Barack Obama has proven to be a determined man when it comes to achieving goals he really cares about. He may not get everything he wants when he wants it, but he has shown that there is often more than one way to advance his agenda, and he can be patient when the political environment is unfavorable. This has been true on both the domestic front and in foreign policy.
Obama has used federal agencies such as the EPA and NLRB to move aggressively to favor Obama interests (bashing coal producers, making it easier for workers to organize into unions) when Congress did not adopt climate change legislation or “card check” legislation. The Department of Health and Human Services has regularly changed the rules of Obamacare, seemingly making the rules up as they go along when it became clear that certain provisions were either very badly conceived or politically unpalatable to important Obama interest groups.
There has also been subterfuge to make it seem that the abuse of the separation of powers and routine bypassing of Congress has not really occurred. The president says he has issued far fewer executive orders than prior presidents, when in fact he has issued far more when you include his memoranda — which serve the same purpose.
In foreign policy, the administration has pursued several policies with the same doggedness. One of these has been to damage the historically close ties between Israel and the United States. The alternative way to say this is that so long as Israel elects leaders who do not see things the way the administration does, it will be very much out of favor with the White House.
Over the first six years of the Obama administration, there is little that Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has ever done right according to the White House or the State Department. Conversely, almost nothing the Palestinians have done has been called out for similar criticism. Meanwhile, the administration has pursued a new relationship with Iran (much as it has with Cuba), signaling that traditional alliances and enmities were out the window with this administration. The obsession of Secretary of State Kerry with pushing the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the Iranian nuclear negotiations seems to be a mix of legacy-building for both Kerry and Obama, but also part of the shift away from the traditional alliance with Israel.
A goal of the White House seems to have been to break the bipartisan support for a strong U.S-Israel relationship in Congress by making it far easier for Democrats to go their own way. In essence, the White House has facilitated a transition within the party to better reflect the views of the Democratic Party’s base, now heavily made up of younger voters and minorities, among whom there is not nearly as much support for Israel as in the past. The Obama administration has set in place a longer-term process to separate Democrats in Congress from their historic role as strong supporters of Israel.
Whether Obama is following his base on this issue or leading it is a different question. As the single most visible political figure in government, when a president is viewed as being engaged in a bitter feud with a foreign leader, as the press has dutifully reported is the case between Netanyahu and Obama, a strong message has been delivered. This message particularly gets to those who support the president in general, and on pretty much all specific issues. The president has also blessed and opened the White House’s door to J Street, an organization allegedly committed to both Israel and peace. In reality, the group is a “blocking back for the White House,” as its own leaders have admitted, for the regular Israel-bashing and pressure campaign that has been underway since both Obama and Netanyahu took office in 2009. If one looks for instances of J Street uttering a kind word about Netanyahu, you will find even fewer than those from the president himself.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has collapsed following the firing of two ministers from parties in his coalition that had broken with his government. New elections have been called for March 17. The Israeli election system is a parliamentary one, although one without legislative districts. Parties nominate slates and determine the order of their candidates. If a party wins 20 of 120 seats in the Knesset, based on their share of the overall vote among the parties who register at least 3.5% of the total vote, then the first 20 names on that party’s list will become Knesset members.
Thirteen parties hold seats in the current Knesset (the hurdle until this current election had been only 2% of the total vote for representation for a party), an indication of the fragmentation of the current system. After the Knesset elections are held, since no single party ever wins a majority on its own or even comes close, the country’s president picks the leader of a party that he thinks has the best chance of putting together a coalition of parties to get to at least 61 seats, a Knesset majority. That has been Netanyahu for two consecutive elections, though a third victory is not assured.
A recent poll shows right-wing parties winning 40 seats, left-wing and Arab parties winning 40 seats, and 40 seats up for “sale” (or persuasion), though many of these would be with religious parties generally more comfortable as part of a right-wing government.
One of the issues Bibi has to deal with is that many Israeli voters are concerned about deteriorating U.S.-Israei relations. Israel has few allies beyond America, Canada under Stephen Harper, and Australia most of the time. Among these three, of course American support has always mattered most, given the history of foreign aid, weapons supply, and the Americans’ Security Council veto. European behavior, on the other hand, has become more viper-like every week. Most Israelis are smart enough to understand that whatever Netanyahu’s faults, the problems in the relationship the last few years have been largely created by the Obama administration. Though there are some who are right-of-center on security issues who might think that someone other than Bibi might be better able to shepherd the country through the rocky last two years of the Obama administration, since any new president after Obama is unlikely to be so hostile.
When Bill Clinton was president, he allowed his campaign team, including pollster Stanley Greenberg, Bob Shrum, current J Street operative Jim Gerstein, and Jim Carville, to assist Labor party leader Ehud Barak and to help bring down Netanyahu’s government in 1999. Greenberg is going back to Israel to help the Labor Party again. Surely, this has the Obama seal of approval.
The Obama team may have overplayed its hand when it allowed a rumor to get out that sanctions against Israel over its settlement building had been discussed at the White House. Congressional Democrats pushed back hard against the idea, and the administration denied it had ever come up. A few weeks back, a reporter close to the White House had repeated various obscenities which top administration figures had used to describe Netanyahu, including “chickens**t.”
This week, Secretary of State Kerry seems to be trying a different approach, by reassuring Israel that the U.S. will use its veto in the Security Council (if it has to, assuming the Palestinians collect nine votes) to prevent the Palestinian Authority from getting its resolution passed on a two-year deadline for statehood within the 1967 borders. Of course, Kerry has generally been milder in his public criticisms of Israel than the off-the-record amateurs at the White House. At the same time, Kerry has let slip that Israeli leaders from the left believe a debate and vote on a PA resolution at the UN now will only solidify support for Netanyahu and right-wing parties, so he is loathe to give Bibi an assist.
In any case, the administration seems to be trying to deliver two messages: things could get far worse for Israel in the next two years (we won’t use our veto at the UN next time), or there could be more support if Israel is more forthcoming and accepts the American approach (offering concessions to the Palestinians and not opposing a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal). Of course, since Bibi Netanyahu is unlikely to become a J Street prime minister, the real goal of the administration, as was the case in the Clinton administration, is to bring him down.