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Natan B. Sachs: What Bill Clinton can teach Obama about the Israelis

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 12 a.m.

President Obama was right to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East last week to help broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But as the president enters his second term, he faces the prospect of bigger challenges in the Middle East, most notably on Iran’s nuclear program. To make sure the Israeli government does not act on its own on Iran, Obama needs to gain the trust of the Israeli public.

And to do that, Obama should look to the example of another Clinton – Bill. Although the former president had his own fraught relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he managed to gain leverage over Netanyahu because he had the trust – and even the love – of the Israeli public. The lack of such deep trust is Obama’s biggest deficit in dealing with Israel.

Ordinary Israelis, who are keenly aware of politics, care deeply about the U.S. president’s policies and attitudes toward their country. Clinton understood this and mastered it. He knew how to make the Israeli people believe that he had their interests at heart. Obama has yet to inspire such trust. While Israelis respect Obama for his office and his intelligence, he has yet to inspire their trust.

To Clinton, who dealt with Netanyahu when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, charm comes easily, and the Israeli public fell for it willingly. The public’s love was no accident; Clinton carefully cultivated it. Even when he strongly disagreed with Netanyahu’s policy, he framed the disagreements judiciously, using Israeli public opinion – more moderate on some issues than Netanyahu’s policies – to his advantage. Sen. John McCain’s recent suggestion that Obama appoint Bill Clinton as his Mideast envoy shows Clinton’s lingering relevance. But no envoy can replace the role and power of the sitting U.S. president.

Clinton understood a fundamental truth about Israelis: Although they are a tough and battle-tested people, they are eager for recognition and assurance. Although Israel possesses considerable military power, Israelis are acutely aware of the multiple threats that surround their country – from the chaos in Syria to Israel’s north, to the breakdown of authority in the Sinai Peninsula and the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip, to Iran’s ominous rhetoric and nuclear ambitions.

Moreover, Israelis are well-aware of the anti-Israeli sentiment around the world. Although most Israelis view their country’s actions as fundamentally just, they sense how poorly they are perceived abroad. Israelis feel more vulnerable than one might expect from a powerful, seemingly self-assured country – making the public highly receptive to simple sympathy. Clinton understood this; he knew how to win over Israelis by recognizing their concerns.

For example, when Clinton appeared at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to mark the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994, he sounded genuine to his audience when saying, “So long as Jews are murdered just because they are Jews or just because they are citizens of Israel, the plague of anti-Semitism lives and we must stand against it.”

Similarly, when Clinton eulogized Yitzhak Rabin after his assassination in 1995, saying in Hebrew, “Shalom, haver” – or “goodbye, friend” – the phrase echoed through Israeli public discourse. It adorned bumper stickers and placards nationwide, becoming part of the national mourning process. When bombs struck buses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon in February and March of 1996 – as they did again this month in Tel Aviv – Clinton visited Israel to pay tribute to the fallen and their families. By the president of the United States coming to show his support, Israelis thought that he understood their pain and anger, much as if the bombings had occurred in New York or Los Angeles. He visited my former high school in Jerusalem, which lost alumni in the bombings, and the community was deeply moved by his gesture.

The point of Clinton’s visits and words was not merely to express his love for Israel (and it was matched, one should note, by genuine sympathy toward Palestinians as well). Nor should Obama seek the public’s affection as a policy goal in and of itself. But the trust Israelis bestowed on Clinton gave him the room to disagree publicly with the Israeli government over policy – such as expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the pace of the peace process – while counting on support from ordinary Israelis.

In a sense, Clinton “triangulated” the Israeli political arena similar to how he addressed domestic U.S. politics. By appearing, convincingly, to understand the Israeli point of view, he could pressure the Israeli government over policy on which many Israelis themselves were divided. For example, although most Israelis are sympathetic to settlers in the major settlement blocs of the West Bank – they think these communities must be part of Israel in any peace deal – they are far less supportive of settlement activity in the heart of the Palestinian population. So when Obama, early in his presidency, insisted on a building freeze in all settlements, many Israelis fell in line behind Netanyahu in his opposition to U.S. pressure. Even though many Israelis are less hawkish than Netanyahu on settlements, they rallied behind his stance in the face of the blanket U.S. demand. When Clinton, on the other hand, disagreed with Netanyahu on settlements, his demands were targeted and his motives were trusted by Israelis, even though his policies weren’t all that different from Obama’s.

Viewed from Israel, Obama has vacillated between seemingly blanket pressure early in his tenure and apparent acquiescence with Israeli policy later on. Neither pressure nor acquiescence is needed now. Rather, a more Clintonian approach is appropriate: deliberate toughness coupled with convincing love.

Obama is not Clinton and should not try to be. For one thing, the region has changed dramatically since the Clinton years. Israeli perceptions of security threats are greatly heightened, and the advance toward peace has stalled. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gone away – as recent days have demonstrated all too clearly – and there’s an urgent need to stop further backsliding and bloodshed. Even more acutely, the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program looms larger than ever.

As its leaders have made clear, Israel would greatly prefer that the United States and the international community deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. military capabilities are far superior to Israel’s, and the United States can rally international support in a way that Israel cannot. Indeed, if Israel trusted Obama’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Netanyahu would not feel the need to repeatedly sound alarms on Iran. And yet, while Israelis recognize that the United States shares their concern over a nuclear Iran, they do not appreciate Obama’s resolve.

Obama’s and Clinton’s presidential styles also are very different. Both are exceptionally gifted orators, but where Clinton is a charmer, Obama is analytical. Where Clinton empathized with Israelis’ fears, Obama appeals to their logic.

While not a charmer of Clinton’s stature, Obama has a remarkable ability to convey complex ideas. In his first campaign for president, he spoke honestly and subtly about uncomfortable topics: racial tensions, income inequality and international affairs. If used wisely, the same ability may be instrumental in conveying tough policy disagreements with Netanyahu’s government – on issues where moderate Israelis may be at odds with their government – while simultaneously expressing genuine affinity toward Israel and an understanding of Israelis’ security concerns.

An appeal to the Israeli public could help resolve the paradox of Obama’s standing in Israel. On the one hand, relations between the countries – in the way of sharing intelligence and technology – are closer than ever. The remarkable success of the Iron Dome missile-defense system, the hero of Israel’s latest conflict with Hamas, is a case in point. The Israeli system was developed with U.S. financial backing of more than $200 million in 2011, in addition to annual military assistance and further aid this past year. On the other hand, the public does not trust Obama’s gut instincts about Israel.

In his second term, the president should visit Israel to speak directly to the public. He should explain yet again, in plain language, what seems obvious to many in Washington, D.C.: that although he disagrees with Netanyahu about settlements and how to pursue peace with the Palestinians, his positions stem from – rather than contradict – his commitment to Israel. Most acutely, he would convey – yet again – his resolve to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a commitment that is appreciated in Washington but grossly underestimated in Israel. Such an appeal could go a long way toward getting Israelis to trust him on Iran, rather than opt for a unilateral Israeli strike.

The next time U.S. leadership is required in the Middle East, the stakes may be higher than ever. In a year in which the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program may finally come to blows, it is essential that the president utilize all the tools at his disposal. And this includes the goodwill and trust of Netanyahu’s bosses: Israel’s citizenry.

Natan B. Sachs is a research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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