U.S. ambassador discusses Settlements, Goldstone, Peace process, Iran (plus commentary)

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »
ambassador James Cunningham

ambassador Cunningham

U.S. ambassador to Israel, Mr. James B. Cunningham, gave today a short lecture at the Tel Aviv University on “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: One Year into the Obama Presidency”. Mr. Cunningham said that the Administration has “a sense of urgency” in trying to bring the renewal of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and emphasized several times that “time is not on our side” and that “the status quo is not sustainable”.

The ambassador admitted though that the task of bringing the parties back to the negotiating table “has proved to be very difficult”, and that the administrating is currently looking for “new ways”. Among the reasons for the current standstill Mr. Cunningham mentioned the situation created by the Goldstone report. He also noted that with regards to the settlement issue, the response the administration got from the Israeli government “is less than we hoped for”.

Ambassador Cunningham read a prepared lecture for 30 minutes, and than took questions for an additional half hour. I will report here some of the things the ambassador said, followed by my own commentary.

It seems that there is an effort by the administration to improve its image with the Israeli public, and much of what the ambassador said was in that spirit. In fact, one of his first remarks acknowledged that “polls indicate that there is doubt in Israel whether Obama is a good friend”. The Israeli public should know, said Mr. Cunningham, that “the president is Israel’s closest friends”.

Regarding operation Cast Lead, the ambassador said that “Israel has the right to defend itself, and Hamas’ terrorism must stop”. Later on he added that the US “is in agreement” with Israel on the role Iran is playing in the region through Hamas and Hezbollah.

With regards to the Goldstone report, the ambassador said that the US “objected the flawed mandate judge Goldstone was given… [and] we oppose its broad conclusions… we will object to the efforts to use the report to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself.” To this he added a rather strange remark, stating that the US has faith in Israel’s democratic institutions, and that it encourages Israel to use them to deal with the allegations in the report (I noted this sentence in Hebrew, so it’s not a word-by-word quote).

On Iran, the ambassador repeated the administration’s known position that “no option is off the table.” He was later asked if there is a “red line” – a Hebrew idiom, meaning a deadline or a final point – for negotiations with Iran. Mr. Cunningham answered that “I don’t know what the ‘red line’ is, I have a feeling we are close to it with the offer that was made to Iran.”

the Ambassador went to some length explaining the administration’s current position on the settlements issue, after what seemed like contradictory statements Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had recently given. Mrs. Clinton first declared that Netanyahu’s offer to curb some settlement was an “unprecedented gesture”, than said that it “falls far short” of U.S. expectations. Mr. Cunningham explained that “our policy hasn’t changed… settlement activity should be halted. The response from this government was less than we hoped for. We are in the process of acknowledging what was achieved, though it is not what we expected.”

I asked if the administration backs Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. To this the ambassador answered:

“We have taken on board the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, and we support that.”

To me it sounded at first like some sort of acknowledgment – and even support – of the Israeli pre-condition (which is very big news), but I was later told that the answer could be interpreted as if the ambassador only refers to the administration’s knowledge of the Israeli condition. I don’t see how that works with the “we support that” part, but my English is not good enough for these subtleties. Maybe some of the readers will make more out of it.


On the bus back home from the University, I couldn’t help feeling depressed and pessimistic.

For start, I was amazed by the atmosphere in the crowd, which was on the verge of hostility. Some guy asked “how is it that the administration is tough on America’s friends and soft on its enemies?” The University’s Rector had an incredibly short opening remark. All he said was that “America is our greatest friend, so we trust that it will veto the Goldstone report in the Security Council, because this report is a shame!” and most of the crowd applauded – the only time they did, during the entire hour. Indeed, TAU is not the progressive place it was ten years ago.

But my main concern was what the ambassador said. As the readers of this blog know, I had many hopes from the new president, and listening to Mr. Cunningham speaking, I couldn’t help feeling the administration simply lost its way.

It wasn’t just the fact that the White House is easing its pressure on Israel. In any case, this pressure was welcomed only when it could have served the effort to renew the peace process; I don’t wish Obama to confront Netanyahu just for the sake of it. But it just seems that the administration is not following some consistent line here. It came up with some very ambitious demands just a few months ago – the settlement freeze, halt to armed struggle – and then it simply let it go, and took on a different line, this time of negotiations without pre-conditions. The result: the WH lost all credibility with both sides.

It is also clear that whole Goldstone affaire caught the administration totally off guard. The US supported Netanyahu’s demand that Abu-Mazen won’t bring the report back to the UNHRC, thus pushed the Palestinian president to such a tight corner, that he was forced to adopt an extremely hard line, and even so, he might end up with having to resign. I know that the US has its own reasons for opposing the report, but surly they understand that this became an issue of principle in the Arab world by now, so the American president is risking losing all the credibility he worked so hard to restore.

And it goes on and on, One bad move after the other. In its effort to win back the sympathy of the Israeli public – to what ends? Does anyone think that the government will be more inclined for concessions just because Obama’s ratings rose five points in Yedioth Ahronoth’s poll? – we are told that the president is about to address the Rabin memorial rally in Tel Aviv this Saturday. I found myself, for the first time, agreeing with The New Republic. There won’t be a single person in this rally who doesn’t already like Obama. And the rest of the public – which mistrust the president and hate the Peace Camp – will just be further alienated. Doesn’t anyone in the WH understand how things work here?

Israeli politics moves quickly, while the American machine is slow to react. I won’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the end of the current administration’s effort. I believe that with time and persistence, they will do better (getting rid of Dennis Ross could be a start). But for now, the sad bottom line is that under Bush there were negotiations between Olmert and Abu-Mazen on a final agreement, while under the current administration the two sides can’t even agree on talking about the ways to resume talks.

No wonder the ambassador concluded the session by saying that “we could use a little help.”

One Comment on “U.S. ambassador discusses Settlements, Goldstone, Peace process, Iran (plus commentary)”

  1. 1 Jon said at 6:56 pm on November 5th, 2009:

    I say the US should stop trying to get the parties to negotiations, and instead the US should put forward their own proposal, which would essentially be the clinton parameters of December 2000 revamped.

    The solution is well known and endless negotiations will go nowhere.

    Rather – put pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to respond to a detailed and fair two state solution proposal. This will really expose whether Netanyahu wants to withdraw from the territories.

    I don’t see anything happening otherwise.