Thursday, August 13, 2009

U.S.-Israel Relations: Two Positive Signs

By Barry Rubin

No, I constantly have to explain to people, I don’t think President Barack Obama and his administration are seeking to destroy Israel. They have some naïve and wrong views of the region but the main danger is not to Israel, or even U.S.-Israel relations, but to U.S. national interests.

And the problems have a lot more to do with not understanding the radical Islamist and Iranian threat, both the United States itself and to the friendlier (I don’t quite want to say “allied” but some of them are) Arab states in the region.

The Administration will learn, it is already learning—or, continue to learn--that it won’t get a quick Israel-Palestinian settlement and that the relatively moderate Arab regimes won’t help. That’s an easy issue to deal with, by lowering expectations and not raising the heat further.

But there’s no such easy answer when it comes to Iranian and Syrian power or to Islamist efforts to take over more countries. This requires serious action, pressure, toughness, and possibly even force some day. To this kind of thing, the administration seems allergic.

Regarding U.S.-Israel bilateral relations, however, the worst is already over. For a while, for example, Democrats in Congress were intimidated into silence by the White House. That’s done with. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), leading a large, 29-member Democratic delegation, got it right on a visit to Israel:

"I think the largest thing impeding the negotiations at this point is simply the unwillingness of (Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas to sit down” and talk.

And what happened? Simple. Obama made a big deal about construction on settlements, so suddenly Abbas decided that he wouldn’t negotiate until this happened. I think it is reasonable to think that if Obama hadn’t said that there would be Israel-PA talks going on right now.

In fact, though it was too subtle for the reporters to get it, Hoyer disagreed with the White House. Here’s what he said:

"The U.S.' policy has been for a stop to any additional settlements. That is a thorny, tough issue... It's an issue that has to be solved at the negotiating table,"

Did you catch that? Obama demanded Israel stopped building on settlements right now, and then backed off to discuss a temporary stoppage or perhaps an announced willingness to stop if the Arabs gave something to Israel.

But Hoyer—who knows perfectly well the White House stance—said the issue should be managed in direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations. This is clearly not a man trembling lest the White House take displeasure. Three months ago I bet he wouldn’t have done that.

A Republican delegation led by Rep. Eric Cantor, who visited the region a week earlier, explicitly criticized the Administration’s stance. That’s not surprising; Hoyer’s statement is.

Meanwhile, in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who might be called a centrist in the Obama Administration spectrum, criticized the UN General Assembly for bashing Israel, albeit amidst lavish praise for what a great organization the UN can be or is or should be, or something like that.

Things are moving with the Obama Administration. Up to a point, reality is sinking in.

Until then, we will get several months of:

--We’re working hard on Arab-Israeli conflict issues to get both sides to give something. (This will fail.)

--We’re working hard to put sanctions on Iran’s regime to get it to stop building nuclear weapons. (This will fail.)

The main motion is from—if you forgive my effort to keep it simple—doing “bad” things to doing “neutral” things. Some time in the next year, it hopefully would have to advance to “good” things or else everyone in the region is going to be in serious trouble.

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