Is Netanyahu 'Apologizing to the Obama Administration'?

The concluding half of Ruthie Blum Leibowitz's interview with Moshe Arens -- former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the U.S.

Q: Are the Obama administration's policies towards Israel a total about-face from the position of the Bush administration, which maintained there was a global struggle going on between the West and radical Islam, and that the Palestinian conflict belonged to that struggle? The current administration seems to be asserting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a phenomenon in and of itself, but that solving it is necessary to dealing with the rest of the world.

A: The major difference, again, is that this administration is taking its disagreements with the Israeli government public. If we look back at the history of U.S.-Israel relations, the last time we can discern this kind of a breach in the discourse was during the Eisenhower years. That was right after the Sinai Campaign, when Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles publicly pressured Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into moving the Israeli army out of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, though Ben-Gurion was initially hesitant. The Eisenhower administration made no bones about its views on that subject, and hinted at additional pressures that might be forthcoming if Israel did not accept. That was in 1957. Here we are 53 years later.

Q: Why didn't you mention the Carter administration in this context, as so many commentators have been doing of late?

A: Well, I don't think we had a serious rift with the Carter administration, though we certainly might have had one, had Prime Minister Menachem Begin not accepted the terms that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat insisted on during negotiations at Camp David. President Carter might very well have come down on Sadat's side. But we never got to that point, and in the final analysis, Carter was quite happy with the fact that Begin, after some convincing and maybe a little bit of discrete pressure, accepted the condition that there be a total withdrawal of Israeli forces and removal of Israeli settlements from the Sinai.

Q: Can Netanyahu be compared to Begin in this respect? After all, at the time, Begin seemed to be the least likely prime minister to give away territory. Netanyahu, today, is considered by many to be "intransigent." Will the upshot in this case be similar? Will Netanyahu ultimately agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders?

A: It's very unlikely. And the analogy is not entirely apt. Begin was quite doctrinaire, and what made it possible for him to agree to a total withdrawal from the Sinai was his view that it was not really part of the land of Israel. The fact is that he was not prepared to give an inch of the Gaza Strip, because he said it was part of the land of Israel.

This ran contrary to my own view, which was that Gaza was an area where concessions maybe should have, or could have, been made at the time, whereas the Sinai was of strategic importance to Israel. Furthermore, the very idea that a country that initiated and was defeated in three wars should have what it lost in battle returned is not only obnoxious, but sets a very bad precedent -- one from which we suffer to this day.

But Begin looked at it in slightly different, more ideological, terms. To him, reaching peace with Egypt -- which, of course, is an important achievement in itself -- was so important that conceding the Sinai was in the realm of possibility. He didn't like it, but he was prepared to do it.

Now, where Palestinian demands and conditions are concerned -- demands such as the right of return and withdrawal to the '67 borders -- it's a different story. First of all, the area in question is very close to home, literally and figuratively. Whereas the Sinai seemed to most Israelis to be quite far away, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] are right next door to where most Israelis live. Not only that. Judea and Samaria, as integral parts of the biblical land of Israel, are also close to the hearts of most Israelis.

Finally, there are 300,000 Israelis living there. I therefore don't believe that Netanyahu would be prepared to cede it.

What he has been doing, however, is apologizing to the Obama administration, which, as part of its maneuver to pressure Israel, declared it was insulted by the announcement that 1,600 housing units were being added to a Jerusalem neighborhood. The whole thing is really ludicrous. It all had to do with some clerk on the local planning commission and a meeting that happened to fall on the day of Vice President Joe Biden's visit. But the Netanyahu government decided to play along and say, "You're insulted? OK, we apologize." It could have said, "You're not insulted. There's no reason to be insulted. You don't know what you're talking about."

Q: But would it have been wise for Netanyahu to respond that way?

A: Right after Obama's speech in Cairo in June -- where he said he was going to put the differences between his administration and the Israeli government on the table, and that Israel would have to stop all settlement activity -- I was of the opinion that the Israeli government should have said, "With all due respect to the president of the U.S. and the U.S.-Israel friendship, we don't takes orders. Jews have a right to live in Judea and Samaria, and it's not going to be the Israeli government that prohibits them from living in any part of Israel."

But then, too, the Netanyahu government decided to play along, at least partially, by declaring a temporary freeze on settlement activity. Maybe it's their idea of how to outsmart the Obama administration. But Obama's pretty smart, and I doubt it will work.

Q: How important is Israel's relationship with Washington?

A: It's very important; there's no question about it. But the independence of the state of Israel is more important. To Israelis, anyway.

Q: When such a divide exists between the two governments, to what extent is Israel really at liberty to exert its will?

A: When I was ambassador in Washington, there was disagreement between us and the Reagan administration on a number of subjects. As a matter of fact, I assumed my post in February 1982, not long after the Iraqi nuclear reactor was destroyed by the Israel Air Force, and the administration didn't like it at all. What I said at the time to my American interlocutors was that when we have disagreements, we should discuss them in private, and if we can't resolve them, then one of us should defer. I said if it's a matter of vital importance to the state of Israel, I would expect the U.S. to defer to us.

Now, the issues of settlements in Judea and Samaria, of Israel's ability to defend itself, and of the conditions under which it can reach an accommodation with the Palestinians are of vital importance to the state of Israel. So I would expect that, if Israel and the U.S. are unable to resolve the disagreement on these issues, the US would defer to the Israeli point of view. But clearly that is not the position of this administration.