Interview with Gilead Sher: A very typical first meeting

The Pulse interviewed Gilead Sher, former Chief of Staff and Policy Coordinator for Israel's Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.

Pulse: How do you think the meeting went this week between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu?

Sher: Diplomatically speaking, it was OK. It was polite, well organized and nothing unexpected occurred. It was very typical of first meetings between a newly elected Prime Minister and the President of the United States. But in terms of substance the differences and divergences are quite evident.

Pulse: What are these differences?

Sher: The main problems, the differences, are related to the steps that the American Administration will require from Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians in particular and the moderate Arab states in general. The American Administration is led by people who know the Middle East very well, such as Gen. Jones, Secretary Clinton, Sen. Mitchell, and Secretary Gates. They will find Netanyahu's words, statements and declarations to fall short of satisfactory in terms of what they are looking for, especially on settlement activity and dismantling of outposts. Netanyahu, who is constrained both by ideology and his political coalition, will need to provide tangible deliverables, not just words. Words are enough for this first meeting, but they will not be enough in the weeks and months to come.

Pulse: What should we be looking for in the weeks and months to come?

Sher: First, we will see what is presented by Obama in the beginning of June in Cairo. We have to remember that the President did not start thinking and planning about these issues on the 18th of May, but much earlier, even before being elected. His staff has been working quite extensively to map the possibilities and assess ideas and plans, official and unofficial, that are circulating in various international forums, in the Arab world and in Israel in order to provide their own comprehensive, holistic US plan that can move this forward in a sustainable process. The Arab Peace Initiative will serve as an umbrella and the bi-lateral Israeli-Palestinian track will be facilitated by the US. All of this will take place parallel to the US dealing with Iran, as well as with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Pulse: Do you see a time frame?

Sher: My assessment is that Obama will want a tangible achievement before 2010 and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, with provisional boundaries, would be one possible outcome within his first critical couple of years in office.

Pulse: How does Netanyahu provide Obama with what he needs?

Sher: Annapolis, the Road Map, Clinton parameters and other back track negotiations already provide the design for a possible permanent two-state agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. Once the Israeli government is fully in place with all appointments and relevant positions filled, we can expect the negotiations with the Palestinians to resume on the highest senior level and on working levels, such process to be followed up closely by Washington. Add to that a parallel vigorous diplomatic process of normalization of relationship between Israel and the moderate Arab states, strengthening the Palestinian security forces (General Dayton's mission) and the rehabilitation of Gaza, and the overall effort becomes clearer.

Pulse: So Netanyahu will cooperate in spite of his constraints?
Sher: Although he has ideological constraints, his practical instincts will have the upper hand. He will not want to be considered by the international community as stubborn and inflexible; he just might want to make some progress toward reconciliation with the Palestinians. Netanyahu understands the need to disassociate Palestinians and Israelis in the long run, the question is would that be at all possible within the Israeli political reality in light of the February elections results. His political constraints are serious. As he approaches the juncture of a major decision, such as giving up territory or enlarging Palestinian authority along the Jones/Jenin Plan parameters, it will become impossible for some of his coalition partners to remain in the government. That is when we can expect a political crisis.

Pulse: When can we expect this crisis?

Sher: We will not have more than three or four months of relative tranquility within our internal political sphere. Netanyahu will not be able to mobilize the more radical elements in his government and yet he will have to find a way to accommodate whatever can be accommodated within the lines that President Obama will draw in June. Therefore, toward the end of this year these divergences will become evident, both internally within Israel and externally with the US, the EU and other international players.

Pulse: Does the Prime Minister understand how serious the President is on this issue?

Sher: No question that Netanyahu understands this. He learned the lessons of his first term of 1996-1999 and the political reality in today's American and international arenas are clear to him.

Pulse: How far will Obama push?

Sher: The profound, strategic US-Israel alliance being an important pillar for this administration, Obama will attempt to have as many steps taken amicably, and in convergence with the possibilities that exist for Netanyahu within his constituency, as possible. But Obama also needs to show progress on the peace process; he has to deliver a visible achievement to the American people in the form of halting the settlement activity and uprooting the illegal outposts. Obama will not waive this requirement.

Pulse: Will he offer anything to Netanyahu to sweeten the way?

Sher: We Israelis tend to view the situation as an equation with two equal parts, which is simply not the case; reciprocity with the US is not a given. Having said that, it is also quite evident that Iran will be tightly linked to progress on this front and Israel's existential concerns in this context will be given much consideration. Moreover, keeping the US-Israel relationship in order and on good terms, while maintaining as high a level of understanding as possible, is very important to both the American Administration and the Israeli government.

Gilead Sher is a senior partner at Aaronsohn, Sher, Aboulafia, Amoday & Co. His practice areas are corporate law; project finance; international business ventures, investments and transactions; constitutional law; and dispute resolution. Sher is the former Chief of Staff and Policy Coordinator for Israel's Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Barak. He was co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks. He also served under the late PM Rabin, as delegate to the 1994-5 Interim Agreement negotiations. His book, "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach" was published by Routledge in 2006. He teaches annually as a guest lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Sher was a Colonel (Res.), former brigade commander and deputy division commander in the Armored Corps of the IDF as well as a military judge. He is on the board of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and is former president of Israel Shotokan Karate Association and a member of the Council for Peace and Security

The interview was published by The Pulse, May 20, 2009