Barack Obama has an Israel problem. Almost three years in, the US president
still can’t decide whether he wants to pander to the Israeli prime minister or
pressure him. The approach of the 2012 elections makes the former almost
mandatory; the president’s reelection may make the latter
Buckle your seat belts. Unless Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu
find a way to cooperate on a big venture that makes both of them look good, and
in a way that allows each to invest in the other, the US-Israel relationship may
be in for a bumpy ride.
The president’s view of Israel is situated in two
fundamental realities. The first is structural and is linked to the way Obama
sees the world; the second is more situational and is driven by his view of
Netanyahu and Israeli policies. Together they have created and sustained a deep
level of frustration bordering on anger.
Unlike his two predecessors,
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of
Intellectually he understands and supports the pro-Israeli trope
– small democratic nation with dark past confronts huge existential threats –
but it’s really a head thing.
Clinton and Bush were enamored emotionally
with Israel’s story and the prime ministers who narrated it.
at the feet of Yitzhak Rabin – the authentic leader and hero in peace and war –
as a student sits in thrall of a brilliant professor. (Some even said like a son
to a father). “I had come to love him,” the former president wrote in his
memoirs, ”as I had rarely loved another man.”
And George W. Bush, though
often frustrated in the extreme with Ariel Sharon, loved his stories of biblical
history and more contemporary war tales. Bush reacted – as he did on so many
issues – from his gut, certainly when it came to Israel’s security. While flying
with Sharon over Israel’s narrow waist, the then-governor said, “We have
driveways in Texas longer than that.”
THE MAIN source of Obama’s view of
Israel lies in his broader assessment of conflict and how problems are resolved.
Obama didn’t get his vision of Israel from the movie Exodus, in which the
Israelis are like cowboys to the Arab Indians. Nor does he have Clinton’s
Southern Baptist Bible sensibilities or Bush’s evangelical ones relating to
Israel as the Holy Land.
Obama’s views came from other places: his own
logic, the university environment in which he developed intellectually and his
own moral sensibilities.
Thus, the Arab-Israeli dispute isn’t some kind
of morality play that pits the forces of good against the forces of darkness.
It’s a more complex tale, not of heroes and villains but of a conflict between
two rights and two just causes. It’s also a conflict that is vital to American
interests. And those interests are being threatened by the divide between those
who want a solution and are serious about moving toward one, and those who
aren’t serious about finding a solution and throw out obstacles. After three
years, the president has clearly placed the Israelis in the latter category and
the Palestinians in the former.
The tendency to look at Israel
analytically instead of emotionally, and to view the conflict through a
national-interest prism rather than some sort of moral filter, dovetails with
Obama’s poisonous relationship with Netanyahu. Obama doesn't like him, doesn’t
trust him and views him as a con man. The Israeli prime minister has frustrated
and embarrassed Obama and gotten in the way of the president’s wildly
exaggerated hopes for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he’s
been pursuing with more enthusiasm than viable strategy since his inauguration.
To make matters worse, when the president went after a settlements freeze,
Netanyahu called his bluff and Obama backed down – a terrible
It’s worth pointing out that tensions between American
presidents and Israeli prime ministers are fairly common, particularly between
Democratic presidents and tough Likud prime ministers. Two things tend to
ameliorate these tensions, but only temporarily. The first is a joint project,
usually an Arab-Israeli peacemaking one, in which both sides invest in the other
and come out looking good. Examples include Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin’s
peace treaty with Egypt; the elder Bush and Yitzhak Shamir’s Madrid peace
conference; and Sharon and the younger Bush ’s “war on terror.”
second fix doesn’t so much ameliorate the problem as eliminate it. That would be
the political defeat of one or the other and the emergence of a new cast of
characters that can create a more functional relationship.
precisely what happened in the case of George H. W. Bush and Shamir – Clinton
and Rabin emerged to take their place. In the case of Carter and Begin, Ronald
Reagan – one of the most pro-Israel presidents in American history – became
president. Even so, he too wrangled with Begin, although the American- Israeli
relationship got stronger.
What’s so intriguing about the near future is
that neither a viable joint project nor a change in leaders may take place. The
Iran nuclear issue is a wild card in all of this. The impact of an Israeli
strike on Iran’s nuclear sites can’t be gamed out but a pretty good case can be
made that the consequences would bind the US and Israel closer together,
particularly in the event of a tough Iranian response.
In the end, the
Barack-Bibi relationship is likely headed south because the trust and capacity
to give each other the benefit of the doubt has long ago evaporated.
both are still in office in 2013 when the political dust settles, the game of
gotcha will continue.
Newly empowered but still wary and suspicious,
neither will be in the mood to kiss and make up.
Without some common
enterprise to bind them together and with a great many issues to drive them
apart (settlements, the peace process), relations will get worse, taking their
toll on the US-Israel relationship, Israel’s security, American interests and,
for certain, any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
The writer is a
public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
and served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic
administrations. He is the author of
Can America Have Another Great
President?, to be published in 2012. This piece first appeared in the
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