Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has some uncharacteristically positive words for one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s most controversial foreign policy initiatives: the deal struck last year to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
I met Netanyahu last Friday afternoon in his bunker-like office in Jerusalem. During the course of our discussion, I asked him about the famous “red line” crisis — Obama’s last-minute decision to abort a missile strike and instead negotiate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile — that colors so much of foreign-policy commentary today.
Netanyahu issued what was for him a full-throated endorsement of an Obama initiative, calling it “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
“It’s not complete yet," he went on. "We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent. We appreciate the effort that has been made and the results that have been achieved."
The chemical weapons of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime have posed a murderous threat to Israel, and there is broad relief in Jerusalem that this particular menace appears to be dissipating. Obama actually gets more credit for the deal in Israel — particularly among leaders of the country's national-security apparatus — than he often does in Washington.
Netanyahu is only intermittently pro-Obama, of course. The two men have a famously contentious relationship. During our discussion, Netanyahu did not hesitate to highlight broad areas of disagreement with the U.S. administration, particularly on matters related to the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations and the defunct Israeli-Palestinian talks led by Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry. The latest round of peace talks failed, according to U.S. negotiators
, in good part because of Israel’s insistence on expanding settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu was careful to stress his pro-American bona fides, and he vociferously denied recent reports that Israel is engaged in aggressive acts of espionage in the U.S. “Israel has not conducted any espionage operations in the United States, period. Full stop,” he said. “Not direct espionage, not indirect espionage, nothing, zero."
The prime minister was expansive; he had just completed what both Israeli and U.S. participants described to me as a productive meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (It is my impression that Netanyahu would prefer to see Hagel — who was accused during his confirmation process of being anti-Israel — than to find the indefatigable peace processor Kerry showing up in his office.)
But Netanyahu, though seemingly relaxed, was also quite difficult. We spent the first 10 minutes of our discussion renegotiating the terms of our meeting (when I could use a digital recorder, topics we could cover on the record, and so on). I quickly remembered a truism about Netanyahu: that he would give live television interviews on background if such a thing were possible.
We soon enough turned to business — first, to the mostly dead peace process. In his most extensive comments to date on the reasons he thinks the process has failed, Netanyahu made it clear he believes his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas — who sometimes refers
to Netanyahu as “that man,” according to officials — is unable or unwilling to grapple with the core issues of the conflict.
Netanyahu also hinted that he is weighing suggestions from a large number of Israelis that he should consider taking unilateral steps to disengage from sections of the West Bank that are heavily populated by Palestinians, even if this means uprooting Jewish settlements.
“We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “How do you get that if you can’t get it through negotiations? It’s true that the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground, from the center-left to the center-right. Many Israelis are asking themselves if there are certain unilateral steps that could theoretically make sense.”
But he was quick to add that Israelis — himself included — don’t want a repeat of their Gaza experience. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza; it was soon taken over by the radical Islamist group Hamas, which has since used the territory to launch rockets at Israeli civilian targets.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu said that something must be done to prevent the collapse of Israel as a Jewish-majority democratic nation. “We don’t want a binational state, and we don’t want a Palestinian-Iranian state next door,” he said. “There is an emerging consensus that we don’t have a partner who can challenge constituencies, do something unpopular, do something that is difficult. Abbas has not done anything to challenge the prevailing Palestinian consensus."
Similar criticism has been leveled at Netanyahu, both domestically and internationally. Obama administration officials and European leaders doubt his willingness to confront the powerful settler lobby head-on in order to convince Palestinians that he is ready for painful compromise. He rejects this criticism.
“Look at what I’ve done,” he said. “I gave the speech at Bar-Ilan University, a religious university, five years ago recognizing the two-state solution. Second, I tried a 10-month [settlement] freeze, and Abbas did nothing. Then I did something that was the toughest of all — I released terrorist prisoners, killers of innocent people. That was the hardest decision."
“And what has Abbas done? Nothing," he said. "He’s refused to entertain Kerry’s efforts to try and lock horns on the core issues. He internationalized the conflict. He went to the U.N. organizations in express violation of Oslo and all the interim agreements. And now he’s embracing Hamas" by bringing the organization into a unity government.
I asked Netanyahu why he simply doesn’t bypass the current impasse and declare an indefinite settlement freeze, particularly in areas outside the thickly settled suburbs of Jerusalem and communities near Tel Aviv. Right now, the burden is on Netanyahu to prove that he is interested in compromise. Such a move — while politically difficult — would shift the onus onto Abbas and restore some of Israel’s international standing.
“I don’t think it would work. Having tried once, I saw that it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the time-limited settlement freeze during Obama's first term.
“The Americans said the only way Abbas is going to come into negotiations is either you release prisoners or freeze settlements: Choose. We chose [to release prisoners]. We made it very clear to the U.S. and to the Palestinians exactly how much we would build, including in Jerusalem. We built exactly what we said we would build in every one of the tranches. It wasn’t that we surprised anyone with extra construction."
Jeffrey Goldberg is author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has covered the Middle East as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Read more reports from Jeffrey Goldberg — Click Here Now.
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