 2008. [Journalist] Marvin Kalb tells us a great story of being at the King David Hotel and going into the coffee shop or the café and seeing Bibi sitting alone in the corner, reading newspapers. Sits with him and says, “How are you doing?,” and Bibi says: “I’m wondering a lot about this Barack Hussein Obama. Who is this guy with the name Hussein, and what are you thinking about it?” And Marvin said he could tell, almost from the beginning, that there was not only among Bibi and his immediate friends, but on the street, a kind of anxiety about Barack Obama.
I have a different experience with Bibi on this. Bibi has a conversation with me, even in 2007, where he tells me, in 2007, he says, “I think that Obama is going to get the nomination, not Hillary.” And he says to me, “I think he’s a really interesting guy.” Initially he’s not suspicious at all. On the contrary.
… That’s so interesting. What do you think? Because some of the story, too, is that they don’t get along from the very beginning.
Not true, from him, not so. Not so. It happens once Bibi is elected. With the first meeting. Bibi feels like he’s blindsided by the posture that the administration takes on the settlement issue, but not going in.
Literally, first he has this conversation with me in 2007, where he says he thinks Obama is going to win, and I asked him at the time: “Why do you think that?” Because nobody else is predicting it at this point.
He said, “You know, he has a capacity to explain things and create a sense of new possibilities.” He said, “Maybe I’m wrong, but I think he’s really the guy; he’s really the person to watch.” …
… So it’s the beginning of the administration. From what we can read, the way that it happens is the president gets an early warning about Iran, that there’s movement on uranium enrichment and other things.
I have an early conversation with the president.
You mean before he’s the president even?
Yeah. I mean when he’s running. Thirteen days before the election, he has a meeting of the senior advisory foreign policy people on enrichment, and I’m one of those who’s invited to it. So he’s going around the table: What does he think the issues are? And I tell him: “You have to move very quickly on Iran. The Israelis see this in existential terms. They see Iran moving closer and closer to putting themselves in a position where they could break out to a nuclear weapon, at least to a fissile material. Unless we can demonstrate very quickly that we have a very serious approach and we have a way to affect Iran’s behavior, the chances of the Israelis acting militarily to pre-empt in your first year is pretty high.” I said: “I think that can be headed off, but it’s only going to be headed off if they see our approach as really serious. And that means we have to show how we can build pressure on Iran in a way that the Israelis will also see is likely to be affected.”
And what did you think the implications would be if they did it?
It’s an excellent question. My feeling was, if they did it, first they would be more successful than people thought, at least in terms of setting back the Iranian program, but secondly, that the Iranians would have to respond in some way. And the question was, could this thing be limited or not? I didn’t take as a given that this couldn’t be limited. I didn’t take as a given that the whole sky falls in if the Israelis do this. Some people did. But I did take as a given that it created all sorts of uncertainties, and if you could resolve this through diplomatic means, it was obviously better.
… Tell me about Netanyahu, the first time he came to [meet] the administration.
I’m in the State Department. I see the president in the context of Iran. Every time we have an Iran discussion, I’m over there for that. And it is interesting: Almost every time I see him, he asks me a question about Israel. The first time I talked to him about Bibi is, I am asked to come and brief him for his meeting with Bibi.
The first one?
The first one. So [Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George] Mitchell is there to brief him on the peace issue, and I’m there to brief him on Iran, and that’s the first time I have a serious discussion with him about Bibi. Prior to that time, he’ll ask me literally every time I’m over there, even though the subject is Iran-oriented, every time he’ll ask me a question about Israel, every time I’m there.
Well, for example, we got into a discussion about under what circumstances would the Israelis launch an attack. And I said — this is kind of following the earlier discussion, but he asked me, “What do you think the odds are that Israel will strike now?” And I said: “Well, you know, they’re sending people over here. I’m having conversations with them already. In my conversations, I’m showing them that we’re pretty serious about doing something.”
Doing something meaning negotiating?
Yeah, but not just negotiating, but building pressure on them so that they have to change their behavior. … But, I said, there’s not an enormous amount of patience. And the president asked me a question. First, he asked me the question, “Well, aren’t the Israelis concerned about, if they hit them, they’ll be hit by Iranian rockets?” And I say, “No, because they’re hit by dramatically more by Hezbollah.” The number of rockets that Iran can hit them with is dramatically less than the number that Hezbollah can hit them with, and did hit them with, in the year 2006.
And then he asked me a question at one point. Then he said, “Do the Israelis ever think strategically?” Interesting question. And I said, “Well, look, like most leaders, they look at what are the near-term problems. And if you look, the military is always planning strategically. But frequently, Israeli leaders,” I said, “they’re not unique in this respect, are looking at what is the near-term problem, what is the near-term threat.”
So he would ask these kinds of questions: Do they think about what happens if they hit them? Aren’t they concerned about what they’ll be hit by with Iran? And I said, “Really more what comes out of Lebanon.” …
… And Mitchell is going over to talk about the peace process in a different way.
There’s these two tracks that eventually, in that very first meeting with Netanyahu, are going to cause the conflagration.
One of them run by Mitchell is separate from you, and one of them, you’re carrying the bad news about the potential of rockets’ red glare.
Right. So for the first meeting with Bibi, the briefing for the president, Mitchell is there to talk about the peace issue, and I’m there to talk about Iran and how we should approach Iran and what he needs to do with Bibi to prove our seriousness, so that, in fact, Bibi will give us a time to basically do the diplomacy, to see if we can find a diplomatic way to make it work. I’m basically going through what Bibi is going to ask you, what’s the best way to deal with him, so you buy this time. That’s the thrust of what I’m saying to him.
Mitchell’s thrust is different. Mitchell’s thrust is, you need to get him to buy in on a settlement freeze.
… You hear Mitchell say this. So what do you do, bite your tongue?
No, but this tells you a lot about Obama. So I don’t know if I made some kind of facial reaction. Maybe I did. But Obama says, as soon as Mitchell says that, he says, “Dennis, what do you think?” I haven’t been involved in any of the peace-related discussions at this point, but I said: “You are asking Bibi to do what none of his predecessors have done. You’re asking a Likud prime minister to do what none of the Labor prime ministers have done. What’s his explanation supposed to be? On what basis is he going to do something that Rabin didn’t do, that Peres didn’t do, and that Barak didn’t do?”
So the president turns back to Mitchell and says, “George, what’s the answer to that?” And he says, “Well, we’re trying to reopen the liaison offices that Israel had with a number of Arab countries, Morocco and Qatar and so forth. And we’re trying to get over-flight rights for El Al over Saudi Arabia.” So the president turns back to me and says, “What do you think of that?” And I said, “You’re asking Bibi to do what none of his predecessors have done.” And I said: “You know, [Menachem] Begin did it for a 90-day period that nobody in Israel views as being a precedent, when there were 5,000 total settlers. It was after Camp David and before the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Nobody views that as a precedent. So if he’s supposed to do something that no one has done or is going to be seen as no one has done, he has to have great drama. He has to have something that seems so significant that it can justify him doing something that is out of character and goes beyond what his predecessors did. The liaison offices are what we had in the 1990s. We opened it up as part of the peace process. And the over-flight over Saudi Arabia, nobody can see.”
So he turns back to Mitchell and says, “You know, I think you’ve got your work cut out for you.” Now, to be fair to Mitchell, Mitchell said, correctly, “Well, look, if you can satisfy him on Iran, then you can ask for him to do things on this issue.” So the president turned back to me and says, “All right, what does it mean to satisfy him on Iran?” I said: “To really satisfy him on Iran, what you have to say to him is: ‘I’m going to take care of this. I’m going to try to do it diplomatically. But if it doesn’t work diplomatically, I’m telling you now, we’ll act militarily to take care of this.’” I said: “That’s what it takes to satisfy him. And then you can take that, and you can use it to say: ‘If I do something like that, I need to create a climate in the region that makes it more acceptable that we don’t have a terrible fallout if we end up having to use force. And removing the Palestinian issue is one way to transform the climate in the region. So I need you to take unprecedented steps.’”
But that was a bridge too far.
For the president?
He wasn’t about to commit to using military force if diplomacy failed.
In the very first meeting, in the very first, second, third month of his presidency.
Right. It’s three months into his presidency. That was the character of that first meeting.
But that’s the first conversation I have with him on Netanyahu.
… So you guys go out and get in the car, you and George and the others. What did you think was going to happen when Bibi Netanyahu walked into that office?
… We didn’t go back to the State Department together. I actually was going back with [then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs] Bill Burns, I think, who may have been there at the same time. But I just said to him: “You know, I’m not real hopeful this is going to be a great meeting. If the accent is put on a settlement freeze, you’re asking me, as I said, I just don’t see how you get there. I would put the accent differently. …
But that night, when Bibi comes, he has a meeting with the president. And then he comes over and has a dinner meeting in the State Department with the secretary [Hillary Clinton], of which I was a part, because we discussed everything. She takes him aside at one point and explains why the settlement issue is really important to the president, and he’s pretty much saying, “Look, I can’t go that far.” I think he feels after that first meeting that he’s being put in the corner.
He then begins to react to it. He still gives a speech. He gives his Bar-Ilan speech, which is his way of trying to do something. Now, I had been talking to some of the people around it, and I had told them, before the first meeting: “Look, I don’t do that. I’m not doing the peace issue. I do only the Iran issue. But it seems to me you ought to find a way, in your first meeting, to tell the president that you’re accepting — because you’ve never done it — you’re accepting a two-state outcome. Maybe if you’re doing that, then that may go a long way toward satisfying the president.”
I still think it might have tempered what the president was then pushing for with him and what was said after the meeting, if Bibi had come with something. But he didn’t come with anything. And that also is sort of his style. He has a tendency to not want to look like he’s making pre-emptive concessions, or he made them under pressure. And here is your first meeting with the new president. He would have been much more likely to get off on the right foot had he offered something.
And he could have explained: “This is a hard thing for me to do, with my party. This is something that’s not really been accepted, but I’m taking this step.” And that might have had an effect on Obama. I think they sort of get off on the wrong foot, because in his first meeting, Obama is riveted on the settlement freeze.
… And it fit with Obama’s mind-set about this, because early on, he was inclined to show some distance. … He is focused more, in the early part, in the first year, on outreach to the Arabs, because he’s trying to also transform the image of the United States and the Arab states, and with Muslims more generally, because he’s trying to counteract the image of Bush being at war with Islam. Whether it’s fair or not that Bush was, that’s the perception. He wants to counteract that perception.
So he sees creating some distance from Israel being a good thing. Now there’s a tension here with, on the one hand, you’re trying to persuade the Israelis on Iran, so creating some distance is not necessarily the smartest thing to do.
Did you tell him that?
Yes. And I think he has a sense that he can square the circle. And the reason he has a sense is because he says, “I’m going to be very strong in Israel’s security needs,” not as a tactic, because he believes it, but also because he sees it as a benefit.
As I look at the timeline and the series of events, the thing I could not understand is, how could Barack Obama go to Cairo, give the speech, and that nobody around him would say, “You know what you ought to do is just stop by Israel and say hi”? It seems like such a rookie mistake, unless there’s a reason to do it.
During the transition, [then-National Security Adviser] Tom Donilon asked me to write a memo on where the speech should be given. So I write a memo. I make the case for Cairo, because there was a discussion about him in doing it in Indonesia, and I think Cairo was the place to do it. I make the case for it. But then I say, “But if he does it, he has to go to Israel, too, because if he doesn’t go to Israel, the Israeli public will see this as an outreach to Muslims coming at Israel’s expense.” And the content, by the way, of the speech, added to that, because while he takes on Holocaust denial in a very important way, he leaves the impression that the only reason Israel exists is because of the Holocaust. … In a sense, what [that] means is, at the very moment he’s appealing to the narrative of Muslims and Arabs, he is dismissing the narrative of the Israelis.
And the reason it doesn’t happen — I asked Donilon later — and he says [Deputy National Security Advisers] Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough strongly argued against going to Israel because it would look like business as usual, and if he was going to show it was different this time, he had to act in a way that was different this time. He had to break the mold. That was the reason.
Did he —
But he paid a terrible [price]. It is something that sowed the seeds of his problems with the Israelis, meaning the Israeli public, from that point on. …
… The idea of how much daylight to create between the United States and Israel when you walk into the early days of the administration — take me there, and explain the camps.
I think early in the administration there is really only one camp. There’s a presumption that distancing from Israel is, in fact, a good thing. … I think the president comes in, and there is really nobody around him at that point who is challenging this notion that given what’s going on, given the legacy of the Bush administration with Muslim-majority countries, given the perception, fairly or not, that we’re at war with Islam, the president feels this is an image that he has to correct, and there are different ways of doing it. One is reaching out, but another way is distancing from Israel. And I think that is very much part of the approach in the early going. …
… There’s this first moment where Netanyahu has won, is coming to the White House, coming with a certain expectation that certain conversations are going to happen, perhaps about Iran and about security promises and the early idea of a red line or whatever. He’s coming with that but probably doesn’t know that Rahm [Emanuel] and others on the one-camp idea are saying to the president, who agrees with this, obviously, “I think we are going to try to create a little daylight.” And the president has obviously, given what he says about settlements, the president obviously believes that I’ve got to let this guy know I’m in charge of the relationship. This is not going to be a Clinton filibuster from Netanyahu as it was in that first meeting.
No, I do think that’s right. I think there’s a sense that you can set the table different with Netanyahu and he’ll realize he’s in a different circumstance and he is going to have to adjust his behavior. Now, to some extent, to be fair, he does, because three weeks after he sees the president, he gives the Bar-Ilan speech.
As I’ve said, I feel had Netanyahu come and said to the president, “You know, I can’t do this on settlements, but I’m prepared to come out on a Palestinian state.” Had he done that, that might well have tempered the president’s view toward him from the beginning. He might well have said: “OK, look, I see he’s prepared to cross the threshold. He’s prepared to do something that’s not easy for him given his own political base.” I think that might have changed his view of Netanyahu.
But it didn’t go that way. What did you hear happened in that meeting?
What I heard happened in the meeting was that the president pushes very hard on the settlement issue. Bibi feels the president is asking him to do something he could never do. I mean, not only is it inconsistent with his base, but it’s like, what does he get? It’s all give on his part. … I think Netanyahu comes and is surprised by that and feels that in a sense he’s kind of walked into a trap, and his instinct is to push back when he feels himself being put in a corner. Nonetheless, he realizes, all right, I’ve got to do something, which is why when he goes back to Israel, he lays the basis for him giving the Bar-Ilan speech.
Was that sort of naïve of the president and those guys?
I think in a lot of ways the president and the people around him were caught up with Obama being a transformative figure, and the mere fact that he was a transformative figure means if he asks, others will realize that he’s breaking the mold and therefore they have to respond. I think there was a lot of that. Whether “hubris” is the right term or not, they were caught up in the moment that he represented such a transformation, such a change, and that in itself had a kind of power, and it created a kind of leverage, and I think it created a set of expectations about what they could produce as a result.
When Netanyahu leaves, he’s PO’d.
OK. The Arab Spring: The president goes over to the State Department and delivers a speech. Obviously you’re part of all of that?
Take me there. Tell me what was going on. …
It’s a very demanding time, because you have change seemingly unfolding from the ground up very quickly. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire [in Tunisia], and within a very short period of time, he sets the whole Middle East on fire. From the first demonstrations in Cairo until [Hosni] Mubarak is gone, you’re talking about roughly three weeks. The guy’s been in power since 1981, and suddenly, within three weeks, that’s it; he’s out. …
One of the things where the president tried to separate himself when he became president was from Bush, the freedom agenda was off the table. When he gives a speech in Cairo, he gets to his fourth point, which is democracy, and he stumbles a little bit in his speech, because he says democracy, and it draws applause, and he’s trying to draw a distinction from Bush where “We’re not going to impose on you. We’re not going to preach to you. Understand, everyone has to find their own path. We think the principles of democracy are best, but we understand they can’t be imposed, and everybody has to find their own path.”
And so until the Arab Awakening, as I put it, the Obama administration is not a big democracy promoter. Suddenly it looks like the forces of history are in the squares, not in the presidential palaces. And now the president wants to be on the right side of history. …
So here’s where there is a kind of internal tension within the administration between those who feel, you know, “Let’s get on the right side of history; let’s not look like we’re trying to stop the forces of history,” versus those who are fearful either about looking like we’re walking away from friends, or, I think the deeper concern being, what replaces this? What are the means to replace this? How do we know we are not just creating a vacuum, and who is going to fill that vacuum?
… So what leads him to go over to the State Department and give that speech?
The speech doesn’t come until May 19, … so a lot of the ideas that we developed over the preceding months prior to Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire, we also then incorporated into the speech. So it was really 10 months of thinking that had gone into that speech.
But that speech, the May 19 speech, isn’t remembered for the Arab Awakening part of it. It’s remembered because of the partial parameters. If we were going to do a speech on peace process parameters or permanent status parameters, I wanted that to be standalone. I wanted the Arab Awakening to be a standalone.
So how does it happen that that gets folded in?
You have to recognize the time. It’s 2011. Bill Daley is the chief of staff. Given the politics and given that his numbers are not looking great at this point, he wants the president to be doing only domestic issues. Every day that’s spent on foreign policy issues he sees as costing politically, so he vetoes the idea of two speeches. He says, “We don’t have time for that.” He sees it as a political liability. He’s looking at it through a lens. Look, that was his job. But he basically says: “We’re not doing two speeches. We will do one speech.”
I think had the domestic political circumstances been different at the time, we would have done two speeches, and I think the impact on each would have been different than it was.
You couldn’t stop the ’67 reference in the speech.
I wasn’t trying to stop the ’67 reference.
You would have kept it, but separately.
Yes, I wanted that to be a standalone. …
… He articulates the phrase “’67” and says the numbers ’67 some way inside there.
He says, “’67 mutually agreed swaps.”
… So Netanyahu basically flies in, and things don’t go well, or do they? Take me inside that.
… When we begin talking about doing a speech, I suggest that we should share the speech with the Israelis, the draft in advance, because I feel like we can at least get their buy-in. We don’t surprise them. In effect, basically, even if they don’t like it, it will temper the nature of their reaction, and they will be prepared to work with us on it. But I present this. When I present it, it is in one of these meetings in the Sit Room.
The president is there, but Denis McDonough and [National Security Advisor] Susan Rice immediately jump down my throat and say: “We can’t let the Israelis tell us what we are going to say. We can’t give them a veto over what we are going to say. This is our policy.” And that immediately sort of pre-empts the discussion. …
To be fair, this kind of constituency has existed in every administration from Truman to today. It is one of the striking things. There is a constituency that has felt that Israel is either a liability to us or they do things that are designed to complicate our position in the region, so for them there is a kind of competitive impulse. They see Israel through that prism. …
My notion is, again, look, if we bring them in, OK, there is some risk. But if we bring them in, we can manage it. If we don’t bring them in, you are going to see [how] they are going to react. And that is exactly what happened. …
That gets me to what happened in the meeting itself. Before the meeting starts, the president asks me why did Bibi react so negatively to the speech. And I said, “Because he was surprised by it and he felt he was being put in a corner and you were trying to jam him in front of his own constituency before he came here.” And I said, “Had we at least discussed this with him in advance, it would have been different.” When the president asked Bibi the question directly, “Why did you react this way?,” Bibi said, “Because you didn’t coordinate with us.”
The meeting actually goes pretty well. It’s a one-on-one meeting. The president comes out, and he walks over to me when the meeting is over, and he says, “You were right; we should have coordinated with them.” … I feel that had they met the press at that moment or had they met the press before the meeting, you wouldn’t have had this Bibi lecture to the president … within the Oval Office with the press, where it looks like after the president has been gracious in describing their meeting, he looks like he’s lecturing the president. Daley is standing next to me.
Bill Daley is standing next to me, and he is going, “Outrageous, outrageous.” It is like he is almost levitating. The president walks Bibi out, and he comes back. At that point I don’t know that he’s happy, but he is not in a bad mood. But immediately everyone pounces on him and says: “Look what he did to you. He lectured you here in your office. It is just outrageous.”
… After the 2011 lecture, whatever you want to call it, it does feel a little bit like, given the political environment in America, presidential re-election run, the president sort of puts the peace process to the side, maybe forever.
At least for the rest of the term.
If you step back to 30,000 feet and you look at the events, 2012 is a very tough year. We are now heading mostly into the Iran worries, having put peace slightly at the side. Everybody we’ve talked to so far has said there was real tension around the White House and around this issue about would Israel actually go? What did they want? What were they demanding? Talk about the tension that was building.
What was emerging at the time was [Ehud] Barak had this position that the Iranians were approaching what he called the “zone of immunity.” What he meant by the “zone of immunity” was, they’re reaching the point in their nuclear program where the depth and character and redundancy of their nuclear infrastructure is going to be so great that even if we were to act militarily, it would have an immeasurable, a marginal effect. That’s what he meant by “immunity.” Even if we hit them militarily, it doesn’t stop their program. So he was arguing, if we don’t do it soon, we’ve lost the ability militarily to set their program back. So in the spring of 2012 it looks increasingly like Israel feels the need to have to move. …
Now, within the administration, back in 2010, we had an internal debate about what the objective should be, and this is where the president adopts language that “We’re determined to prevent.” We had the debate over whether it was going to be prevention or containment, meaning they get the weapon and we contain it after the fact versus we prevent them from having a weapon. He adopts the position after an internal debate on “determined to prevent.” …
But he never draws a distinction between prevention and containment until the spring of 2012. And I make the case that the reason he does this is because this is designed to tell Bibi, “Look, you don’t have to act militarily, because we will not permit them to have a nuclear weapon.” …
Despite the assurances of the president, it feels like Bibi is taking the occasion of a presidential election year in the United States to, if nothing else, create a bluff or a position that looks like they’re moving. They’re saying things like, six months to a year. We can’t wait; we want a red line from the president. And he’s taking the real step of supporting [presidential candidate Mitt] Romney in public —
Seemingly supporting him in public. Not really supporting him?
When I would ask them and I would be over there, they would say no; he would say no.
That he wasn’t supporting Romney. He was not. Look, there is no doubt there was a perception here that that was the case, [but] … in the spring of 2013, in March 2013, when the president goes to Israel, the feeling is a very different one.
Well, yeah. The president has won.
The president has won, and that is right.
So the feel is a very different one, and he’s adjusting. But I do think 2012 is significant, because I do think that the White House and the president comes to believe that Bibi is using an election year to try to leverage him on the Iran issue. And if you’re not going to let us go militarily, then you have to go.
And trying to put the president in the corner. It’s interesting, because I’m out of the administration by this point because I leave at the end of 2012. But in conversations I have in Israel I will say: “Look, why don’t you use the fact that you’re deferring acting militarily as a position where you are giving the president something, even though you feel it risks your security? But you’re not going to act because it is so important to him that you not act that at least give him a sense that he owes you something.”
But of course that is not Netanyahu’s style at all.
That’s not his style. They don’t do it. He doesn’t do it. …
It seems like ’12 is when the daylight really finally, the dawn cracks, whatever the metaphor wants to be.
I think it is made worse. But after the election and Obama has won, then that’s a reason to scale back again. I think what changes it is what is the different position in the negotiations toward Iran on the nuclear issue. That becomes the real point where you see a divide that becomes harder and harder between the two of them, not institutionally, but between the two of them to bridge. And then it becomes more personal, because Bibi sees the position as — and I see him, you know, it’s the night of Nov. 8, 2013 —
A telephone call. Tell me that story the way you tell it in the book.
I was in Jerusalem because I had been engaging in some informal discussions on the peace issue, so I was meeting there on those discussions … Bibi asked me to come and see him on Friday evening at his prime minister’s residence. It is Shabbat evening, and I get there, and I have to wait close to an hour because he is on the phone with the president. This is the day that the Joint Plan of Action, which was the interim deal, looks to be concluded. …
So when you walk in the room, what is it? Has he just hung the phone up?
What does he feel like?
As many times as I have dealt with him, I had never seen him this way. He wasn’t angry. The only way I can put it is that he was feeling alarmed, not angry but alarmed. And the first thing he says to me is: “The president has decided he has no choice but to do a deal with the Iranians. Force is off the table.” And I said, “He didn’t say that to you.” He said, “He did.” I said, “No, he didn’t say that to you.” He said, “He did.” I said, “Maybe he said to you, we have to demonstrate that we’ve done everything we could to resolve this through diplomatic means, because given my public — the option of rushing to war is not an option, but demonstrating that we didn’t just check a box, but we did everything we could to resolve this through peaceful means. And if it doesn’t work out, so be it.” Maybe he said something like that. But there is no way he said to you, “I’m taking the military option off the table.”
And what was interesting was that Bibi was convinced of what he had heard. He wasn’t convinced he said those exact words, but he interpreted what he heard as if the president — you know: “There is too much war-weariness in the States. I don’t have the option of using force. This is the only option I have.” He didn’t say that. I know he didn’t say it. And that’s what I was saying to Bibi. But that’s what Bibi heard. And when I left the meeting — I mean, we went through a discussion on this. Obviously, I wasn’t part of the phone call, but I was certain that the president had not said this.
I actually contacted [Secretary of State John] Kerry, who was then in Geneva, and said: “Look, you have a problem here. It has to be fixed.” Kerry called me, and he said, “That’s not our position.” I said, “I know it is not the position.” He said, “I’ll call them.” I said: “No, it shouldn’t be you. The problem isn’t you. The problem is what Bibi thinks where the president is. This needs to be fixed by the White House.” And it wasn’t.
You mean he didn’t get a call.
He didn’t get a call.
… We talked about advocates at the very beginning of the administration saying, “We’ve got to put some distance; we’ve got to try a new approach; we’ve got to be transformative.” As you look back on it all, what has happened? How has it worked? What is different about our relationship with Israel now than when we started out?
The biggest problem that this administration has with Israel is that it lost the Israeli public. There are a lot of things that I think President Obama could have done on the Iran issue with Israel, on the peace issue with Israel had he not lost the Israeli public. But he lost the Israeli public. And that was the single, biggest problem. Had he not done that, had he been able to lay out certain positions, the Israeli public would have automatically looked and said: “He gets our predicament. He understands the region. When he asks us to do something, it’s because actually it is in our best interests.”
That doesn’t exist today. And for most of the administration it has not existed. That has an effect on what we can get, what we can do with the Israelis. If there is one thing that I would have from the beginning counseled differently, I would have said, “Focus on the Israeli public.” …
[Netanyahu] once asked me, “Does the president think he knows my public better than I do?” It was rhetorical question. But I think he looked at some of the things we were doing and he thought, maybe he does. For someone as smart as President Obama, this was one area where we got off on the wrong foot, and we didn’t act soon enough to correct it.
Is it a permanent problem?
For this president, you’re not going to be able to change it. He can make an effort, but it is not going to work. I think it is not a permanent problem because the nature of the relationship is fundamental. And look at the region. This region is going to go through what is a kind of continuing level of upheaval and turmoil and upheaval and struggle over basic identity, even of what these states are. And who is going to define it? The only state that isn’t going to go through that upheaval is Israel. The one certainty you have is that whatever Israel’s problems are, they will manage them. You can’t say that about any other state in the region right now.
That uncertainty, that turmoil, that instability is going to be a reminder of what we have in common with Israel, not to mention that those who threaten us also threaten Israel. So the next president, whoever it is, I think one of the first things that president will do will be to focus on how to repair and mend the relationship and some of the differences.