On the eve of President Obama’s first trip to Israel, the former U.S. ambassador to that country assesses the stakes.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk
Tavis: When President Obama touches down in Israel on Wednesday, he’ll bring with him a full agenda. First off, there is the expectation that meaningful peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians can, in fact, be restarted.
With the new secretary of State, John Kerry, along on this trip, some of the administration are hoping that a new spirit of collaboration can be established. There’s also a new coalition government in Israel, one that remains fractured when it comes to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
It is no secret that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama have not always seen eye-to-eye on the best road to peace, and that’s just the beginning for President Obama on this historic trip. He’ll also have to deal with nuclear threats from Iran and provide a roadmap for just how far the United States will go in defense of Israel.
We will get to some insights to all of these challenges for President Obama with the former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who joins us from Washington tonight, where he is the vice president and director for foreign policy at The Brookings Institution. Ambassador Indyk, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Martin Indyk: Thanks, Tavis. It’s very good to be with you.
Tavis: I guess the start is whether or not I have just overstated the case. There are some who believe, as I intimated a moment ago, that the president’s very presence in Israel – that is to say, our president, Barack Obama – this very trip signals to some that there might be some renewed vigor, some renewed possibility for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet there are many more others, perhaps, I would say as I read, who think that that is really a false hope; that the expectations on this need to be tamped down. Where does Ambassador Indyk stand?
Indyk: Well, certainly the White House has been trying to tamp down those expectations, including the president himself. He’s going early in his second term, just a couple of days after the Israeli government has been sworn in after their elections.
So it’s very hard to see what exactly could be done on this trip to actually achieve some kind of resumption of the negotiations. If he were going to try to do that, he would have gone later, he would have had the secretary of State go out, try to set things up in that way, and then come in and try to convene the negotiations.
He’s chosen not to do that, and I think the reason for that is that he doesn’t have himself high expectations that even resumption of negotiations is achievable at the moment. So I think his purpose is something else which could help further on down the road, and that purpose is to reintroduce himself to the Israeli public in particular.
They have gotten the impression that he doesn’t like them, that he wants to distance the United States from Israel. His standing in Israeli public opinion is at 10 points, believe it or not – a poll that was taken last Friday.
I think that that’s a bum rap that he has. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s been very supportive in so many ways of their security. But what they seem to care about is whether he loves them or not. They were showered with 16 years of affection by Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, and they got used to that.
He now has an opportunity to go there, to explain to them that he’s got their back, that he’s been with them in times of difficulties, whether it’s at the U.N. or rockets from Gaza or the Iranian nuclear program, and that he’s going to be with them in the future.
I think he’ll use his oratorical magic, and I think he’ll have a powerful impact. That will be very helpful for an effort to restart the peace process after he leaves.
Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things now, Mr. Ambassador, I want to go back and pick apart. Let me start with this – this notion that the president does have a very low standing, a very low approval rating, amongst the Israeli public.
What has been the cause of that, and has his – I’m trying to find the right word here – fractured or certainly less than lovey-dovey relationship with Bibi Netanyahu had anything to do with that standing.
Indyk: (Laughs) Well, it’s interesting you use the word “lovey-doveys,” because the president, as we know, is not a lovey-dovey kind of guy.
Indyk: That’s part of the problem. The Israelis love to be loved. The rest is, “What have you done for me lately,” but they’re basically fundamentally insecure, and he doesn’t show a great deal of affection.
But look at it this way. Imagine there’s two bookends here – the June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he was attempting to reset relations with the Arab and Muslim world, and he did a very good job in that speech.
But at the same time, and I think unintentionally, he left the impression in Israel that it was going to come at their expense. The fact that he didn’t go from Cairo to Israel, and the fact that he didn’t visit at all, even though peacemaking was one of his top priorities, and didn’t have his own ambassador out there for two and a half years, and gave one television interview in something like three and a half years, gave them the distinct impression, this is people on the left to the right, that he didn’t care about them, which was untrue, but that’s the impression that he left.
So the second bookend is the speech that he will make Thursday evening Israel time to a large group of young Israelis, in which I think he will have the opportunity, as I said, to reintroduce himself, to explain what he’s about, to explain that he cares deeply about Israel security, and he’s going to take care of the threat from Iran.
But he also wants to work with them to take care of that other threat that they face, which is the demographic threat that comes from a failure to resolve the Palestinian problem.
Now you asked about Netanyahu. Look, they’ve had a very problematic relationship, and I think both of them want to find a way to show that they can get on. So I think this visit will be one in which you see many smiles and backslapping from the president and Netanyahu, even though I think that they don’t like each other much.
They both have good political reasons for trying to get on, and that can help them on the substantive policy issues as we go forward.
Tavis: When you suggested that he will have an opportunity Thursday evening, President Obama, to reintroduce himself to a group of young Israelis, I noticed the emphasis you put on the word “young.” I think I know what you meant by that, given the audience that he’ll be speaking to, but how important, how vital is that speech to that audience?
Indyk: Well, look. The president is a rock star. He’s an historic figure – the first African American to be elected president, and the second African American to be elected president of the United States.
Part of the reason that they feel shunned by him is because he’s such a rock star. It wouldn’t matter so much if he wasn’t so popular around the world. So I think young people will respond to him, young Israelis will respond to him very well.
I think this will be, especially because he’s so good at communicating, I think this will be a very positive speech, and the consequence of that, if he gets a bounce in Israeli public opinion, as I would expect, that Bibi Netanyahu is going to have to pay more attention to the things he asks him to do.
You see, the Israeli public historically has punished Israeli prime ministers who mishandle their relationships with popular American presidents. Bibi Netanyahu lost his election bid back in 1999, when he was running against Ehud Barak, because the Israeli public saw that he had mishandled his relationship with President Clinton.
Netanyahu faces that problem now, which is part of the reason why he’s going to be so warm and effusive in receiving Obama. But if he sees that the Israeli public now approve of Obama, then going forward, he’s going to be very careful in terms of how he handles the things that Obama will inevitably ask him to do to try to move the peace process forward.
Tavis: When the president arrives on Wednesday and gives this speech on Thursday, what are your expectations of what he will say? We know now that this is an opportunity for him, and he knows, obviously, it’s an opportunity for him, to use your phrase, to reintroduce himself to the Israeli public.
But given that there are no hopes at the moment, at least, for renewing the peace process, which I will come back to, I promise, in just a moment, what is it that we do expect the president to say on Thursday night? What will his talking points be, if not the peace process?
Indyk: Well, I think that the first thing that he’s likely to do is to try to change the narrative that he himself used in his Cairo speech back in 2009. There, he linked Israel’s existence to the Holocaust and the need to have a Jewish homeland because of the efforts by the Nazis to extinguish the Jewish race.
That narrative, reinforced by the fact that he went from Cairo to Auschwitz – I don’t know whether you remember that – was a problem from the Israeli point of view. Israelis like to believe that their existence is justified not only by the Holocaust but especially by the fact that the land that they are in is the land of their forefathers, the land that God gave to the Jews.
That narrative is something that Obama missed completely in his Cairo speech. So on this trip you will notice that he’s going to go to lay a wreath not just on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the great warrior for peace, but also on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement.
He is going to identify with the founder of the Zionist movement. I have to tell you, frankly, that I organized four presidential visits by Bill Clinton to Israel. We never thought it was important for him to put a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, but this is what Obama’s going to do.
It’s part of that effort which you’ll hear in the speech, I think, to connect his understanding of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland to its ancient roots in biblical Israel.
Secondly, I would expect that he will identify with Israel’s struggle for survival and its sense of insecurity in a region of turmoil around it, and make it clear that he has their back. That he will be in the trenches with them, and that he will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But beyond that, I think that he needs to – I don’t know whether he will do this, but I think he needs, particularly because he’s speaking to a young audience, to talk about their aspirations for the future and identify with those, and talk about how that future needs to be a future of peace with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, and paint a picture for them of a peaceful future that he wants to achieve by working with them, not working against them.
So that’s the basic arc of the speech that I imagine he will give. We’ll have to see whether my prediction’s right.
Tavis: So since you raised the issue of Iran, let me just ask you forthrightly whether or not Bibi, Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister, has lost that battle to box the president in, or let me put it another way, to force President Obama to box Iran in with a particular date and with a particular set of repercussions.
We know he was pressing this issue rather hard a year ago at the U.N. and has made a number of trips to our country and hit the media rounds pretty heavy here in the States to put pressure on the president. He spoke to Congress and raised this issue, as you will recall.
Has Prime Minister Netanyahu lost that fight? Is that a fight that’s on hold, has it been tabled for the moment? What’s your sense of where that tug-o-war is between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on the issue of boxing Iran in, so to speak?
Indyk: I think he has lost that fight, at least for the time being. The president, in an interview that he gave to Israel television a few days ago, said that he thinks it’s probably a year before Iran can acquire a nuclear weapon, and so there’s still time for negotiations.
You may recall that in his U.N. general assembly speech, when he held up that diagram of the bomb and the red line drawn across the top of it, that Netanyahu talked about the summer of this year being the critical moment.
Now what’s happened since then is that the Iranians seem to have recognized Netanyahu’s red line, and as they acquire, through the centrifuge cascade process, enriching the uranium to 20 percent, as they get close to one bomb’s worth, which was Bibi’s red line, they’ve been moving some of that enriched material off into fuel rods, which make it much harder for them to use for a nuclear weapon.
So they’re staying beneath Bibi’s red line, for the time being, and as long as they do that, I think that the argument will go away. As soon as they cross that red line, Netanyahu I think will come back quite forcefully. But it’s interesting to note that while the president said it’s a year off, we didn’t hear a word from Netanyahu contradicting that.
I don’t think we’re going to hear it on this trip, so maybe that is, becomes the new timetable. Of course there’s another player here, which is the Iranians, and it also depends on what they decide to do.
Indyk: The centrifuges are still running the fuel, stockpile is growing, and if they cross that red line, then it becomes a different ballgame.
Tavis: As I promised, Mr. Ambassador, let me come back now specifically to the issue of the peace process. So we know what not to expect from this trip, given the conversation we’ve had with you tonight with regard to the peace process.
But what does this trip then say about the stalled peace process? If we know that we should not have any high expectations about that this week, what does that say long-term about – and I say “long-term;” I mean now for the rest of this president’s tenure in the White House, for this second term – what does that say, then, to us early on about the level of engagement or lack thereof with the peace process on the part of his administration?
Indyk: I think the president had his fingers burned rather badly and came to be quite disillusioned with both Abu Mazen, the leader of the Palestinians, and Bibi Netanyahu.
So I don’t think that he’s really prepared to make it his top priority in the way that he said he wanted to in the first term, but Secretary of State John Kerry intends to make it his top priority, and he’s concerned that the window on the two-state solution is closing.
He doesn’t want that to happen on his watch. He thinks that because of his 100 percent voting record on Israel over all the time that he was in the Senate nobody can accuse him of not being a strong friend of Israel.
He has very good relations, both with Netanyahu, Abu Mazen, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, Arab leaders, even President Morsi of Egypt; he’s already met with him seven times.
The secretary of State says the time for Middle East envoys is over. It’s time to do it at my level. So we’re going back to a secretary of State, someone like in the Clinton years and even back to Secretary of State Kissinger, who’s going to do it himself.
The critical thing here is that the president make it clear during this trip that he’s delegating this to his secretary of State, but he’s going to back him 100 percent in that effort. Because the leaders in the region, particularly Abu Mazen and Bibi Netanyahu, will want to know that the president is behind his secretary of State.
If he just lets him go off and try, then Kerry is not going to be able to move this process forward. So what I’m going to be watching for is whether it’s in the speech or in the photo op with the prime minister and the Palestinian president, is the president going to empower his secretary of State to try to move this forward.
Tavis: So what’s your read on the impact that this government, this Israeli government, freshly formed the other day after a lot of back-and-forth, just in time for President Obama’s arrival. They at least have called together some form of government now.
What’s your sense of how that body and its formulation will impact the peace process? As I read, at least here and there, the sense I get is that this is not the kind of government, as it’s currently formed, that in any way advances that notion. Is what I’m reading or what I’m taking from that right or wrong?
Indyk: It’s a mixed picture, and I’m not sure that we can make a judgment yet. I think we have to withhold judgment for the time being. I say that because on the one hand, you have the same foreign minister, Evet Lieberman, who says nothing can be done on the Palestinian issue.
You have now a defense minister, new defense minister, Bogie Ya’alon, former Israel defense forces chief of staff, who’s a very tough guy who doesn’t have the same commitment as his predecessor, Ehud Barak, to the two-state solution. He too is saying nothing really can be done.
You have a new housing minister who used to be the head of the settlers council. He’s a settler, Uri Ariel. You have a deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, who is a strong supporter of the settlers. You have this newcomer, a rising star, Naftali Bennett, the modern orthodox leader of the Jewish (unintelligible) party, who says, “Over my dead body where there be a Palestinian state,” and proposes the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank. So if you like, that’s the bad news for the peace process. (Laughter)
The good news is number one, that Netanyahu, who is the decider in these matters – as prime minister he wields immense authority – he understands that he has to do something about Israel’s isolation, and he has to be seen to be attempting to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indyk: Number two, you’ve got Tzipi Livni, who ran, who was the only candidate to run on the platform of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She only got six seats, but she’s in the government. She’s the minister of justice, and she’s being given responsibility for working on the peace process as she did when she was foreign minister in the Sharon and Olmert governments. So she’s going to be pushing for it.
Then you’ve got the other rising star, Yossi Lapid, of the center party, the Israel has a future party, and he cares about resolving the Palestinian conflict. It’s just that his constituents care more about social issues.
Indyk: About getting the ultra-orthodox to share the burden and do their military service and those kinds of things. So he’s placed his constituents’ interests above the peace process, but he still cares about it and he’ll be supporting Tzipi Livni.
Tavis: I take your point that it is a mixed bag, and I thought that might be your answer and I appreciate the insight you’ve given to that. Thank you for coming on. We will talk in the coming days, I suspect, about what this trip does yield, but I’m always delighted to have you on this program, and thanks for sharing your insights.
Indyk: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Tavis. Thanks for having me on.
Tavis: The former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, joining us tonight from Washington. That’s our show tonight. We’ll see you next time on PBS. Good night from L.A. and as always, keep the faith.
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