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Obama and Israel's Domestic Politics

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.   


Categories > Foreign Affairs

Discussions - 5 Comments

Might Obama be going after Israel to keep his domestic Left happy with his foreign policy? He's continuing the patriot act; being responsible in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Guantanamo is still open; he's using more drone strikes than Bush. If the focus remains on Israel, it stays off that stuff.

With his public approval at 44 and still eroding, with a general jobs-slaughter felt especially hard by his minority and poor constituencies, with Democratic dissappointments for the mid-terms a-coming, the president might be one war atrocity, or one WH scandal, or one other left-enraging screw-up, (which from their screwed-up prespective would include one unavoidably necessary action against Iran or NK) away from a primary challenge in 2012. He would certainly win that challenge, but the morale damage to the Dems from its mere, nearly-inconceivable-now, existence would be immense. So Richard may be onto something.

Combining Richard and Pete, then, Obama is following a strategy that if he's smart, he knows he can expect nothing from peace-wise. Best-case scenario for him, but unlikely, is the breakup of Netanyahu's gov. From his standpoint, that unlikely outcome MIGHT allow a peace-agreement that at least looks good in the future. But the process is more important, for the reasons Richard says. He can't bring himself to care much about what happens in Israel/Palestine. However, plenty of Dems remain in sleep-walk denial as far as Israel policy goes--it is for them a never-ending story of the peace-talks being THE key to the Middle East and the terror-threat, in which there is an ABSOLUTE need for the U.S. prez to be pushing Israel hard, and the Palestinians softly, to make the magical concessions. It's still 1982 or something for these folks, and Obama knows he can rely on their self-blinded sincerity to back up his cynical manuevering. Their praise will keep him from being demonized in Arab opinion as well.

Or, Obama is not smart on this and has drunk the Carter kool-aid of these folks, and this is one more area in which his administration's combination of dogmatism and incompetence inevitably produces a series of little embarrassments, no real accomplishments, and could potentially produce real disasters.

Guys, sorry I'm late getting back to you but I was away from my computer most of the weekend;

Richard, there is an anti-Israel constituency out there but I don't think it lines up well with the broader get-out-of-Afghanistan feeling in the Republican party. To the extent that the two positions overlap and have high salience, I don't think some slaps at Netanyahu help him with this hard core group. Some of the complications can be seen in Pelosi's response to Netanyahu. She comes from a district in which the Republican candidate would come in third in a three way race with Obama and Hugo Chavez. But on the same trip that Obama snubbed Netanyahu, she made it a point to embrace the Prime Minister. I don't think that the attacks on Israel buy Obama any cred with the American left, and I don't think they are designed to. It is more likely that those attacks will left-leaning, Obama-liking folks who don't think much about Israel to become more anti-Israel. I think another contributing explanation might be that he is trying to earn some "honest broker" cred from hose outside of the US who think that the US should be more evenhanded between those who want to destroy Israel and Israelis who would prefer their country not be destroyed. The sad thing is that like most of the times in which Obama is very and persistently wrong, he is trying to do the right thing as he sees the right.

Carl, I totally agree with your 2nd paragraph, but several comments.

1. It is possible that Afghanistan will become Obama's Vietnam, but I doubt that will happen. Even with Iranian training and arms, the Taliban are not the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese and Petraeus/McCrystal are no Westmoreland. And thank God for that.. I could still see Obama's administration being destroyed by some conflict with Iran or North Korea, or something I don't see, but in that case, Obama's political problems are the least of our problems.

2. I think that we are taking Obama's political temperature at an artificial low. Barring the widely held perception of an Iraq in 2006 level foreign policy disaster, he will be going into 2012 with an improving labor market and health care reform (which might not be an asset in the general election, but certainly will be among left-leaning voters). He will be unassailable on the left minus some marginal gadfly types who never get more than ten percent. He will also be formidable for the general election.

3. I think Obama is very smart, very skilled, very politically determined and often very wrong. Which is why he worries me so much.

'[I]f one assumes that its purpose is to bring together the current Israeli government and the West Bank based Fatah government together for meaningful negotiations.'

So, on what basis is that a reasonable assumption? A few words--quite a few actually--from a hectoring bore, one whom careless people call eloquent, reckoning him to possess oratorical prowess.

Nothing in Obama's behaviour suggests that the destruction of Israel will disturb him or his friends. Perhaps a few crocodile tears but nothing more. If the assumption of 'meaningful negotiations' were sound then regime change would have no relevance. Netanyahu could lead the broader Israeli public into new conditions if the Palestinians were interested. They are not. Accordingly Obama's purposes become abundantly clear.

Agreed on most your points Pete. I was just trying to flesh out Richard's rationale for this Israel policy. A primary challenge to Obama from the left remains a very long-shot right now, but we can be assured Obama will take a number of steps to try to make it impossible nonetheless. And this Israel stuff might fall into that.

I do think he'll fall to around 40 and never go lower barring major disaster, and I do think there will be some bounce-backs.

And so far, you look correct about Afghanistan...

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