Q & A with Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post
“By putting pressure on Israel to stop construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that Abu Mazen told Olmert that he could keep, he has prevented the peace process from moving forward. ”
By Judie Jacobson
Gil Hoffman is the chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post. Well-connected to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Hoffman has interviewed every major figure across the Israeli political spectrum, has been interviewed by top media on six continents and is a regular analyst on CNN, Al-Jazeera and other news outlets. Called “The most optimistic man in Israel” by Israel Television, Hoffman’s writing and TV appearances provide a behind the scenes look at the intrigue and humor in the Israeli political arena. Hoffman also frequently covers diplomatic issues, traveling with the prime minister and reporting on the Mideast peace process and other key international developments. Hoffman, who was raised in Chicago, wrote for the Miami Herald and Arizona Republic before moving to Israel. A reserve soldier in the IDF’s Spokesman’s Unit, he has lectured in more than 30 U.S. states and five countries. He lives in Jerusalem.
This week, Hoffman made several stops in Connecticut as part of a coast-to-coast speaking tour of the United States. The Ledger spoke with Hoffman as he criss-crossed the state for a series of speaking engagements organized by the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT).
Q: Clearly, relations between Israel and the U.S. are not good. What is your take on how we got to this point?
A: There are different explanations as to how things got to the point that they did. One of the explanations that I like is one that I got from Natan Sharansky. A few days before the election in Israel, how Netanyahu was going to get along with Obama became an issue of the campaign. After Netanyahu’s political opponents said they won’t get along, Sharansky said “Yes, they will.” He also made another prediction. He said that what causes problems between countries is not disputes over policies, it’s surprises. One country cannot surprise the other. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Each side feels surprised by the other. Obama felt surprised when a building project was advanced in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem. In fact, Netanyahu was surprised by that, too.
Q: Was Netanyahu truly surprised by that?
A: He was in a meeting when an aide poked his head in and said “I just heard something on the radio about a building project in Ramat Shlomo,” and Netanyahu’s reaction was, “Where is Ramat Shlomo?” He had no idea where it was. Obama blamed the Interior Minister Eli Yishai from Shas. Eli Yishai didn’t know about it either, but he’s accepted Obama’s crowning him the “defender of Jerusalem.” Shas has promised that Obama will be featured in their campaign commercials. Obama has done a lot to move Israelis to the right. He’s done a lot to make Israelis on the left upset. In fact, [Israel’s] left is much more upset than its right, because the right who don’t want the peace talks to move forward never had expectations for Obama; but the left were hoping that he would move the peace process forward and, if anything, he’s done the opposite. By putting pressure on Israel to stop construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that Abu Mazen told Olmert that he could keep, he has prevented the peace process from moving forward. He’s created a situation in which 2009 was the first year without talks between Israel and the Palestinians since 1991, because he’s put the pressure in a place where it doesn’t make sense. There was a poll reported in Israel last Friday that found that about 16 percent of Israelis blame Netanyahu for the peace talks not moving forward; 58 percent blamed Obama; and 18 percent blamed both. What was interesting is that no one blamed the Palestinians. Because people understand that as long as there is pressure from the United States on Israel, why would they come to the negotiating table? They’ll hold out for more.
Netanyahu also felt surprised by Obama; he felt surprised last May when Obama and Netanyahu met for the first time at the White House and Obama said that Israel could not build anywhere over the pre-1967 borders – unlike what Bush and Clinton had both said, which is that Israel could build within the settlement blocks, just not expanding them, so that it wouldn’t affect the final borders of a Palestinian state. Obama broke those promises. Netanyahu, though, was afraid that Obama would say something much worse. He was afraid that Obama would want to return to the offer that Olmert offered the Palestinians – he offered the Palestinians 100 percent of the West Bank and Jerusalem coming under the international stewardship of five countries: the U.S., the Palestinian state, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. He was afraid Obama would adopt that plan. In fact, Obama did the opposite.
But it’s not illegitimate for an American President to not abide by the commitments of his predecessors. A lot more problematic is that Obama has broken his own promise. It wasn’t easy for Netanyahu to sell a 10-month settlement freeze to the people of Israel. He intended to sell it with Obama’s promise to deliver some concessions from the Arab world toward Israel. But Obama failed. The Arab world has consistently said no to Obama whenever he’s asked them for anything. So, when Obama failed, the only way Netanyahu could sell the freeze was to say “Well, at least it’s only going to be 10 months. At least Jerusalem isn’t included.” And then people went along with it – even though they didn’t understand why Israel had to stop building five minutes outside Jerusalem in a place that Jimmy Carter said was going to be part of Israel forever.
Then, last month when Netanyahu went to meet with Obama again, and Obama had been emboldened by passing health care and upset about the surprise regarding Ramat Shlomo, he told Netanyahu to forget about the 10-month limit, as well as the exclusion of Jerusalem. That’s not the way you build trust. Obama’s behavior has prevented the peace talks from moving forward. And that’s why he’s so unpopular in Israel right now.
Q: Are things as bad today as they were when Netanyahu last visited the President?
A: That visit was the nadir. Shortly after that, the people around Netanyahu were asked why they think it’s gotten so bad and they said that Obama divides up the world differently than his predecessors did. President Bush divided the world between what Bush called the “axis of evil” and the good guys and Israel was included among the good guys, and some of Israel’s adversaries among the bad guys. Obama divides up the world differently. He divides up the world between victims and victimizers, and he has incorrectly included Israel among the victimizers, and some of Israel’s adversaries among the victims. And he has coddled countries that encourage terrorist attacks against the United States, instead of holding them accountable for that. And that is why a lot of people who are high up in Jerusalem and close to the prime minister believe that things are not going to get better over the next few years.
Q: Is Israel seriously considering an attack on Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power?
A: There are four different ways to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The first is a political approach; hoping that the rioting will lead to regime change. The protestors were definitely hurt by the fact that they didn’t get any support from Washington – support they would have had under any other administration, Democratic or Republican. And yet the rioting goes on; sometimes it takes time. It took a year and a half to have a revolution last time. So, it may work in the long run.
Then there’s the diplomatic approach, which I don’t think anyone in Israel thought would work. But Obama tried to reach out. He failed, but each approach has to be exhausted completely before you can move on to the next one. Even though it was open-ended to begin with and he told Netanyahu there would be no deadline to it, Netanyahu persuaded him to set a deadline. Obama said there would be a reassessment at the end of the year if the diplomatic approach had not worked, and it didn’t. Now, sanctions have passed in both houses of Congress – that’s the third option. We’ve been waiting for three months for Obama to sign them into law. He refuses to sign them into law until the U.N. passes its own sanctions. Lebanon has the rotating presidency of the security council in the month of May. So nothing is going to happen this month. The administration in Jerusalem and leaders around Europe have been trying to persuade Obama to stop waiting for the U.N. But he’s waiting. Mexico takes over the Security Council next. So, the fate of the free world lies with Mexico.
The fourth option is a military approach. That’s the only one left. At first, the Obama administration said there’s no military option, but now they say all options are on the table. Being Israeli means hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. But no one is going to strike until the economic approach – the sanctions – have been exhausted, and they haven’t even begun yet.
Q: Does Israel think it’s getting sufficient support from the Jewish community here?
A: A few weeks ago, an Israeli minister very close to Netanyahu who is very well informed said, “The key is getting internal political pressure in the U.S. That counts. We see that it’s worked in the past. Obama wanted to close Guantanamo; he didn’t. He wanted to close the war in Afghanistan; he expanded it. We haven’t seen enough criticism of the U.S.’s delusional anti-Israel policy. If [the Obama administration] sees that the American people aren’t buying their policies, they’ll change them.” That was April 12. Since then, you’ve had 76 senators and 333 congressmen sign the letter to Hilary Clinton – thank God for AIPAC. You’ve had Elie Wiesel, Ed Koch, Chuck Schumer , etc.write open letters and speak out – and it had a big effect. After that, Obama sent a very pro-Israel message; he dropped by the meeting with Barack and his office has denied reports in the Washington Post and The New York Times – that they themselves leaked – that Obama was seriously considering trying to impose a peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians. They realized that they need to encourage the two sides to come together to settle their differences. That’s coming a long way towards Israel’s position. Israel’s been pushing for the peace talks since last year, while both the Palestinians and the Americans have taken a step backwards, with the Palestinians setting preconditions and America breaking commitments to both Israel and the Palestinians.