Hillary Tends the Garden in Israel

Former secretary of state George Shultz used to compare diplomacy to tending a garden. If you wanted results, you had to keep up with it.

As the secretary of state lands in Israel this week, she will see a lot more weeds than flowers. And no amount of watering and weeding is going to make this garden grow, whether on the peace process, Iran or the Bibi-Obama relationship. Rarely has a secretary of state been more boxed in and had less leverage to press an American agenda on the two most important issues: Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The meetings in Israel with Prime Minister Netanyahu will go smoothly enough. President Obama will want to show the U.S.-Israeli relationship is strong and on track. It's an election year, America is focused largely on domestic issues and the Israelis have their own internal preoccupations with the military conscription issue. The reality is that there's no reason for any unpleasantness now, let alone a fight with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet, not too far below the surface, trouble is brewing. On Iran, Israel and America agree on the problem but not the solution; on the peace process, they differ on both the problem and the solution. And it may only be a matter of time before those differences grow more acute.

On Iran, Israel's worst fears are coming to pass. Secretary Clinton will try to reassure Netanyahu and urge patience, but her arguments will lack believability. Sanctions are painful but not nearly consequential enough to induce Iran to stop enrichment. P5+1 negotiations have now gone three rounds and seem directionless and without real prospects of success. The fact is that neither the mullahs nor the Obama administration is ready to risk a negotiated settlement. But both do have a common objective: stop Israel from attacking.

The Israelis will warn and rightly worry, and the Obama administration has no real answer as to how to stop Tehran's nuclear program from moving forward. Obama and Netanyahu share a similar assessment of the Iranian threat, but they clearly differ on the means and the timing to deal with it. The Israelis are on a much faster clock even though they know that a military strike will only delay Iran's program. "Mowing the grass," one Israeli conceded. And it will have to be cut again.

For the small power with the dark past, living on the knife's edge, an imperfect action is better than no action at all, particularly in the face of what the Israelis fear is an existential threat. Indeed, preemption—as messy as it's been—has almost always served Israel well. And besides, who knows, if Iran responds aggressively and/or overreacts, maybe the Americans will intervene and bring their formidable power to bear. You don't have to be a conspiracy theoriest to imagine that the Israelis would love to get Washington into this on their side. The Israelis will not act before the American elections unless Iran provokes them. But action is coming. The choice is between bombing and accepting the prospects of an Iranian bomb. And that may come to be America's choice as well. Obama has until November—then all bets are off. And neither Secretary Clinton nor the president himself will be willing or able to stop the Israelis should they decide to strike.

On the peace process, unlike Iran, the Americans and the Israelis disagree on both the problem and the solution. Obama thinks Netanyahu is withholding, more interested in settlements than a settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is not prepared to offer terms Palestinians can accept and—psychologically and politically—isn't about to return to anything like the June 1967 borders or give up half of Jerusalem for a Palestinian capital. And those are the easy issues. On the matter of refugees, Netanyahu won't budge and in fact will demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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Sin Nombre (July 16, 2012 - 11:57am)

Aaron David Miller wrote:"The meetings in Israel with Prime Minister Netanyahu will go smoothly enough. ... The reality is that there's no reason for any unpleasantness now, let alone a fight with Benjamin Netanyahu."No, actually, there is such a reason for unpleasantness that by rights—and by the honor of the United States—Ms. Clinton ought to have turned on her heel and walked away. And that reason is what can only be a calculated insult to her and the U.S. Back in January the Israeli cabinet announced a subsidy plan for some settlements that included some in the West Bank. The world–and the U.S.—objected, and Netanyahu, wanting some things from Obama at the time, held another cabinet meeting and emerged promising things had been fixed, there would be no such West Bank subsidies, and Netanyahu got what he wanted from the U.S. Just yesterday then as reported by the AP, effectively right as Ms. Clinton was arriving, an Israeli government spokesperson announced that no, the subsidies (for about 500 housing units) in the West Bank were indeed going forward. No different than that incident some past years ago when Biden was coming to Israel and as he was landing essentially the Israelis pulled the same kind of crap. Except this time, with our election looming, Netanyahu knew what he was doing: Essentially, shitting right in the middle of the welcome carpet for our Secretary of State and daring her to turn around and not to eat it. And this concludes the latest lesson in Israel's real regard for the United States. 

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