Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk says, President Obama “Has Essentially Written Off Netanyahu”

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In the early days of his administration, President Barack Obama had a theory about Israel. “It was a wrong theory of the case,” says longtime diplomat Martin Indyk, but a theory nonetheless: If the president could put distance between the United States and Israel, then just maybe he could build up credibility with the Arab world — and ultimately be in a better position to help Israel negotiate for peace. 

But here’s where things went wrong, says Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, and from 2013 to 2014 a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: “After 16 years of Clinton and Bush, of unalloyed affection, the Israelis really didn’t like that.” The theory cost Obama support among Israelis, which meant he couldn’t move the Israeli public, says Indyk, “and if he couldn’t move the Israelis, then the Arabs had no use for him.”

In the below interview, Indyk says that the fallout today can be seen in everything from the stalled peace process and last year’s negotiations over the Iran nuclear agreement, to the president’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who the former ambassador says was “essentially written off” by Obama after his 2012 reelection.

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 22, 2015 by FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk. [Editor’s Note 1/6/15: A portion of this interview, in which Indyk describes a conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu at the time of Rabin’s funeral, has gotten a lot of attention. That full exchange is below.]

The image that is in everybody’s mind in ’93 is [Yasser] Arafat shaking hands with [Yitzhak] Rabin. When Bibi Netanyahu sees that image, what is he thinking?

I’m not sure what he was thinking in ’93, but in ’93 the world celebrated that handshake, that historic handshake on the White House lawn, … but in Israel there was a fair degree of skepticism. By 1995, of course, there was huge opposition from the right. Rabin had frozen settlement activity and had argued that “We will pursue peace as if there was no terror and fight terrorism as if there was no peace process.” But there are a lot of people who didn’t accept that.

Netanyahu sat next to me when I was ambassador in Israel at the time of Rabin’s funeral. The first step was to bring his body from the hospital through a cortege up to the Knesset where he would lie in state. There was a big assembly of dignitaries and the diplomatic core and politicians and so on at the Knesset waiting for Rabin’s body to arrive, the coffin. And I remember Netanyahu saying to me: “Look, look at this. He’s a hero now, but if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician.”

So I think even at that moment of tremendous support, a tragic moment of support for Rabin, Netanyahu was thinking, well, politically he was on the ropes before he was assassinated. He exploited that and ran against Oslo in the [1996] elections and beat [Shimon] Peres, but he only beat him by something like a half of 1 percent. And so even then, it was a very close-run thing.

What was the saying, people went to bed with Peres and woke up with —?

With Netanyahu, exactly. So he didn’t have a very strong mandate to take apart Oslo, and indeed it wasn’t long before he was photographed at the White House shaking hands himself with Yasser Arafat.

… Let’s come back to that in a minute. Some people talk about Netanyahu stoking the flames of the right [before Rabin’s assassination. What do you think?]

He was playing to his right-wing constituency. He has a very keen sense of his constituencies. That’s why he has been elected four times prime minister. He knows what excites them, and he knows what they fear. …

I think he was really playing to his constituency in a way that went over the line. You saw him do it again in the last minutes before this last election, and he came very close to the line over here. Certainly in the White House with an African American president, he crossed the line by saying that the Arabs were coming out in droves to vote. There is that part of him that plays with populist extremism on the right.

… Talk to me just a little bit about President Clinton’s relationship with Rabin and how that worked and how devastating it was to the president when Rabin was killed.

… Clinton was in awe of Rabin. Rabin was the hero of the 1967 war. He was of course older. He was Clinton’s father’s age, if Clinton’s father had been alive. He really looked up to him and was, I think, in the early meetings somewhat intimidated by him.

But what came through and what Clinton, I believe, was most impressed by was that here was a warrior, a war hero but a real warrior, a real general who was ready to commit to peace, and in that first meeting [together] made it clear to him that he was ready to go a long way in terms of making territorial concessions, not just on the Palestinian front but on the Syrian front. He told Clinton in that first meeting that if his security needs were met, he didn’t rule out coming down from the Golan Heights, so Clinton came out of that meeting thinking, wow, this is a man who is in his kind of heroic phase, who is really going to make peace, and I’m going to help him. That was the basic proposition. …

Then came the Oklahoma bombing here, and Clinton handled that in a very statesmanlike way, and Rabin, who had been fighting terror all of his adult life and had faced terrorist attacks in Israel during this period, suddenly looked at Clinton in a different way. The next meeting they had after that Oklahoma bombing, I remember Rabin saying to him, “You did a great job, Mr. President.” The body language of the president changed quite dramatically at that moment. I just felt that there was a kind of evening up of the playing field in the relationship, that they now had both been through similar crises in terms of facing terrorist attacks on their civilian populations, so now they were not just partners in peace but partners in a war against terrorism of any kind, domestic or international.

A lot of people we talked to say that Clinton had the Israeli people, [and] if you had the Israeli people on your side and you’re the president of the United States, you could move things in a way that you might not be able to move them otherwise. Talk about that a little bit, will you?

… The Israelis loved him. … He was always more popular than any Israeli politician. All the Israeli politicians are around the 30 percent approval rating, 35 percent, something like that. Clinton was always up in the stratosphere, 75, 80 percent. To get Israelis to agree on anything is highly unlikely, unusual, and yet there was Clinton. He was essentially adored by them. …

When Netanyahu runs, Clinton, the way the story goes, really doesn’t like the idea of Shimon Peres not being the next prime minister. Why was he so interested? Was it anti-Netanyahu, or was it pro-Peres?

… It wasn’t about Netanyahu at all. He didn’t know Netanyahu. He knew that Netanyahu was campaigning against the Oslo process, and he had embraced the Oslo process. This was his baby now. Especially after Rabin was assassinated, he felt a real responsibility to Rabin, a personal responsibility to see through his legacy, and the Oslo Accords was Rabin’s legacy.

… Netanyahu wins and famously goes to the Oval Office for a meeting that doesn’t go particularly well between him and the president. What happened?

They were of very different minds. Bibi had just been elected. The president had intervened against him. There was a kind of not a very good way to start a meeting. …

Clinton’s approach was to try to find a way to work with Netanyahu, but Netanyahu wanted to make clear that even though the previous government had signed the agreement that he had some real reservations about it. I think that that’s where it got off to a bad start, because there was a clash of policies.

There was a personality thing. There is a famous story of Clinton coming up and saying, “It’s not clear who he thinks the superpower is in this relationship.” I think that Netanyahu tends to see himself in part as an American politician. He is a Republican in the way he thinks. He cut his teeth here. … He had grown up in a kind of American milieu and considered himself now kind of equal to the president, not a little prime minister coming from a little country with a tiny population compared to the United States and in a position of seeking American support.

Clinton does the full-court press on Netanyahu over a while there, and despite Netanyahu’s lack of enthusiasm for Oslo, finds himself with the Hebron moment, finds himself shaking [Yasser] Arafat’s hands. How does it happen, and at what cost to Netanyahu?

It’s interesting. As I recall that moment, it was after Netanyahu and Arafat had been summoned to the White House, because things were going rather badly on the ground, and the president had invited King Hussein of Jordan to come, too, to try to help him in working on these two recalcitrant leaders. King Hussein and President Clinton worked Bibi over like a tag team, and it didn’t work. He gave them nothing. The president was really furious, and King Hussein was really furious. The handshake came after that, and it was kind of Bibi’s way of compensating. It was, “I’ll give you the photo op you want, because I’m not going to give you anything on substance.”

… Why did he lose [the election to Peres]? …

The bad relationship between Clinton and Netanyahu hurt Netanyahu a lot in that re-election effort, and it hurt him precisely because Clinton was so popular in Israel. That was really the high point of the U.S.-Israel relationship, when Clinton had become so popular there, and here was Netanyahu getting into a fight with the president of the United States over settlements essentially and the Oslo Accords. He suffered badly from that in the elections. That made a significant difference.

What happened at Camp David?

How long do you have?

There is the great video, watching [Ehud] Barak trying to push Arafat through the door, and Arafat is like, “No, no, you first.” And he goes and just basically shoves him through the door of that cabin. What do you chalk up the collapse of the peace process to at that moment?

It’s important to understand that that actually wasn’t the collapse of the peace process. It collapsed six months later. At that point there was still hope that we could somehow salvage what had been done at Camp David and drive it through to an agreement. But what actually happened there was a complicated tale in which Barak had been pushing very hard to have the summit; Arafat was very reluctant to go to the summit. He feared that Barak and Clinton would basically corner him, so that’s what that little exercise was about of who should go first in the room. It was he really felt kind of cornered there, and he was looking for a way to get out of the corner.

I don’t think we understood it at the time, but his way out of the corner was Jerusalem. People think that it broke down over refugees. That’s simply not true. There was barely a discussion of refugees there. It broke down over Jerusalem, where Barak made a far-reaching offer, I think, went further than he was planning to do, but for Arafat it was unacceptable, not because of what was on the table, what was being offered to him, but because Jerusalem was high ground for him. He could go out and say, “I refused to give up on Jerusalem,” and would garner the immediate support of the Arab world and the Palestinians in particular.

As far forward-leaning as Barak was and Clinton was, the deal still would have left the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, holiest place in Judaism, the third holiest place in Islam, would have left sovereignty in Israel’s hands. I think that that was his perfect way out in terms of being able to escape without suffering any real pain in terms of his core constituency, of his own people and the Arabs.

Let’s go to the beginning of the Obama administration. There is, we discovered as we talk to people, a kind of effort in the first ambitious efforts by the president to say, “I’m going to do something different about Israel than anybody else has really tried to do.” The word “distance” starts to be used; the word “daylight” starts to be used. There is talk of if we can reach the Arab world we’re going to have to reach them and not look like we’re pandering or [throwing] arms around Israel, and there are a number of missteps that people we talk to say occur. I’m not assuming you’re inside any of those conversations, but you’re watching and hearing and have some thoughts about it, I’m sure. Share them.

President Obama had a theory of the case, which was that George W. Bush had embraced Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert, and there was no daylight between the United States and Israel, and that hadn’t produced a positive result. In the meantime, the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world was in the toilet, so the president believed that he needed to rebuild the relationship with the Muslim world, hence the Cairo speech, and by doing so, and by putting some daylight between the United States and Israel, currying favor with the Arabs and the Muslims would enable him to actually help Israel. That was his theory of the case that if the United States had more credibility with the Arabs and Muslims that he would be more in a position to help Israel make peace with them.

That was the context in which he went to Saudi Arabia before the Cairo speech, because Netanyahu had said, “Look, I can’t do a settlements freeze, but if you get me Saudi Arabia, then it’s a different story altogether.” So Obama said, “Oh, let’s go to Saudi Arabia.” The Saudis wanted him to come anyway, before he went to Cairo, because the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques and so on. But there was a strong element in Obama’s theory of the case that this was going to help Israel, whereas the previous Bush administration policy hadn’t really done anything for Israel.

It was a wrong theory of the case, as he would come to discover, because by sending a signal to Israel that he was distancing himself from Israel, by not going to Israel after Cairo — don’t forget he went to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt; he didn’t go to Israel — for Israelis, the combination of not visiting and the speech sent them a very strong signal that he didn’t like them. After 16 years of Clinton and Bush, of unalloyed affection, the Israelis really didn’t like that. They turned against him in that moment.

What was wrong with the theory of the case then was that once he lost the Israelis, he couldn’t move the Israelis, because he didn’t have the trust that Clinton and Bush had, and if he couldn’t move the Israelis, then the Arabs had no use for him. The Arabs don’t want him to turn against Israel; they wanted him to deliver Israel. And if he is going to deliver Israel, he’s got to have a close and strong relationship of trust with the Israeli people, if not with the prime minister.

It took him a long time to appreciate that.

… How soon do you know they have erred, and erred grievously?

Immediately after the speech. It was crystal clear, crystal clear. I remember talking to an Israeli journalist, a very senior journalist whom the White House cleverly had invited to Cairo to hear the speech, and he called me from Cairo. He said: “This is a disaster. This is a disaster.” I said: “Tell [Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel]. Tell him, because they need to do something about this. This is really going to lose the Israelis.”

… When Netanyahu comes to that first Oval Office meeting and it goes very badly, because basically Rahm has said to the president, as we hear it, “You’ve got to back this guy into the corner; the only way you’re going to ever get anything out of him is if you back him into the corner, and that means press him hard on the” —

Settlements.

— that was a miscalculation. He came to talk about Iran, and he knew the president himself was a little worried about Iran. I think he wanted, yes or no, he wanted to have a discussion about what are we going to do about this thing, or no?

I’m not sure that it was such a mistake to back him into the corner, because what it actually produced was his Bar-Ilan speech, in which he for the first time embraced the two-state solution. Actually I didn’t talk to him much in those days — he had other things to do, and I wasn’t in office anymore — but I remember we had one meeting just after the Bar-Ilan speech, and he said to me: “All right, I’ve said it. Can we now get on with Iran? Can we now focus on Iran?”

I took away from that that Netanyahu really was obsessed about Iran. This was his main concern. Clearly Obama was worried about the Palestinians, so if he could buy him off with some rhetoric, like he tried to buy Clinton off with a handshake with Arafat, OK, now let’s focus on the real issue here. I think that it was important for the president to make clear that the Palestinian issue was important to him and important to the United States.

The problem was demanding a total settlements freeze and then negotiating with Netanyahu something less, because they went out in public and declared this as an American objective, a total settlements freeze, and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton said, “Not one house.” Then George Mitchell, the special envoy, got into a negotiation with Netanyahu, and they ended up with a moratorium in the West Bank which was actually important and worth something. But by that point they had set the bar so high there was no way that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority] could at that point accept anything less than a full settlements freeze, which is what they actually delivered. So it was a settlement moratorium for 10 months. It took eight months to get Palestinian leader Abu Mazen into the room with Netanyahu.

I think that was the problem. The objective was unattainable, and for some reason they didn’t understand that from the get-go. With an unattainable objective, they ended up with something less, and finally they get the Israelis in place, and they have lost the Palestinians.

Let’s go to the Arab Spring. They write a speech; the president goes to the State Department, delivers it, mentions the ’67 borders. … It’s the day before Netanyahu is coming to the country. They have the office meeting. They have the lecture afterward. As you observed that happening from your perch, what do you see happening, and how does it strike you?

… It was not an attempt to ambush him. It was just that typical situation where when the fights within the U.S. government in Washington get sorted out, nobody has got any energy to remember that they had better tell the affected parties about what they’re going to do, and that happens quite regularly. That’s what happened in this case.

But from Netanyahu’s point of view, he was convinced that this was an attempt to ambush him and embarrass him and put him in a situation where the president was, from Netanyahu’s point of view, weakening Israel’s negotiating position by declaring the stats on the ’67 lines. He was furious about it, and I think that marked a turning point in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. It hadn’t been good up to that point, but at that point Netanyahu became convinced that Obama was out to screw him, and he was going to screw him back.

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Source: PBS | JASON M. BRESLOW