Thursday, September 24, 2009

Obama and Israel: Time for a Reassessment

By Barry Rubin

To say that President Barack Obama hates, seeks to destroy, and/or is pressuring Israel is a staple of the Internet rumor mill, especially from the right. A large portion of the far left would like to believe it . But it isn’t true. That outcome of reasonably good U.S.-Israel relations under the Obama Administration wasn’t inevitable, yet that is what has happened.

Looking beyond the president’s tone, miscomprehension of regional realities, and all-too-apparent eagerness to please the world, the latest developments have made this so clear that it is time for people to adjust their view. The result is not an ideal relationship but one comparable to that which usually existed under his predecessors and a situation not directly dangerous to Israel.

Indirect problems are another matter but here Israel is in the same boat as everyone else who wants strong, sane American leadership in the region and, indeed, U.S. interests themselves.
This outcome, however, was far from inevitable.

The Hostile Obama

From his political background, Obama learned three negative attitudes toward Israel. If things had gone otherwise, these might have been expressed as major policies during his presidency, the disaster that many foresaw and some still misperceive.

--Indoctrinated by the far left into the Third World, “anti-imperialist” narrative, Obama disliked Israel and saw it as evil, taught by such people as Rashid Khalidi, an Edward Said acolyte and Palestinian propagandist, and the Reverend Wright, an outright antisemite.

--He thought Israel was too strong. Israel was seen as so powerful that it could afford to make huge concessions without risk. And on Israel was the fault for the peace process not succeeding.

--He thought Israel was too weak. It needed peace quickly or might collapse and thus had to be forced to make huge concessions for its own good.

Obama only held the last of these three objectively hostile views after the inauguration but it was dissipated by the first half-year or so of his experience. The other two were already dropped.

Why Did Obama Shift His Stance?

During the campaign he came to learn that Israel’s supporters were active, energetic, and would fight back even when almost no one else would confront him. In addition, the fact that he could gain Jewish support gave him an added incentive to pull back. Put simply, being anti-Israel was a political liability. Obama knew it and shifted accordingly.

Since the political costs of an anti-Israel stance are continuous, he needed to follow this change after he became president as well. Moreover, he needed Congress, which after a brief period of silence, intimidated by Obama’s victory and apparent popularity, has returned to its usual pro-Israel stance.

In addition, though, he began to discover that his views didn’t work in the real world. His attempt to bully Israel failed, for which credit is due to the Israeli government. A key factor here was the toughness and superb maneuvering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ably supported by President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Israeli government could not possibly have handled Obama better. At the same time, the obvious fragility of the current government coalition proved another persuasive factor that made Obama pull back. I shudder to think what would have happened if Tzipi Livni had been prime minister.

In addition, as always, intransigence on the Arab and Palestinian side was so extreme that even the Obama Administration couldn’t ignore it. The Palestinian Authority’s leader Mahmoud Abbas was absolutely uncooperative with Obama, throwing away an incredible strategic opportunity. Arab states Obama thought would fall into line behind him—especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia—refused to help. It is said that his meeting with the Saudi king, who went into an anti-Israel diatribe, was a particular shock. Syria and Iran also showed they were not so open to friendly engagement.

All these factors have helped force a rethinking process on Obama and his Administration. Moreover, this is a president who, despite outer show, lacks toughness and backs down when he meets resistance. Ironically, in this regard Israel benefits from the same point that helps its radical foes in the region.

To this day, the U.S. government under Obama has not taken a single material step against Israel and no such development seems to be on the horizon either.

Latest developments

While there are many criticisms that can be made of Obama’s Middle East policy, it has swung in a more pro-Israel direction while still maintaining the kind of “evenhanded” balance frequently seen in his predecessors.

The latest examples include:

--Continuation of joint U.S.-Israel military exercises, consultations over Iran, arms sales, the use of Israeli equipment by the U.S. military.

--Changing policy on the idea of a freeze of constructions on settlements. First, the administration shifted to accepting the idea of reciprocal Arab concessions, now Obama speaks of “restraining” rather than freezing construction, trying to negotiate some compromise.

--The Administration took a tough stand in denouncing the Goldstone report, which was designed to bash Israel over the Gaza war, and on blocking its use to put on sanctions against Israel.

--Obama specifically mentioned the need for a Jewish state of Israel, reflecting one of the Israeli government’s most important demands, which is rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

--In contrast to his earlier position, Obama now emphasizes the need for talks without preconditions, thus specifically rejecting the Palestinian demand (which originated with him) of a settlement freeze before negotiations could restart.

--Seeks Arab steps toward Israel as well as the reverse, again in contrast to his original stance.

--Has praised Israel’s government for its flexibility and taken up the theme of raising Palestinian living standards.

--Did not echo the Arab demand that Israel should join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and be made to give up its alleged nuclear weapons.

--While this has more to do with the State Department than with the White House, the U.S. government has not been taken in by Syria and has maintained demands for changes in Damascus’s behavior before further engagement can proceed.

--Bottom line. While Israel's government professed itself pleased by Obama's UN speech and supports negotiations without preconditions, Abbas complained that he opposes them and was forced into appearing alongside Netanyahu. Some Palestinians said he was "humiliated" by the president.

--Sometimes, relatively positive formulations are misinterpreted by some the opposite way. For example, when Obama said at the UN that he considered post-1967 Israeli settlements to be illegal, he was only echoing long-standing U.S. practice. He was also saying that Israel's existence should not be in question and by not mentioning construction on settlements Obama was actually deescalating on that issue. His statement did not imply that Israel must return to 1967 borders.

Of course, Obama Administration policy does not comprehend things like the impossibility of comprehensive peace due to Palestinian obduracy, the need to bring down the Hamas government in Gaza for progress on peace or stability, and other points required for a really good and effective U.S. policy. But comparing it to positions under the last half-dozen U.S. presidents shows less change than looking at rhetoric alone would seem to indicate.

Can it change again? Definitely. But in which direction? If Obama is determined to push the peace process forward, the Palestinian leadership will teach him what they taught his predecessors: they are the real roadblock. Arab states will frustrate him because they won't lift a finger to help.

Again, there are many criticisms that can be made of Administration policy, especially with regard to Iran, and I've presented them in detail in my writings. On these issues the Administration might not learn its lessons since Obama's clear reluctance to identify and confront the radicals could well push it into a dangerous passivity. That, not appeasement, is the biggest threat.

But the Obama Administration has shifted on bilateral relations with Israel and on its concept of a peace process from a position of hostility to the historic U.S. policy default stance.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .


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