I have been reticent to criticize President Obama on foreign policy, but his stance toward Israel's government is troubling. I think that Obama has gotten Iraq and Afghanistan mostly right, and to the extent that I disagree with his policies towards those countries, I am not confident that he is wrong and I am right. He has been much more responsible with the Iraq drawdown that I feared. I wish that he would be willing to push for a longer term American presence in Iraq (even if it involved small numbers of American troops) as a way of balancing Iran's influence in the country, but I can see a whole bunch of good arguments on the other side. I'm glad that Obama defied his base and adopted and resourced a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. I'm not a fan of his announced drawdown timetable in 2011, but Obama has often showed that he believes that artificial deadlines and timetables are needed to push players to get anything done. It doesn't mean that if the war isn't won by 2011, the US will quit. In the health care debate, Obama announced deadline after deadline, and when those deadlines were blown, he kept pushing forward until he won. We can hope that he will show half as much tenacity in defeating our country's enemies.
But Obama's policy toward Israel is puzzling if one assumes that its purpose is to bring together the current Israeli government and the West Bank based Fatah government together for meaningful negotiations. Obama's public standoffishness and demands for unilateral Israeli concessions guarantee paralysis. The Israelis could be expected to balk at a demand to give up something in return for nothing, and the Palestinians could boycott talks until Obama extracted Israeli concessions. The Palestinians could then come in with their own set of demands. The Politico notes Dennis Ross arguing within the Obama administration about the political constraints that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu faces in obeying Obama's demands to stop Jewish building in East Jerusalem.
I suggest that Obama understands Netanyahu's political constraints quite well and that Obama's Israeli policy has a stategic purpose - though not one that I approve of. I think that Obama has concluded that Netanyahu will bever be the negotiating partner he needs and that Netanyahu must first be replaced with a more pliable Prime Minister. Obama's Israeli policy makes sense if one thinks of it as designed to bring down the Netanyahu government and bring in a "pro-peace" Prime Minister.
The Obama administration's leaked and public displays of hostility toward Netanyahu are a signal to the Israeli center that Netanyahu is endangering Israel's alliance with her most valuable ally. Obama's demand for unilateral Israeli concessions on building in East Jerusalem (and delivered in such a way that it would be a public humiliation for Israel to comply) is designed to cripple Netanyahu's support from the right. If Obama can get Netanyahu to cave, Netanyahu will lose support on the right and gain no credit from the center. If making concessions on West Jerusalem des not break the Netanyahu government, then there can always be other demands on other issues.
Netanyahu has evaded this trap so far because Obama has chosen lousy ground on which to pick a fight. Netanyahu's resisting a total building ban in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem seems to have broad support on both Israel's right and center. Netanyahu can defy Obama on this issue without fearing erosion of support from any group that might be at all inclined to vote for him.
Aside from the moral problem of trying to bring down an allied country's democratically elected government, Obama seems to misunderstand the area's dynamics. Israel is a different place than it was fifteen years ago. America can't produce a peace process by seeking to replace a Shamir with a Rabin. Too many Israelis remember how the last peace process worked out - with huge Israeli offers of concessions followed by a string of suicide bombings. Any Israeli government will have to take into account of the public's skepticism that unilateral Israeli concessions will bring peace any closer. This public skepticism will either restrain or bring down any Israeli government that seeks to do Obama's will. Any real peace process will involve state-building and economic growth in the West Bank and a focus on reciprocity. And it probably will not conclude while Obama is President, even if he serves two terms.
So what are Americans who want to see our President succeed (which is not the same thing as always getting his own way) and who are friends of Israel to do? In one sense there is little that anyone can do. The President has most of the leverage in conducting foreign policy (there are all kinds of things Congress could, in theory, do but I see them as unlikely). A few first steps would be to recognize what Obama is doing and to bring it to the public's attention that he is using an unwise tactic in pursuit of a reprehensible strategy and hope that some measure of public opposition (possibly inflamed by an outraged sense of democratic fair play) will lead Obama, against his will, to adopt a more sensible approach.