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Obama and Israel: What Now?

Since the Obama administration's major defeat in the American midterm elections, commentators have been wondering how the new constellation of forces in Washington will affect the president's Middle East peace initiative. Among hopeful partisans of the administration's efforts, the favored position is that little is likely to change. They point out that the executive branch, not the legislature, makes foreign policy, and that the party holding Congress, whether Republican or Democratic, tends to have little say in such matters. In support of this point, they cite the lessons of history, especially the experience of Bill Clinton after the GOP sweep in 1994.

Relevant Links
A Weakened Obama? Not So Fast  Yossi Alpher, Bitter Lemons. Yes, things may change—but not necessarily in the direction Netanyahu hopes.  
Don't Count Obama Out  Steven L. Spiegel, Huffington Post. Four reasons why it is wrong to assume that the president will be in the least deterred from pursuing his diplomatic objectives.    

Here, for instance, is Newsweek's take on the matter:

[E]xperience has shown that the composition of Congress does not necessarily determine Washington's approach to the Middle East. The most relevant example would be President Clinton's dealings with Israel during his second term. Though Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate, Clinton managed to force a recalcitrant Israeli leader into withdrawing from parts of the West Bank under an interim deal with the Palestinians. That leader's name: Benjamin Netanyahu.

And here, in a similar vein, is the Israeli pundit Akiva Eldar:

During Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, the tense relations between the liberal U.S. president and the conservative Congress did not help [the Israeli leader] push his agenda. After Netanyahu authorized the controversial opening of a tunnel near the Western Wall . . . Clinton dragged him to Washington for a sulha, or reconciliation meeting, with Yasir Arafat.

Both Newsweek's writer and Eldar conclude that, as the former puts it, "when the dust clears, [Netanyahu] can expect renewed pressure to resume the settlement freeze in the West Bank and get serious in talks with the Palestinians."

The latest news headlines, heralding a possible new settlement freeze, would seem to confirm this analysis, which is hardly without merit. When it comes to foreign policy, the leeway enjoyed by an American president is indeed considerable. And there are, of course, limits to how much Israel can afford to alienate any administration. But the argument also misses several significant differences between 1994 and today, differences that make any medium- or long-term predictions problematic at best.

The most important difference is also the most obvious: Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. Indeed, where Israel is concerned, the contrast between the two men could not be more striking. Put simply, Israelis loved and trusted Clinton—and still do—in a way that they do not and probably never will love or trust Obama. Large numbers consider the current president to be openly hostile to Israel, and even those who feel otherwise have expressed little affection for the man or admiration for his abilities. Moreover, while Clinton worked hard to win the confidence of the Israeli people, Obama has made little effort to do so; quite the opposite, in fact.

Equally significant is the difference between the Israel dealt with by Clinton and the Israel that Obama faces now. In 1994, a left-wing government was in power in Jerusalem, and large sectors of the Israeli populace and establishment were committed, both politically and emotionally, to the Oslo peace process. Even after Netanyahu won office in 1996, Oslo was too entrenched to be openly repudiated. If anything, it had been sanctified by the recent martyrdom of Yitzhak Rabin. In addition, the pro-Oslo camp was more or less united behind Ehud Barak, a figure of considerable credibility on the security front. Opposition to Oslo from the Israeli Right, although it may have struck a sympathetic chord with some in Washington, could be easily triangulated, especially by a politician of Clinton's talent.

The reality in Israel is now completely different. Arafat's betrayal of Clinton at Camp David in 2000, the collapse of Oslo in the carnage of the second intifada, and the all but total lack of sympathy with or support for Israel displayed by the international community throughout the upheavals of the past decade have fundamentally changed the country's domestic consensus. However Israelis may feel about specific issues like settlements and borders, the overwhelming majority are unwilling to take the same risks they took in 1994, or for that matter in 1996. Moreover, they feel they should not be asked to do so.

As long as Netanyahu keeps himself in sync with this consensus, and does not swing too far to the Left or the Right, he is likely to be relatively safe from American attempts at triangulation. Indeed, he may be in a position to indulge in a little triangulation of his own, pleasing the center-Right in Israel and the U.S. by reacting sharply to Obama's criticism of building in Jerusalem ("Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel") while pleasing the center-Left by acquiescing in another temporary settlement freeze.

Barring unforeseen events, then, it is highly questionable that Obama will be able to match Clinton's effectiveness in pushing his dream of a breakthrough agreement in the Middle East on a skeptical Israeli public, or for that matter on an American public whose sympathies are running strongly in Israel's direction. Again barring unforeseen events, Obama may find himself wishing for the kind of congressional support that Clinton never needed.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.

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Independent Patriot on November 16, 2010 at 8:45 am (Reply)
You are also dealing with a President of the US that is openly disdainful of the right of Israel to exist. He does not acknowledge the Jewish people's attachment to Eretz Israel and in fact has aligned himself with virulent Jew-haters. Unfortunately it may get really hard for Israel over the next two years, as Obama is emasculated in every sphere he tries, whether at home or abroad. The only area that no one internationally will give him a hard time is when he denigrates Israel.

The only way Obama will be made to back off is if the powers that be in the democratically aligned Jews force their hand with the party, that is all. That way the democratic elites will reign Obama in in his march to harm the Jewish state.Other than that, it will not happen. It is ironic don't you think that the upper west side Jews who live such a comfortable and safe life. Whose biggest issue is where to stay in the Hamptons for the summer or where to winter in the Caribbean, have such influence on whether the children of the Jews of Israel need to fight another war caused by the inadequate man they helped get elected to the Oval office.These liberal Jews had better get their act together and acknowledge what they did, that they put their fellow Jews in terrible harm's way. But they won't, because like Obama they have no mode of introspection only contempt for those they consider beneath them, including Jews who support the State of Israel and don't kowtow to anti-Semitic politicians.(You guessed it I have no use for the liberal enshrined national Jewish organizations who deride pro-Israel conservatives but happily take money from the likes of Soros.They are a travesty and an embarrassment to the rest of us.)
Kenneth Besig on November 16, 2010 at 11:03 am (Reply)
Let us first make the most important Palestinian Israeli negotiating issue perfectly clear. There are no Israeli suggestions or American proposals which will ever induce the Palestinians to sign a peace settlement with Israel. There is no Israeli concession or set of concessions, and there are no powers on this planet which will ever induce the Palestinians to settle peacefully with Israel.
Thus it really makes no difference in terms of the Palestinian Israeli peace negotiations whether Obama despises or loves Israel and the Jews, whether Netanyahu freezes or expands Jewish housing in Jerusalem or the settlements, whether the Americans pressure Israel or not. The Palestinians have only one goal and one outcome for the peace negotiations, that is, the destruction of Israel and the extermination of every Jew in the Middle East.
The Palestinians tried war against Israel with two so-called Intifadas and failed. The Palestinians tried the demographic war to destroy Israel by flooding Israel with Palestinians with their non negotiable(their words) "right of return of all Palestinians refugees to Israel" and failed. Now the Palestinians are carrying out a diplomatic war by trying to demonize, delegitimize, and isolate Israel. This is being done with the intent of turning Israel into an outlaw or rogue state in the international arena. This the Palestinians hope will ultimately lead the international community into imposing the Palestinians' destructive and genocidal demands on Israel.
At the same time the only tactic the Palestinians have never tried is the one that would work, that is if they wanted peace with Israel and a two state solution. The Palestinians have never tried negotiating in good faith to achieve a compromise settlement that would provide Israel with security and the Palestinians with a sovereign state.
If and when the Palestinians finally give up their insane and impossible plans to do away with Israel, give up their complete intransigence, and decide to compromise, then a peace settlement will be achieved almost at once.
jack on November 16, 2010 at 4:48 pm (Reply)
One other factor to consider is that the GOP of 2011 is not the GOP of 1995.

If you look at polls and other anecdotal evidence, they all show that support for Israel among Republicans and conservatives is much, much greater than it is among Democrats and liberals. In the mid-90s, support was relatively even.

The Democratic Party and its liberal base are no longer strong supporters of Israel. Yes, certain Dem figures are. Senators like Schumer, Lieberman, etc... Yes, there's still a number of donors/fundraisers and financial backers who support Israel. But the rank and file of the Dem electorate does not, and whatever support remains is declining by the year.

Obama's coalition and base of support made up of blacks, hispanics, and the youth (many of whom are also black and hispanic, but a good number of whom are white as well) doesn't care about Israel. Moreover, many of them are actively hostile. All the polls bear this out. The dem electorate that Clinton dealt with in the 90s was much more friendly to Israel, and Clinton relied much more heavily on their support. He also had a much deeper personal connection to Israel.

Obama doesn't need Jewish votes to win. He could have gotten 0% of the Jewish vote in 2008 and he still would have won comfortably. He doesn't need Jewish money. He could have gotten $0 from the Jewish/pro-Israel community and he still would have smashed the previous record for fundraising. And everything in Obama's personal background and history tells you that he really doesn't care about Israel (see Wright, Khalidi, Said, Ayers, etc...). I won't go so far as to say he's anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. But he's not pro-Israel. To him, it's just another country, like Jordan or Egypt or Thailand or whatever.

On the other hand, the GOP's strongest base of support is an evangelical community that is strongly pro-Israel. Evangelicals are arugably stronger supporters of Israels than Jews, at least in recent years. The GOP won the evangelical vote 77-19 this year. Even in 2008 when they got walloped, McCain still won evangelicals 74-25 or so.

Israel is also strongly supported by the GOP's defense/natl security focused wing.

The GOP in the House will have a Jewish, strongly pro-Israel majority leader, not Dick Armey.

Many of the top contenders for the GOP nomination in 2012 are strongly pro-Israel, sometimes even more than some Israelis seem to be.

Basically, I think Netanyahu has a stronger hand to play than he did in the 90s. Although, he always folded under pressure from Clinton so who knows whether he'll show some spine this time around. If I were him I wouldn't make any major concessions and I'd hope things change in 2012. If they don't then you deal with that. But I wouldn't give up anything now when there's a prospect of a major change in two years that will leave Israel in a much more favorable position.
LT COL HOWARD on November 16, 2010 at 9:18 pm (Reply)
The article on the Obama administration and Israel written by Benjamin Kerstein is very perceptive and also, unfortunately,is 100% accurate. The comments by " independent patriot," "Kenneth Besig", and "Jack" are all very well thought out. Here also, I fear that they are 100% correct.
ariel56 on November 16, 2010 at 11:20 pm (Reply)
I agree with all previous comments. The problem unfortunately is that we (I am Israeli) do not have 2 years. Probably we don't have a year. Nuclear Iran strongly enters our political map. It will for sure use its new weapons at least indirectly, but very probably also directly. I would like to be wrong, but I feel that a blood bath is approaching. Not only our physical existence, but the existence of the whole civilization might be under question.

In that case the history will put responsibility not only on Obama, and maybe on us, since we are not able to unite in withstanding the enormous threat. Also American Jews will be held responsible, though I am not sure that they worry.

My only hope is in God. He saved us a few times: in 1967, 1973. But not in 40s, and not 2000 years ago.

As for the 2-states' solution, it cannot bring peace, but only a piece agreement. There is no stable two states' solution, just because of the geography. The water, the air space and even the land cannot be divided in a way providing for the coexistence of two SELF-RESPECTING and HOSTILE nations.

That is why the minimal requirements of Israel and Palestinians do not meet. A peace treaty is possible though, but it will be disastrous.
LT COL HOWARD on November 17, 2010 at 2:01 pm (Reply)
areil56 is also has an intelligent comment. I am impressed with the quality, thoughtfulness and depth of your posters. Compared to other sites your responders are truly impressive. You and they are to be congratulated.

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