Obama Starts Rising to the Challenge

Well, color me stunned.

In my most recent article, I described Benjamin Netanyahu as having won his roll of the dice in the wake of the Israeli announcement of new Jerusalem building while Joe Biden was trying to restart the peace process.

I spoke too soon. Perhaps one can say my expectations of the Obama Administration had been lowered and so the recent developments come as a pleasant surprise. But pleasant it is, and the welcome stance from Washington is going to force some recalculations in Israel. How much of a recalculation is going to depend on how steadfast Obama can remain in the face of what is likely to be a growing backlash.

Obama is explaining things these days to Netanyahu

The Obama Administration may have accepted the excuse that the timing of the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo was a bureaucratic foul-up. But the Israeli apology, which went out of its way to make it clear that it was only the timing that was seen to be at fault, was not sufficient for Washington.

By stressing that the only problem was the fact that the announcement came while Joe Biden was in Israel trying to start “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel put the Obama Administration in a bad position. If Washington accepted the apology and let the matter go, the talks were doomed because it would have meant, to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, that the US was not objecting to the expansion of a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Even if they had continued, American credibility would have been so low as to make the talks pointless.

It is almost certain that such would have been precisely the course the Clinton or Bush, Jr. Administrations would have followed. But, recalling the early days of his administration, Obama broke that pattern.

“We decide what we will keep”

In recent years, there have been tacit understandings between the US and Israel that the US will turn a blind eye to Israeli building in areas that Israel expects to keep in any final status agreement. That’s a vague definition, and Israel has consistently stretched it.

But once more, it seems the Obama Administration is finally treating Israel like it would any other country, including an ally. Because a much more fundamental, and frequently stated, principle is that neither side shall take steps that pre-determine the outcome of negotiations. Therefore, Obama is objecting to all illegal Israeli building, and that means everywhere over the Green Line.

Obama is hardly being unreasonable or even unfriendly to Israel. He knows Netanyahu can’t just stop all the building. But he is expecting the Israeli government to do what it can, within reason. He expects Israeli cooperation, not a constant search for how far the envelope can be pushed with regard to building. He expects Israel to help America pursue its national interests as America helps Israel pursue its own.

Thus, as Obama tries to restore faith in America’s ability to broker peace talks fairly, he cannot have Netanyahu demonstrating to the world that before any agreement with the Palestinians, there are lands, especially in Jerusalem, that the US accepts as having become Israeli after 1967. This has long been the case for the US, but this administration is the first in decades to take that fact seriously.

To be fair to Bibi, he has every reason to be taken aback by the American posture. It is certainly a break from the past seventeen years. But the timing of the announcement regarding Ramat Shlomo was exacerbated by Bibi’s Deputy Foreign Minister following it up by saying “We will make no more concessions” the very next day (prompting anyone paying attention to ask “What concessions have you made already?” The so-called freeze has been a very limited step). Bibi’s own mantra about how important the United States is to Israel sounded empty next to the insubstantial apology he offered, filled with nice words but no deeds. Bibi’s apology included a reaffirmation of the Ramat Shlomo construction. Imagine how that played in DC.

The Backlash

At first, Jewish-American political groups stayed mostly silent, apart from J Street’s support of Obama. But as it became clear that Netanyahu’s empty words were not defusing the situation and as subsequent statements from the State Department clarified American anger at Israel’s behavior, these groups have come out swinging.

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (a group which is not supposed to have anything to do with this issue, as reflected by Foxman’s frank ignorance of both diplomacy and the Israel-Arab conflict) began the onslaught by expressing his “shock” at the US’ behavior.

But the really big guns came out when AIPAC issued an unusual and strongly worded statement, loaded with political implications, calling on the Obama Administration, and them alone, to defuse the situation.

AIPAC’s statement was heavy-handed, and betrayed an agenda that held little regard for American concerns in this matter or, for that matter, for peace for Israel.

The statement’s second paragraph closes with a veiled threat, stating that the US-Israel relationship enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress. The implication for mid-term elections in November is clear and no one in the White House is missing it—tone down the rhetoric or we will act against your candidates in November.

The statement doesn’t say a word about Israel’s actions and how they have damaged prospects for peace, undermined months of US efforts and embarrassed Israel’s closest friend and ally. AIPAC says these things should be dealt with in private—where Israel has much more leeway to ignore them.

AIPAC’s public action on this is not their common practice, and they are risking much by doing it this way.

They have now put the administration in a position where if they back off from their demands on Israel, they will be seen as caving to a powerful lobby which has now clearly displayed that it is acting out of concern for Israel and not for the USA.

AIPAC has provided a litmus test for those who, like myself, do not subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that the “Israel lobby’ controls US Mideast policy. This moment is not a small one. It represents a potential turning point away from the disastrous course Israel has pursued, one that is sacrificing the two-state solution on the altar of the settlements.

The Obama Administration has, for the first time in a long time, identified Israeli-Arab peace as a key strategic American interest. If it allows AIPAC to push the US to a different course, it will be pretty hard to argue against the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis, even if it wouldn’t conclusively prove it (these are theories, and in international relations, there are rarely conclusive proofs for theories).

The way forward

It will be very interesting to see what Hillary Clinton has to say at AIPAC’s annual conference next week, assuming the invitation for her to speak there is not rescinded, which I don’t think is all that likely, though not impossible.

Surely she will try to appease the attendees and reassure them of what is obvious to all but the most myopic of friends of Israel (and there are a great many of those, sadly)—that the US continues to have Israel’s best interests at heart and still see Israel as a key strategic partner.

But how far will she back away from the current stance? Will she narrow the focus on a few steps Bibi can take to calm the controversy, or will she maintain the need for real substance on Israel’s part?

Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, has called this the worst crisis in US-Israel relations in 35 years, since Yitzhak Rabin and Henry Kissinger got into a spitting match over the American desire for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. We’d do well to remember that Israel eventually relented in that dispute, signed the Sinai Interim Agreements and redeployed as directed and suffered no security consequences as a result. Instead, this helped pave the way for Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and subsequent peace, cold as it might be, with Egypt. Bibi, and especially his ambassador who is a professional historian, can learn some lessons from that.

The Obama Administration has begun to build some real credibility as an honest broker with their recent stances. That’s pretty remarkable considering how low that credibility had been just two weeks ago. There are going to be some major political storms to weather, but if the President holds firm, he will find that voters will support him despite AIPAC and he will be able to make some real progress in the Middle East.

And Israelis will see, after a time that their interests have not been abandoned, but rather enhanced by Obama’s steadfastness. If he holds it.

The United States must stick to their demand that the expansion of Ramat Shlomo (a settlement that, in the end, holds little practical significance for Israel) be abandoned. They must also hold to their demand that Israel extend significant gestures to the Palestinian Authority, including a prisoner release and further easing of travel restrictions. Most of all, they must hold to their demand that the siege on Gaza be lifted. These, especially the last, will rekindle among Palestinians some faith in the US and the belief that, whatever its motives, Israel can possibly be enticed into signing a peace agreement that is realistic and durable.

America must also act to ensure that these moves do not endanger Israeli security. They must enhance security cooperation with both Israel and the PA to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of the moves Obama is demanding of Israel. This will reassure Israelis that a good process can lead to peace without loss of security and that they can count on the United States to ensure it, so they don’t have to take the risk most of them are not willing to take, trusting the intentions of the Palestinians.

Then, in short order, the US should abandon the “proximity talks” idea and move to direct negotiations that they broker and, crucially, which include an American vision (as a suggestion, not an imposition) of how to resolve the outstanding issues, based on existing agreements. These can be presented as the oft-cited “bridging proposals” but they must be based on an American vision and be brought to the table after being carefully thought out.

In the wake of such moves, Palestinian reconciliation will be much more easily accomplished and the PA will, with these sorts of gains in hand, easily trump Hamas in any sort of honest election. Israel will have a partner for peace and a broker that can bring home the goods.

And if AIPAC, ADL and other mainstream Jewish groups stand against that, no one can accuse them of dual loyalty. They’ll be clearly demonstrating that their loyalties lie neither with the US nor with a secure Israel at peace, but with the settlements.

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