THE BLOG
01/17/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Israel and the U.S. -- Verbal Clashes and Policy Differences

For a long time the American-mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks were kept under a veil of utmost secrecy. In a political environment known for its lack of discretion, being leak-infested, this was taken to be a sign of seriousness, of potential progress. If the parties are so discreet, so, the logic was, they are doing that because they are finally dealing with extremely touchy, sensitive issues, such that premature information about them could compromise politically both President Abbas and PM Netanyahu with their respective suspicious constituents.

Well, no more. The flood gates were opened, and the behind the doors talk has become the talk of the town. Bad news, and it is really immaterial who started first. More importantly is the question why. Here too we can only guess. Either it is because the talks are faltering, about to collapse, and the parties are dealing with scapegoating and a search for excuses, or conversely, the opposite is true, that the talks near their climax, the moment of major decisions is fast approaching, and so internal debates among both Palestinians and Israelis come to the open in a bid to affect their respective public opinion. This blog tends, with the necessary caution and reserve, to adhere to the latter, rather than the former.

The Americans, under Secretary Kerry, are relentlessly pushing the parties, and in Israel, in particular; the American Embassy is very actively promoting the impression that a breakthrough is behind the door, and in a matter of days, maybe a few weeks, the American blueprint for a settlement, whether presented as a general framework of ideas, or in any other form, is to be put on the table. And then the parties will finally have to give their agreement, or else they will be liable to the charge that they obstructed, and be portrayed as peace resisters. No less.

A senior Palestinian official, Yasir Abd Rabo, formally rejected yesterday the suggested American formula for a framework agreement, but the truth is that the Palestinians have long enjoyed an advantage over the Israelis, and this is that they can say almost everything which they dim right, and somehow they are excused, but not so with the Israelis. They are taken to task on every move and statement which seem to be negative and unhelpful, clearly they are the party facing more international pressure, and clearly, and sadly, they play to the hands of those who lurk In the wings.

One example is the repeated Israeli ritual of announcing plans to increase building in the settlements. There is really no actual construction, but there is a lot of actual diplomatic and PR damage, which PM Netanyahu is forced to deal with because allowing the right-wing of Likud and the Jewish Home party to entertain the illusion of a settlement drive tends to allay some of their concerns about the outcome of the negotiations. But, recently the casual settlement announcement was not the main trigger to the eruption of another round of unnecessary verbal kerfuffle between Israel and the US.

Moshe Ya'alon is Israel's Defense Minister, and he is also a relatively new and inexperienced politician, and a very sincere one, so he simply said what was on his mind to an off-the-record session with some Israeli political commentators, or so he thought... The vitriolic anti-Netanyahu Yedioth Aharonot chose to publish the brief and it was devastating. Ya'alon castigated Kerry, doubted his sincerity and expresses serious doubts as to the entire process of negotiations. The fallout was immediate, and following public rebuke from Kerry and the White House, and mild words of reservation from Netanyahu, the Defense Minister uttered some words of apology, without retracting the contents of his remarks.

Here is where Netanyahu has a REAL problem. Ya'alon is not aspiring to succeed the PM, and he is the security authority of the government. While he may be a supporter of the settlement drive, this is NOT his main concern and emphasis. Using the settlements as the main bone of contention with the Palestinians is having a limited appeal in Israel, among the Likud radicals and the Jewish Home Party. Using security arguments, particularly the fate of the Jordan Valley, is appealing to more constituencies in the general public and among Netanyahu coalition partners from the movement and Yesh Atid parties. Netanyahu is fully aware of that, and it is in this context that we have to understand his recent visit in Amman and altogether the improving relations with King Abdallah.

The two countries have a joint interest in preventing a direct connection between a future Palestinian state and the Palestinian majority in Jordan. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are opposed to continuing Israeli presence along the Jordan river and the Americans are blowing hot and cold over this issue.

This and other security issues are the cup of tea of Ya'alon, and it is here that we have to look at the real fallout from his comments, not that of the immediate reactions to them. The newcomer to politics definitely erred and he knows it, but the stylistic mistake should not divert attention from the questions of substance which he raised. Making him the villain, turning him into a persona non grata in the US, will be counterproductive. He is staying in his post, he represents an agenda which is supported by many outside of the traditional right wing orbit, and these issues, the security arrangements and the sincerity of the side will be the issues determining Netanyahu's ability to survive the challenge from the right wing.

Kerry and his team should understand that any artificial deadline will not come on the expense of a serious, nuanced examination of nagging and difficult outstanding issues. The expectation from the Israelis to show statesmanship is clearly well placed, and Ya'alon and others in Jerusalem need to respect the efforts of a friend and ally, the US. The US should show more sensitivity to genuine Israeli security concerns.

After all, Netanyahu and Ya'alon and the Israeli people will have to endure the security consequences of an ill-devised agreement, not the American friends in Washington.