Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mister Netanyahu Goes to Washington

There’s no question that the Obama administration is less warm toward Israel than those of Clinton, Reagan, or George W. Bush’s first six years. But is it worse than the last two years of the George W. or all of the Bush I and Jimmy Carter administrations? We’re about to find out.

The bottom line is that the basis of the relationship is still secure, in no small part because each side wants—and can get—something from the other. Israel says: You want us to cooperate on Palestinians? You cooperate on Iran! The United States says the same thing, albeit in reverse. And each side understands this is what they both want to do.

Many have made big claims to the contrary without much hard evidence, based on Obama’s cool-toward-Israel background and his eagerness to engage radical forces; wishful thinking in anti-Israel media; hatred of Obama in some pro-Israel circles; and misunderstanding Israeli government positions through error or malice.

Often, the Obama administration is blamed or credited with breaking new ground when it’s simply repeating predecessors’ positions. A U.S. government favoring a two-state solution (it’s a pity the Palestinians don’t also do so), opposing settlements, or proclaiming it will solve the conflict real fast isn’t new. The widespread claim that the administration threatened Israel’s nuclear arsenal is also wrong, based on a general statement that all countries should join the Non-Proliferation Treaty which was actually aimed at justifying a current U.S. nuclear deal with India.

Posturing and pretending is a far bigger factor than real pressure against Israel. U.S. officials supposedly said progress on Iranian nuclear weapons depends on progress in the peace process. This is simply a way to leverage minimal Israeli cooperation on the peace process. After all, will the administration try harder or less hard on Iran depending on whether the peace process advances? Obviously not. And neither Israel nor the Palestinians will give more concessions to each other if Iran’s nuclear program slows down.

The other thing going on here is the administration’s search for easy victories. U.S. officials will say: “That hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to build dozens of settlements while refusing to talk to Palestinians or accept a two-state solution, but we sure showed him how to behave!” When in fact, Netanyahu would have done precisely the same things without any supposed pressure.

Of course, when the administration tries to get the Arab states or Palestinian leadership to do anything, that’s when its problems begin. And nothing whatsoever of great significance will happen in the peace process.

Still, the administration will be able to tell the American public: “We said we’d succeed in making advances and we’ve done so!”

Yes, that’s how politics and diplomacy works.

Basically, the administration wants Netanyahu to act as prime minister about the same as Tsipi Livni or Ehud Barak, leader of the two other main parties, would. Any “pressure” will not be to make big concessions but rather not to raise demands too high.

Netanyahu and his team are not foolish or—as a group—extremist. Their program, though somewhat tougher than that of their predecessor, is not all that different and is certainly something the U.S. government can accept.

There’s been much nonsense about Netanyahu government positions. He’s not going to annex territory or stop negotiating, or condition talks on accepting Israel as a Jewish state or eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program. He won’t attack Iran next week or reject the magical words: “two-state solution.”

What he will do—backed by Defense Minister and Labor party leader Barak—is to assert that Israel will only make concessions if it receiveds concessions. For example, the Road Map, which Netanyahu endorses and both the administration and EU reveres, puts obligations on the PA which Israel wants to see met.

Contrary to breathless insistence on imminent success, the Obama administration doesn’t believe it’s going to get a comprehensive solution soon. Nor is it going to bash Israel, break completely with historic U.S. policy, or go soft on Hamas.

Does this mean there are no problems regarding Obama administration policy in the Middle East? No and here’s a long list of them:

--U.S. policy toward Iran is too soft and unintentionally encourages Tehran to be more aggressive. Efforts at engagement with the Islamist regime will slow down any application of tougher sanctions and increases the likelihood that one day Israel will have to choose between attacking or watching Iran get nuclear weapons. If Israel were to attack, it could not expect support by the Obama administration (but the same was basically true, though slightly less so, for the Bush administration).

--U.S. policy toward Syria is leading Damascus to believe it can get away with murder continue sponsoring terrorism at no cost, and extending its power over Lebanon.

--The Obama administration isn’t energetic enough on helping moderates in Lebanon which means that Syria and Iran may well control the government there after the June eletion. If the radicals win in Lebanon, U.S. policy might deal with a government in which Hizballah is a leading member, though administration officials insist this won’t happen.

--Being less warm toward Israel overall the Obama administration will be less forthcoming on some key military equipment and less likely to brief and coordinate with Israeli leaders. (Though this administration which talks so much about multilateralism doesn’t seem to be doing these things with Britain either.)

--When facing a major Middle East crisis which affects Israeli interests directly or indirectly, can the Obama administration be depended on to have the understanding, determination, and toughness to handle it well?

--Given the cooler attitude to Israel, there can all manner of minor pinpricks and frictions which may have no lasting or major impact but will create short-term difficulties. The correct description is more likely to be "rude" rather than "hostile."

Despite all these genuine issues, however, in direct terms the supposedly “hardline” Netanyahu and allegedly “Israel-hating” (albeit certainly not Israel-loving) Obama may get along better than predicted.

1 comment:

  1. There will be a marked difference between the post-meeting public announcements and what will be said (and done) in the privacy of Obama's office. Being a pessimist, I expect Bibi will get a tongue lashing inside.


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