Israel’s turn to come to Washington

The Kerry-Putin meetings earlier this week, and the US-GCC summit yesterday, are good reminders of the value of face-to-face diplomacy, even when the people in the room disagree on major issues. Secretary of State John Kerry noted how crucial it is to keep channels of communication open, and he spent four hours each with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to ensure that, even without agreement, there are no misunderstandings of Russia’s views on thorny issues like Ukraine and Syria.

At Camp David yesterday, Gulf state representatives who went into the talks grumbling about American policy came out nearly ebullient — the direct, in-depth engagement with the president of the United States might not have brought them everything they wanted in terms of US policy, but it allowed them to bring their concerns directly to America’s leader, and thus reassured them that the president understands their views and takes their concerns to heart. That’s what allies most want from one another — not lockstep policies, but mutual understanding and empathy.

I hope Israel’s newly re-installed Prime Minister Netanyahu is taking note of these reminders of the value of personal diplomacy. He spent much of the last four months acting as though he’d written off the American president, and was keen to hasten a new (Republican) one along. Having won a bruising campaign with an unexpectedly decisive lead, he still faced a steep uphill climb to build the narrow, right-wing government that was finally announced this week. And Israel’s new government is beset with urgent challenges: from domestic inequity and a sluggish economy, to continuous terrorist threats, to spillover from the Syrian civil war and the instability of an unresolved existential conflict with its Palestinian neighbors. Internationally, Israel faces the prospect of increasing diplomatic isolation, as the breakdown in any negotiating process with the Palestinians leads more and more international actors to recognize a Palestinian state that so far exists only in name. The Vatican signed a new treaty with Palestine this week, prompting an outpouring of concern among Israelis that a diplomatic dam was breaking against them.

Netanyahu’s words, on the final day of the campaign, are part of what landed his country in such hot water abroad. As long as Israel’s government was formally committed to negotiating its conflict directly with the Palestinians, with a stated objective of Palestinian statehood, Israel and its allies could stave off action in international fora and argue that direct talks between the parties should take precedence. Netanyahu’s affirmative answer to a reporter’s question, suggesting that a Palestinian state would not emerge in his next term, seemed to belie this formal commitment to the negotiations. Despite his subsequent backtracking, those words pulled the rug out from under the US government, which had long defended Israel from actions at the United Nations even when the proposals on the table were in accordance with longstanding US policy. Now Washington and Jerusalem have a shared problem in how to stave off unilateral steps at the UN and elsewhere that could disadvantage Israel internationally and in any future negotiations. Netanyahu must work with Washington to resolve it.

I suspect that some of Netanyahu’s domestic allies might have watched with glee the media coverage of the Saudi decision to have the crown prince, not the king, come to Camp David as a “snub” to Obama. Netanyahu’s bullheaded pre-election visit to Congress alienated the president and congressional Democrats, and after he emerged victorious in the election, there’s no question that some Israelis on the right would prefer to follow the Saudi lead than to kiss and make up in Washington. They might be tempted to advise their prime minister to avoid the White House for now, to make Obama beg for a visit, or to emphasize Israel’s independence from the United States by making the White House a last stop on an international tour that starts in New Delhi or Berlin.

This would be both petty and self-defeating. Netanyahu knows that his small country thrives on its global connections, and he has worked to diversify those relationships. But to shore up support for Israel internationally, there’s simply no substitute for the world’s greatest superpower, the world’s largest economy, and Israel’s best friend — the United States.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s readiness to widen the gap with the administration in the name of torpedoing Iran negotiations severely limited his ability to shape any deal that results, with real costs for Israel. These last weeks before negotiations conclude are when Israel has maximum leverage to influence the terms on sanctions “snap-back” and other key provisions. This is also a crucial time for Israel to secure detailed American commitments to improving Israel’s deterrence and defense, just as the Gulf Arab states won from Obama at their summit.

Netanyahu survived a tough election and enters his fourth term in office with a shaky coalition and challenges on all sides. Whatever his plans are to manage the threatening regional environment, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the upcoming diplomatic onslaught, he would be wise to begin with a trip to Washington, and a face-to-face meeting with President Obama.