Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Obama Administration's Coolness to Israel is No Mirage but it is a Manageable Problem

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By Barry Rubin

As my readers know, I have often defended the Obama Administration against excessive criticism, conspiracy theory charges, and claims that it wants to destroy or at least damage Israel as some ideological goal. And I've also been willing to criticize it  for its foreign policy mistakes when, unfortunately, all too often that's been necessary.

But when David Remnick writes in the New Yorker that Israelis inexplicably have this strange mistaken, paranoid perception that President Barack Obama doesn't really love them, that crosses the line. The president, he explains, has Jewish friends and they think he is quite warm toward Israel.

Not only is it inaccurate and insulting to claim Israelis are just imagining that a real problem exists here but it misunderstands a very simple point that we daily observe: Israel's elite, academics, and journlaists understand the United States far better than current U.S. leaders, academics, journalists, and members of the policy elite understand Israel. Of course, Remnick's approach is also just one more way that opinionmakers and journalists have been avoiding the need to deal with the very real problems and shortcomings that do exist.

Here's the bottom line: It is hard to argue (honestly, at least) that Obama isn't the least-warm president to Israel while in office since the country was established in 1948. The "while in office"  phrase is meant to include Jimmy Carter whose great hostility came mostly after he left the White House.

This doesn't mean the Obama Administration cannot be worked with. From about April 2009 to early March 2010, U.S.-Israel relations were going pretty well. Two groups in particular deserve credit for this:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and their team handled a difficult, potentially dangerous problem quite well.

Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues systematically destroyed their opportunity to take advantage of Obama's Third World, pro-Palestinian, eager-to-please-Muslims-and- Arabs orientation.

If not for the badly timed announcement over apartments in Jerusalem, bilateral relations would be quite good now, as they largely were since last summer. It is wrong, I believe, to think that the Administration leaped on this mishap as a chance to bash Israel. It was genuinely angry that what comes close to being its only foreign policy achievement--and a minor one at that--getting indirect Israel-Palestinian negotiations going had suddenly crashed. This is not to say that the Administration handled the crisis in a smart manner, but this was a spontaneous problem and one it wishes to fix as fast as possible.

There are lots of reasons why, despite the lack of warmth toward Israel, the Obama Administration can be dissuaded from hostility in practice. These include different opinions in the administration regarding Israel and the Middle East, with many officials not at all unfriendly. In addition, there is the force of events--including Palestinian intransigence--and the administration's ability to learn which were displayed in the president's January interview saying he learned not much progress was possible in the peace process.

Then, too, there are counter-forces like American public opinion, the role of Congress, and electoral considerations that temper the administration's behavior. Indeed, the degree of concern and criticism on this issue has in itself been an important factor in subverting any Administration ardor for punishing or distancing itself from Israel.

Finally, Obama and his colleagues have seen that they can walk over with relative ease many forces always thought powerful--banks, insurance companies, the energy industry, and individual states, for example. Only in the case of Israel has there been public and even Democratic party push-back. Savvy politicians notice that kind of thing.

The White House's main goal at this point is not to bash Israel but rather to claim victory at getting indirect negotiations going and to avoid upheavals which officials think would interfere with U.S. policies elsewhere in the region.

And as I've said often, the real problem is not with U.S.-Israel relations but with the failures of U.S. policy to recognize and deal with the region-wide expansion of radical forces and especially of the Iran-Syria axis. By the same token, the real threat is not to Israel's interests--nothing is going to change on the ground and there won't be any major diplomatic shift--but to U.S. interests.

Ironically, Israel is not so different in its perceptions of the Administration from its Arab neighbors. In their case, though, the problem for most Arab states is that while they see a president who wants to be friendly to Arabs and Muslims, the specific Arabs and Muslims it is trying to be most friendly with are their own eneies, mainly Iran, Syria, and--to a far lesser extent so far--Islamist revolutionaries. They see this as a sign of weakness that might jeopardize their survival.

Ironically, their common discomfort with what's coming out of Washington may actually push Israel and moderate Arabs together far more than any U.S. attempt at peacemaking.

At any rate,  it is true that the views of some right-wingers that demonize Obama and his government are quite excessive. But to claim that the existence of certain ideological viewpoints, policies, and attitudes in this president and his administration are imaginary figments, misunderstandings, and paranoid fantasies goes too far.

The most interesting thing about recent Obama Administration rhetoric toward Israel--especially clear in Clinton's AIPAC speech--is that it thinks it is positioning itself like a moderate left Israeli. The problem is that what they are trying to copy is the position of Labor Party people, and arguably the majority in Israel, during the second half of the 1990s, when there was hope that big concessions to the Palestinian Authority might produce a stable peace based on compromise. Today, such a belief is held by perhaps 20 percent or so of Israeli voters, and that includes Arab voters.

And how seriously are Israelis going to take the idea that the Obama Administration knows better how to preserve their lives and national security when Clinton, beneficiary of supposedly the world's best intelligence agencies and so many "experts"--mistakenly condemned Hamas in her AIPAC speech for renaming "a square after a terrorist who murdered innocent Israelis" when it was in fact the Palestinian Authority that did so?  This is no sophisticated analysis of the radicalism and intransigence in the PA but merely a mantra: Hams Bad; PA Good!

If through its behavior and official statements, this administration wants to assure Israelis and its own public that it understands the threats to Israel, the country's security requirements, and its legitimate goals that is a good thing. But this U.S. government must first demonstrate some comprehension that the PA is a major--or even better but too unlikely, the major--factor blocking peace. It has to show some readiness to pressure and criticize the PA, not just Israel.

In addition, such words must come from the president and his chief lieutenants, not from non-government sources whose goal is to boast the administration by denying that anything whatsoever is going on here.

Don't get me wrong. It is indeed quite proper for American Jewish organizations, individual politicians in the United States and Israel, and certainly for Israel's government to deny that there is any deep problem. This stance makes them far more able to resolve tensions. But the job of scholars, journalists, and academics is to speak the truth, which is--or should be--our distinctive contribution to solving as well as avoiding problems.

Once again, I think issues of U.S.-Israel relations are a distraction from what's really important. Nothing is going to happen on the peace process front or on U.S.-Israel relations during the next two or three years. What will happen is the erosion of the U.S. strategic position in the region as radical forces--and Iran gets nuclear weapons--grow stronger and moderate ones are frightened into silence or appeasement. This is the real danger and the front toward which American energy and determination should be directed.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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