The Delusions of Obama's Israel Policy

For those who hoped that President Barack Obama would maintain the special relationship  between the United States and Israel, recognizing that the only real democracy in the Middle East must be a strong ally of the United States, the events of the past week have proved most disheartening.

For one, the Obama administration is making it clear that it does not even abide by agreements made with Israel by the previous administration.  As one unnamed Israeli official told the Israeli paper Haaretz, "all of the understandings reached during the [George W.] Bush administration are worth nothing." All this and more has been made most clear in a widely circulated article by Washington Post reporter and columnist Jackson Diehl. In an interview  Diehl conducted with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader told the columnist that all he can do is wait---first for Hamas to recognize Israel and end violence, and second to wait for Obama to force the Netanyahu government to free Israeli settlements.  Until Israel does this, he would refuse to negotiate at all with Israel. Diehl writes:

"What's interesting about Abbas's hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama's first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.

Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.' "

As Diehl explains, Abbas himself last year rejected Ehud Olmert's "generous outline for Palestinian statehood," in which Olmert would have given the Palestinians 97 per cent of the West Bank.  And Abbas is the would-be moderate!

As for the demand now for a settlement freeze, it is obviously  a mechanism meant to bring down the Netanyahu government, and replace it perhaps with one led by Tsipi Livni, that would be more to the liking of the Obama camp. As Shmuel Rosner argues in a Contentions blog, it appears that regime change- the bringing down of the Netanyahu government- rather than peace- is the real goal of the Obama administration. And on the same website, Noah Pollak makes the interesting point that Abbas is using his weakness as a way to allow the United States to put all its attention on forcing Israel alone to make concessions, since it knows full well that Abbas cannot get his Hamas opponents to make any whatsoever.

Fortunately, it is not only Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia who are rebelling against Obama's apparent new get tough on Israel policy. Ben Smith in Politico reports  that Democrats like Rep. Shelly Berkely of Nevada have said "My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute. I think it would serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements."  

And the point was best made by New York's Rep. Anthony Weiner, who pointed out that "there's a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the president is tiptoeing right up to that line...I would have liked to hear the president talk more about the Palestinian obligation," Weiner told Politico, "to cut down on terrorism."

Finally, as Marty Peretz has wisely written, "the two-state solution is a non issue."  Various Israeli governments have advocated this for years. What the Palestinians have wanted is to get back every inch of land lost by them in the 1967 war, and then move on to get back everything they lost when Israel itself defeated five invading Arab armies after the new Jewish state was created.  No wonder that in Israel, as Peretz notes, the entire country has stood with Netanyahu in opposing a freeze on expansion within existing settlements. Peretz, who campaigned for Obama in the election season and assured his readers that he would not harm Israel when he became President, now asks who led Obama to make the settlements demands, and wonders if it was some of the unnamed "realists" lurking behind the scenes. At any rate, he says that if Obama continues down the path on which he has started,  "he will have shown that he fails to grasp that facts have changed since the war that started 42 years ago this coming week and many of them have changed beyond the tinkering -or the grand architecture- of an American president."