What made the Obama administration shift from outreach to the Muslim world to bear hug of Israel?
Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311.
(photo credit:Associated Press)
When US President Barack Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy on January 22, 2009, just two days after his inauguration, he told him to hop on a plane immediately and start talking to the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We have no time to lose,” Obama said when he announced the appointment at the State Department. “It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
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Mitchell did not board a plane immediately after the press conference,
but he did come just one week later and has gone back and forth between
Israeli and Palestinian officials dozens of times since then.
Upon accepting the appointment, Mitchell said he “doesn’t underestimate
the difficulty of this assignment.” In a December 2008 speech at Tel
Aviv University one month earlier, he recalled that in the talks he
mediated in Northern Ireland, he had “seven hundred days of failure and
one day of success.”
But Mitchell undoubtedly would have been shocked had he been told at the
time of his appointment that the first official talks between Israel
and the Palestinians would only take place 482 days later, and they
wouldn’t even be direct.
Mitchell met with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in
Ramallah on Wednesday and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the
Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem Thursday, and he is expected to
return every two weeks en route to direct talks, and, Mitchell hopes,
eventually the diplomatic agreement that he has said many times he
believes he can successfully broker.
Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel were surprisingly candid over
the past week about why the proximity talks took so long to get off the
ground, and how US-Israel relations deteriorated. They accepted what
polls in both the US and Israel have indicated for months: It’s Obama’s
As Herb Keinon revealed in his scoop in Sunday’s Jerusalem
, Emanuel told a group of rabbis at the White House last
Thursday that the Obama administration has “screwed up the messaging”
about its support for Israel over the past 14 months, and it will take
“more than one month to make up for 14 months.” The legendarily
foul-mouthed Emanuel apparently did say “screwed up” and not something
Obama admitted to 37 Jewish Congressmen in a meeting Tuesday that he
made key missteps in sensitive US-Israel relations. Like Emanuel, he
said his mistakes were not about policy, but the way the message was
“I walked through a minefield in the Middle East and I stepped on the
land mines,” Obama told the Congressmen, according to the New
. “I got some toes blown off.” Sources close to
Netanyahu said the key to the success of the talks is Obama and Emanuel
not repeating the mistakes that they admitted this week. Obama and
Emanuel might not have spelled it out as directly, but the thinking in
Jerusalem is that had the Obama administration not tried so hard to
reach out to the Palestinians and the Arab states, direct talks could
have begun a year ago.
WHEN THE Obama administration tried to appeal to Abbas and the Muslim
world, the Arab states refused to play a role in the diplomatic process
and the Palestinians hardened their positions, preventing negotiations
from getting off the ground. When Washington made a concerted effort to
reach out to Israel, not coincidentally, the proximity talks began.
The talks have begun without preconditions, as Netanyahu insisted all
along. The Obama administration backed down from key demands the
president made in their highly charged March 23 White House meeting,
including that Netanyahu publicly announce a construction freeze in
Jerusalem, and according to one account, that he already extend the
freeze beyond 10 months.
Netanyahu caved in when he agreed to hold substantive discussions in the
proximity talks and not merely use them as a procedural corridor for
direct talks. But he received assurances from Mitchell that no issues
would be resolved in the proximity talks and that the US would initiate
direct negotiations as soon as possible.
All disputes will be handled more quietly from now on to prevent
undermining the talks and making one side look bad. Regarding the
dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over which issues would be
discussed first, both sides can raise any issue, but the fate of
Jerusalem will be brought up last as Israel has urged the entire time.
What made the Obama administration come along and shift from putting all
its emphasis on outreach to the Muslim world to its bear hug of Israel
over the past month that – according to Jerusalem – enabled the talks to
Three different answers have been offered. One is that Netanyahu and his
advisers are really persuasive, and their policy of standing up for
their principles and insisting that the talks begin without
preconditions and without a complete freeze proved itself.
Another is that Obama and his advisers realized on their own that what
they had tried until that point had not worked and it was time to go in a
The final answer is that American Jewish leaders successfully galvanized
their community and applied pressure at a time when they could make the
maximum impact. Whether this worked because of the justice of their
cause or the profitability of their pocketbooks ahead of a November
election in which the Democrats are concerned about fundraising remains
to be seen.
The timing of the turnaround in Washington seems to indicate that the
American Jewish community played a key role regardless of whether the
change is serious and permanent or tactical and temporary.
Rock bottom in the US-Israel relationship was reached at the end of
March with the ill-fated Obama-Netanyahu meeting on March 23, and the
following day when US National Security Adviser James Jones hosted six
former holders of his post. Obama walked in and Brent Scowcroft, who
served as national security adviser for presidents Gerald Ford and
George H.W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser
for Jimmy Carter, urged him to impose a peace initiative.
Two days after that, The Jerusalem Post
poll indicating that just nine percent of Israelis believed that the
Obama administration was more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian.
It got so bad that one Likud minister predicted that the US-Israel
relationship would only improve when Obama received a wake-up call from
terrorism as George W. Bush did on September 11, 2001. The minister said
that barring that, the only thing that could help was a mass campaign
against Obama’s policies by US Jews.
“Internal political pressure in the US can help,” the minister told
on April 11. “We saw this with Obama’s
decisions to not close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to
continue operations in Afghanistan. We don’t see enough criticism among
US Jews of delusional anti-Israel policies. If they see in Washington
that the American people don’t buy their policies, they will have to
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, a veteran Israel supporter, issued a
similar call in his blog on The Post
“I am shocked by the lack of outrage on the part of Israel’s most ardent
supporters,” he wrote. “What bothers me most of all is the shameful
silence and lack of action by community leaders – Jew and Christian.
Where are they?”
Just one day later, the title wave began. On April 13, AIPAC released a
letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rebuking the Obama
administration for its confrontational stance toward Israel that has
been signed by 76 Senators and 333 Congressmen.
On April 15, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder published a
letter to Obama in the Post
, the Washington
, and Wall Street Journal
, in which he
questioned whether friction with Israel was part of a new strategy of
improving relations with the Muslim world and complained that “the
thrust of this administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame
Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks when it is the
Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.”
Last but not least came Elie Wiesel’s April 17 letter in which he
pleaded with Obama that “Jerusalem must be above politics.”
The response from the Obama administration came immediately, first with
his Yom Ha’atzmaut press release in which he said that “Israel remains
our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I
am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in
the months and years to come.”
That same day Emanuel told Charlie Rose’s program that “No world leader
has had as much time with the president than Netanyahu and, he described
the prime minister’s ties with Obama as a “totally honest, very
constructive working relationship.”
Emanuel met with a group of rabbis the following day and told them that
Obama understood why Israelis were cynical regarding the peace process,
since bilateral negotiations – the Oslo process – led to the terrorism
of the second intifada; and unilateral action – withdrawal from Lebanon
and disengagement from Gaza – left them with a strengthened Hamas and
Over the next two days, Obama denied that he was considering imposing a
“I recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be
imposed from the outside,” he wrote Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations chairman Alan Solow April 20. “It must be
negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard
choices and compromises that take on history.”
National Security Adviser James Jones added in an April 21 speech to
Washington Institute for Near East Policy that “we recognize that peace
must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.”
Obama dropped by a meeting between Jones and Defense Minister Ehud Barak
April 26 and called Netanyahu on May 3, and had lunch with Wiesel on
May 4 to reiterate that positive message.
While one source in Jerusalem said the efforts by the American Jewish
community were all at their own initiative, a Likud minister revealed
that they were not a coincidence. He expressed relief that the campaign
had been successful, but skepticism that what appeared to be a change in
Washington’s behavior would prove long-lasting.