Trust remains an issue in Obama-Bibi relationship



WASHINGTON (JTA) — With the major knots that bedeviled U.S.-Israel ties this summer largely behind them, U.S., Israeli and American Jewish leaders say the relationship between the two countries is much improved.

But with some misapprehension and mistrust persisting, all sides appear to agree that things could bear further improvement.

Among the thorniest issues: a mutual perception between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations that each side is playing the other using leaks.

The differences are broad enough that Israeli and American Jewish organizational officials met last week at a retreat in Glen Cove, N.Y., for a private discussion of “The Israeli public’s low approval rating of Barack Obama” under the aegis of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Dan Shapiro, who runs Israel issues at the White House’s National Security Council, addressed the group and listened to the concerns of an array of Jewish organizational leaders, Israeli diplomats and opinion shapers.

The consensus: Obama should reach out to Israel.

“President Obama should visit Israel and cultivate a relationship with the American Jewish community” was the headline of the institute’s news release summarizing the retreat.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the institute’s director, said the issue of trust was key to the discussion.

“The Obama administration is trying to promote a series of things, and they need a counterpart which is trusting them,” Bar-Yosef told JTA. “Trust was built and a serious dialogue has been started, but there is not yet a solution on everything. There is much more room for improvement.”

Obama administration officials attributed several problems of miscommunication in the early months to the fact that both Israel and Washington had new administrations getting their respective acts together, with each side too busy to maintain the necessary frequency of communication.

That led to harmful leaks, particularly related to the U.S. insistence that Israel freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. Following a barrage of leaks coming from Jerusalem on the subject, a reportedly furious U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton finally made the dispute public.

And prior to Israel’s announcement in early September that it would build 455 new units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, U.S. officials told reporters that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed to understand how his relationship with Obama depended on whether the Israeli leader understood that he faced a “pivotal” moment in history.

Netanyahu’s advisers chafed at this as high handed and arrogant.

Insiders now insist that relations are smoother. Shapiro and Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s top national security adviser, talk all the time. Yitzhak Molcho, another Netanyahu adviser, and Mike Herzog, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s top adviser, visit Washington at least twice a month to meet with top officials at the Pentagon and the State Department.

Within the Obama administration is a sense that the disagreement in September over settlement construction exemplifies, if anything, how the relationship has improved: Netanyahu’s staff gave the White House a heads-up on the plan to give a green light to 455 new housing units, and the White House had time to prepare a tough response that helped it save face in the Arab world.

In some areas, U.S.-Israel ties have grown closer.

Speaking earlier this month at a conference at the conservative Hudson Institute on the subject of “Challenges to the Special Relationship,” Michael Oren, the Israeli envoy to Washington, noted the intensity of U.S.-Israeli coordination on combating the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Goldstone report, which accused Israel of war crimes during last winter’s war in Gaza with Hamas.

Oren said the sides also agree on the need to isolate Iran as long as it appears to be pursuing nuclear weapons, and on the pace of applying sanctions on the Islamic Republic. He also said defense cooperation was closer than ever and that the Obama administration was redressing a decline in recent years of Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

The Obama and Netanyahu administrations even have arrived at an agreement on freezing settlements, according to Oren. The freeze would not include Jerusalem and would account for some “natural growth” in West Bank settlement blocs Israel plans to keep in a final-status agreement.

The real problem is with the Palestinians, Oren said, who continue to insist on a total settlement freeze, and not between the United States and Israel.

But many members of the pro-Israel community remain upset about at the Obama administration for its focus on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They say this focus makes settlements appear to be the obstacle to peace while giving the Palestinians and Arab states a pass on making concessions.

The Palestinians have rejected U.S. pressure to accommodate a partial freeze, and Arab nations have yet to announce the symbolic gestures Obama was hoping to secure for Israel as a reward for a freeze.

According to U.S. administration insiders, a number of Arab nations were ready to announce concessions — such as allowing Israeli civilian aircraft overflight rights and expanding business ties with Israel — but withdrew them after the Netanyahu government announced the new construction in the West Bank in September.

Obama administration officials say they understand that settlements are not the sine qua non of advancing the peace process, but they wonder why Israel does not address settlement issues even while the Obama administration presses the Palestinians and the Arabs for concessions.

It hasn’t helped the Obama-Netanyahu relationship that the U.S. administration continues to lavish attention on J Street, a lobbying and political action committee that  describes itself as “pro-peace, pro-Israel.” The group has upset many U.S. Jews with its positions on Israel; the Israeli government has kept it at arm’s length.

James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, is speaking this month to J Street and the American Task Force on Palestine, a group that lobbies for U.S. action to promote the creation of a Palestinian state. (Jones also will address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s stalwart advocate in Washington, at AIPAC’s annual national summit in San Diego.)

Additionally, last weekend’s annual Washington Institute for Near East Policy Weinberg retreat, usually a venue for high-minded exchanges between Israeli and U.S. officials, lacked any Obama administration officials. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, withdrew at the last moment, apparently because of the burgeoning crisis in Afghanistan.

Mullen’s cancellation was too late to compensate with a commensurate speaker, and in the absence of an Obama administration official, speaker after speaker faulted the administration in its dealings with Israel, the Arabs and Iran.

In Israel, a consensus is emerging that Obama needs to pay more attention to Israel.

Ofir Pines Paz, a Labor Party Knesset member who otherwise opposes the Netanyahu government’s policies, this month told a pro-Obama group, the New American Foundation, that the president needed to reach out to Israel.

“It’s something that should be tackled,” he said. “Maybe not by a speech, but not by hesitation. He shouldn’t give up on Israeli public opinion.”

Oren said as much to the Hudson Institute, referring to Obama’s single-digit approval ratings in the Jewish state.

“We have to get this number up,” he said. Establishing trust in the U.S. administration among Israelis “is a sine qua non of the peace process.”

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