Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. John Kerry. True, you are an authority on foreign affairs and you bring with you to the job vast knowledge and rich experience. However, all that does not render you error proof. And if you need justification for this, take Hillary Clinton as a case in point — she is a living example of the axiom that expertise alone does not keep you from failure.
So, in anticipation of your collaboration with the next Israeli prime minister — which, by the way, is going to be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — here are some tips to help you cope with Israel and the Israeli public in the next few years.
1. Don’t climb trees you can't get down from, and don’t set the bar too high.
You may say that this is obvious advice. In fact, the American demand posed by President Barack Obama that all building activity in the Israeli settlements be frozen as a precondition for opening negotiations with the Palestinians turned out to be a complete failure. As is well known, Netanyahu’s consent to the freeze did not lead to the hoped-for contacts with Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), and this failure let the Israeli prime minister demonstrate to the Israeli public (as well as to the American political establishment) his basic argument — namely, that there was no partner to peace negotiations.
As far as the Palestinians were concerned, the American request set the bar very high — a freeze on all construction activity in the settlements. However, the freeze on construction was only temporary and the outcome was utter disappointment in Ramallah.
The Palestinian negotiators themselves told the Americans in meetings behind closed doors: “What do you expect of us? You climbed up that tree of construction-freezing, so now you expect Abu Mazen to be more pro-Israeli than you are?”
And you, Senator Kerry, you must be aware that it was a mistake. That’s why you said only last year that “I have never thought it would work and it was, in fact, a waste of time; we spent a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was unachievable and doomed to fail."
What’s even more important is the conclusion to be drawn from the story: Don't let yourself be swayed by the rhetoric of either side, which more often than not serves their domestic politics only, and don’t set the bar too high, too early. The outcome is bound to be disappointment. And while this is nothing new in the Middle East, a region accustomed to disillusionment and frustration, failures are liable to weaken your position as an effective mediator.
2. Don’t underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is quite evident that President Obama, much like then-president Clinton in the days of Netanyahu’s first tenure as premier, is not too keen on the Israeli prime minister. Well, the leader of the free world is naturally entitled to his likes and dislikes, and his lack of sympathy for Netanyahu may be quite understandable considering the circumstances. However, lack of sympathy should not be confused with lack of esteem. Netanyahu has demonstrated over and over again that, when required, he can deliver the goods — for instance, take the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, brokered by Washington, under which Netanyahu surrendered Hebron to the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Netanyahu has shown that he is capable of thwarting and blocking even momentous moves already underway.
American officials tend to listen carefully to senior elements in the Israeli center-left. It is a discourse that they find rather convenient to hold, since the differences of opinion involved tend to be relatively limited. However, as matters now stand and as they will most probably stay in the coming years, the Israeli center-left is totally crushed and any evaluations by its leaders are worth nothing, at least in terms of effectiveness, and you, Mr. Kerry, should realize it.
The way to progress in the political process runs through one person, Benjamin Netanyahu. No progress can be achieved by condescension (nor, naturally, by unconditional acquiescence). What should be done is to establish a reasonable relationship that would wisely use the American levers of power. This is something that the first Obama administration, as well as the previous Netanyahu government, completely failed to do.
3. Never lightly dismiss the fickleness and resilience of the Israeli electorate.
You have been most probably briefed by someone in the State Department that Israel is a captive in the hands of the uncompromising right. But while this may be technically true, this is not necessarily the case.
Nobody imagined that the most tangible result of the Second Intifada, apart from the thousands of fatalities and the separation barrier, would be the complete and definitive withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. News cycles here in Israel are fast, memory is short and flexibility is Middle Eastern. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon presented the withdrawal as an Israeli victory. Thus, he managed to muster vast public support for the unilateral withdrawal that was carried out in the absence of an agreement, and for the evacuation of thousands of Israelis from their homes. As demonstrated time and again, an Israeli prime minister can make an about-face and still win the following election.
Even Yitzhak Shamir, the most conservative and uncompromising among the rightist prime ministers of Israel, ultimately made it to the Madrid conference. Netanyahu is less of a hard-liner than Shamir, and times have changed since.
4. More than the establishment of a Palestinian state, virtually a political consensus these days, Israelis are deeply worried about a nuclear Iran.
The big question you, Mr. Kerry, are asked to answer is quite simple: Are the Americans capable of delivering the goods of neutralizing Iran in return for the settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians? It is a deal the majority of Israelis are willing to make, even if they have to pay a painfully high domestic price.
5. Talk with the Israelis, Mr. Kerry.
President Obama chose not to visit Israel during his first term in office. Worse than that — as a president, Obama kept his distance not only from the government in Jerusalem, but from the Israeli public as well. True, we Israelis had become accustomed to the luxury of special American interest and attention. During the tenures of former US presidents Clinton and Bush, we felt their warm, personal and immediate sympathy for us. Obama is a different person: no-drama Obama. He is far more calculated and reserved.
However, in the Middle East it is a problem. With us, emotional gestures play a key role in directing historic moves. It is rather in doubt whether without the hug from Clinton and the unusually warm feelings he had for Israel, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin would have succeeded in gaining support at home for the Oslo peace process. Similarly, had it not been for the unusual gesture made by then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in his 1977 visit to Jerusalem, he would not have secured the agreement of then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.
We Israelis crave recognition, and we are particularly sensitive to the overtures and undertones of our closest and greatest allies — the Americans. We find it easier to swallow compromises when they are wrapped up in comforting Washingtonian sympathy. It is not a rational thing; however, an administration interested in making headway and reaching compromises must be ready to pay the price. And it means not just taking care of Israel’s security interests, the way Obama scrupulously did in his first term in office, but also a big American hug for a small state that suffers from deep insecurity. Give us that hug, Mr. Kerry — and above all, try and convince Obama to give us a big hug, too. You will be both surprised by the result.
Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Chanel 10's foreign-news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv daily. Eyal was named one of the hundred most influential people in the media for 2011 by the Israeli business magazine Globes. He holds an LLB degree from the Law Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.