The Obama-Netanyahu Relationship: Two Palestinian Views

January 6, 2016
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a State Dinner in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In 2008, there was a sense of optimism among Palestinians. A new American president had been elected, and he was signaling an eagerness to repair ties with the Muslim world. Six months after his inauguration, Barack Obama spelled out that vision in a landmark address in Cairo.

Still, for many Palestinians, there was also trepidation. They knew progress toward a two-state solution would depend on a successful U.S. partnership with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Netanyahu, though, Palestinians did not see a willing partner.

This past summer, FRONTLINE sat down with Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for the PLO, and Saeb Erekat, formerly the chief negotiator for the Palestinians in peace talks with Israel. In those conversations, featured in the new documentary, Netanyahu at War, Buttu and Erekat discussed their views of the peace process under Obama, the president’s tensions with Netanyahu, and the outlook for peace under whoever wins the 2016 presidential election.

Here are highlights from those conversations.

On Obama’s election in 2008:

Diana Buttu: I remember the night that he was elected. The following morning, the U.S. consulate held a kind of a celebration of American democracy at a hotel nearby in Ramallah, and I was invited and went. And I saw people crying, weeping as they heard President Obama’s victory speech. And they were weeping because they believed in his sincerity. They believed that he was really going to do the right thing. And I was somebody who was very moved by his speech, because I was somebody who was raised in the West.

But when it came to this issue [the two-state solution], I knew that his hands were going to be tied. I knew that this isn’t just about a U.S. president. This is about Congress. This is about the American public opinion. … So I was somebody who was very moved by it, but I was also really skeptical …

If you recall, one of the things that he did was he came out very strongly against Israeli settlement activity. He made statements against Israeli settlement activity. He made statements and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton at the time made statements against Israeli home demolitions. And so at the beginning, he started off by sending the right signals to Palestinians, saying that under his presidency, this was finally going to come to an end. And then it unraveled.

On Obama’s view of the peace process:

Saeb Erekat: I think Obama will go into history as the first American president who moved in his relationships with Israel from what’s possible to what’s needed. American presidents I dealt with before Obama would come to Tel Aviv and see what the prime minister of Israel can do and what he cannot do. And in my opinion, they follow the policy of what’s possible, what can he do, what he cannot do. President Obama dared to move from the squares of what’s possible to what’s needed to have peace.

If you sit down to see how much courage it took the president of the United States, President Obama, and his secretary of state, John Kerry, to move from the domain of what’s possible to what’s needed, you understand the fierce reaction of Netanyahu — that this was a forbidden move in Israel/America relations. See, President Obama understood that peace is based on one word, one single word — fair. You have to be fair in any relationship, whether peace between Palestinians and Israelis, with relations with your wife, or your employers, or anybody else.

On Netanyahu’s view of the two-state solution:

Saeb Erekat: Studying him very carefully, talking to him very carefully made me believe that this man is really the son of Benzion Netanyahu. He wants one state, two systems. Not two states. He wants to have the overriding responsibility for Palestinians. He wants us to have good education, good streets, good schools, but never any symbol of sovereignty. Because they really believe — him and his father — that if Palestinians would have sovereignty, it’s not you and I. To them, it’s you or I. And that’s the problem.

On negotiating with Netanyahu:

Diana Buttu: Netanyahu obviously doesn’t do the right thing. You just have to look at the settlement activity. This is the brilliance of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is that he knows how to dupe international leaders. He signs the things that he needs to sign. But then when you listen to him, and you hear what he’s saying to the people who voted for him, he says something completely different. And the facts on the ground dictate a completely different reality as well.

So he ends up being one of the prime ministers where you see the largest jump of settlement activity under his wing. And that’s because he fundamentally doesn’t believe in ending Israel’s military rule over Palestinians. You end up seeing during his period of being prime minister that settlements are increasing. Palestinians are less secure.

And this is exactly the model that he likes. He likes to be able to say that he’s doing the right thing to the United States. But behind the United States’ back or to anybody who’s paying attention, he actually ends up perpetuating more chaos, rather than trying to alleviate it.

On the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu:

Diana Buttu: The clash between Obama and Netanyahu was entirely predictable. It was entirely predictable because [Netanyahu] has in the past, as I said, he’s indicated that it is Israel that controls the United States, not the United States that gives any orders to Israel. It’s the other way around.

On Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech on Iran to Congress:

Diana Buttu: If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have been seething. Mostly because this is a president who has gone out of his way to be pro-Israel. This is a president who I think originally came in with the idea that he was going to do something. He was going to end Israel’s military occupation. He was going to push for the peace process to conclude. He was going to push for Palestinian freedom. And then along the way, was tripped up — whether he was faulted for continuing to press Israel for its settlement activity, or he was faulted for other things that he had done. His speech in Cairo, for example. …

He ended up becoming one of the most pro-Israel presidents that we’ve seen in a very long time. He’s condoned attacks on the Gaza Strip. He’s allowed the blockade to continue over the Gaza Strip. And he’s given more money to Israel than any other U.S. president. And so here’s this U.S. president who’s gone out of his way to be pro-Israel, and then as a reward, is being told that he’s not pro-Israel enough, and that he, his policies, vis-à-vis Iran, are policies that are to be questioned, not policies that are to be adopted.

On Netanyahu’s 2015 re-election:

Diana Buttu: What Netanyahu did during this election was he revealed the true face of Netanyahu. The first thing he said is that he doesn’t believe that there should be a Palestinian state. And he said this long ago; this isn’t the first time, it’s not going to be the last time. The difference this time was that the veil came off, or the mask was removed. In the past, he said there will be some form of a Palestinian state, demilitarized, with us controlling much of the territory, with us being able to maintain security control, with us controlling the water resources, with no Jerusalem as its capital, with no refugee return. He said all these things. This time, he came out plain and simple and said there will not be a Palestinian state. And that was the true face of Netanyahu.

The other thing that he came out and said was that Palestinians were going out in droves and voting. Actually the word he used was “hordes.” In hordes they were going out to vote. And therefore, because Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, were going out in droves or in hordes, to go vote, people should therefore rush to the polling stations and go out and vote for him. … Can you ever imagine a U.S. president standing up and saying, “Rush out to the voting polls now, because the blacks are voting, the Latino community is voting,” etc. You would look at [that] and you would say, how racist is this man? And that was the true face of Netanyahu.

On the prospects for peace after Obama:

Saeb Erekat: The U.S. is very important to any peace process between Palestinians and Israelis. But will an American president make the decisions required from Palestinians and Israelis? I doubt it. If we don’t help ourselves as Palestinians and Israelis, nobody else can. We need an Israeli partner. We need an Israeli partner, a prime minister, who will stand and match our words. We say we recognize Israel right to exist on the 1967 lines. I hope and pray that the day will come when an Israeli prime minister will stand tall and say, I recognize the state of Palestine’s right to exist and live in peace and security with the state of Israel on the 1967 lines.

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