Dear Mr. President,
Knowing I had spent almost six years in Israel and the West Bank, advising three United States Security Coordinator's for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, (USSC) a friend recently asked what advice I would offer you per your trip to the region. The conclusions I came to are qualified. If your goals for this venture are substantive, then I have several recommendations. If, however, your venture is primarily designed to be little more than a public relations extravaganza... I am afraid, my advice is limited to one suggestion, which you will find in the last paragraph of this piece.
That said, Mr. President, I'm going to give you the substantive benefit of the doubt, despite the fact the words and gospel beat of Neil Diamond's Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show run through my head every time I hear mention of your trip. You're old enough to remember the words... "Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies, And everyone goes, 'cause everyone knows, brother Love's show... "
My first bit of advice is that you not believe the flattering puff pieces heralding your trip to both sides of the Much Too Promised Land. You can't surge trust, you earn it, and you'll be encountering Israeli and Palestinian publics, which are highly suspicious of you. It's important that you've finally made the trip, but you'll be judged by what does or does not happen in the weeks and months following your departure.
Second, I commend the decision to direct your speech to the Israeli people instead of the Israeli Knesset. There's an element of encouraging brilliance there, but one that will be pilloried by many... so be it. As you craft your words, keep in mind something then-Dr., now-Ambassador Michael Oren once said in an interview:
... Israelis then and I think even to a large measure today, have this sort of bifurcated personality, which on one half tells them we can do anything. We are militarily invulnerable. And on the other hand, almost in the same breath, that same bifurcated personality tells them we are on the verge of destruction. We are on the edge of annihilation. And these two experiences -- these two halves are born of real experience. They're born of the Holocaust. They're born of 2,000 years of persecution, pogroms. On the other hand, they're born of the Israeli frontier experience, you know, the great bravura, the machismo of the Israeli experience. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who was the Prime Minister of Israel in the 1967 war summarized this bifurcation. He called it shimshon der nebechdikker in Yiddish, which simply means "Sampson the nerd." On one hand, you're Sampson, on the other hand, you're a nerd. When you speak, euphemistically put your arm around the nerd's shoulders while you direct your address to Sampson.
Third, open your speech with a devilish zinger. I'd quote that George C. Scott line from Patton -- "I thought I would stand here so you could see if I was really as big a son of a bitch as some of you think I am." Your aides and advisors will no doubt scoff, but if they do, they don't know Israelis. Israelis, better than any collective, will recall the bus you were accused of having thrown them under and the fact their prime minister made no secret of his preference for your Republican challenger this past November. The Patton line is an elegant way of tackling the elephant in the room. Start with that and not only will you guarantee a five-minute fit of a laughter-laced standing ovation, you'll gain a measure of Israeli respect.
The meat of your talk must address the "unbreakable bond" between the United States and Israel. Emphasize that you understand Israel's unique security challenges, especially Syria and that you view Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons as a world problem not just an Israeli one and therefore, you have Israel's back. Acknowledge that you know and understand collective Israeli fears, memories and emotions, then address your hopes for them. Explain directly to the Israeli people why you believe a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the long term strategic interests of the U.S. and by extension, Israeli and Palestinian ones as well. With Hezbollah to the north, and Hamas to the South, the West Bank is the one place where Israel can take the "controlled" initiative with substantive U.S. and international support. Strike a rapport and all things are possible, fail to do that and you'll just be having a nice time while enduring a litany of kosher meal choices.
Regarding your closed door talks with President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu... the "thing" for all is the very fact that you are there. If you decide that you wish to weigh into this morass, once more, you need to realize the mutual imperative for a "reset" in relations applies to President Abbas every bit as much as it does with Prime Minister Netanyahu. That said, there is a question you can ask them while asking yourself the very same. At the end of the last meeting then-USSC, LTG Keith W. Dayton and myself, held with a senior Israeli security official in September 2010, the official said "Keith, you tell your Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, that the Security Guys, (Israeli, Palestinian, U.S.) are leading the way for the politicians by setting the example and ground for the politicians, we are working hard for her, if the politicians do the same, we will get somewhere."
When I met with the same official in December 2012 and asked him just what it was he thought we collectively accomplished from 2005 to 2010 and what went wrong, he replied "we set the stage in order that my government could negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife to its neck... unfortunately, the politicians failed to take advantage of this and politically and strategically forge ahead." So... why that failure gentlemen? My own, on the ground, experiences at the time inform my opinion, but it's more important that you all honestly assess for yourselves what the answer to that question is and more importantly what might be done today. Security cooperation, without a concurrent political horizon has lasted much beyond what I and my fellow American architects of the USSC mission had imagined. That said, it won't last forever as recent significant upticks in violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem attest.
You're on your own, Mr. President, when it comes to what you say to the Palestinians. West Bank Palestinians live in a world with no current political horizon, an economy that is in the toilet and a security situation which shows signs of deteriorating. To them, Prime Minister Netanyahu's actions and inactions these past years are reminiscent of the Tolstoy quote: "I sit on a man's back; choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means -- except by getting off his back."
Rightly or wrongly, Palestinians, in large part, blame you for the impasse in the peace process, because they believe in the myth that Americans can make Israelis do anything. The fact that we don't means we don't want to. Conspiracy theories abound... you are in the Middle East, after all. So no, I won't tell you what to say to them, but I will tell you what you can do.
Start by instructing Secretary Kerry to hammer away at wealthy Arab nations to make good on their long promised financial pledges in order to stint the economic bleeding in the West Bank. Bang away at Congress as to why continued fiscal support for the Palestinian Authority is in the long term interests of the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian people. Re-energize support for Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad's institution building efforts and re-employ the Quartet Special Envoy, Tony Blair, and your Security Coordinator Vice Admiral Bushong. Security is the foundation that underlies all. Furthermore, you, Mr. President, have the ability to deliver a message that some Palestinian and Israeli politicians and many within the U.S. State Department have been reticent to, but one that both the Israeli and Palestinian publics need to hear; that is, sustained and intimate Israeli-Palestinian security coordination is required in the run-up to eventual statehood and will be just as critical post statehood. Those dedicated to these endeavors are state-builders, not collaborators as rejectionist groups such as Hamas, claim.
Remember, the situation on the ground will dictate what is possible to achieve at the negotiation's table, not the other way around, so for now, focus on re-creating supportive conditions there. Give both Israelis and Palestinians hope, Mr. President, but only if you intend to back your words with active support.
With bumper stickers, a Facebook slogan, embassy videos and a ticket competition... your trip to Israel has taken on all the trappings of a cross between Wild Bill Cody's Wild West Extravaganza and Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show. If, in the end, this trip is nothing more than a public relations exercise to get Republicans off your back, as some of your detractors have suggested, then give the people the entertainment package they really want and what your trip is currently lacking: a theme song and a troubadour to perform it! Make room on Air Force One for the man who proved your best advocate on the presidential campaign trail: Bruce Springsteen. You may be the president, but Springsteen is the Boss and Israelis have been waiting for his "first coming" for decades. Have him play "Human Touch." For a little bit of that human touch is exactly what you need to impart Mr. President, whatever your designs and desired outcomes for this trip may be.