SAN FRANCISCO – When US President Barack Obama wakes up Thursday morning and
starts thinking about his second term and the legacy he realistically hopes to
leave, it is doubtful securing a comprehensive Middle East peace will be high on
Not because he does not want to go down as the US president to
have secured that elusive goal, but rather because of a realization that it is
beyond his grasp.
That, at least, will have to be Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu’s wish when he himself wakes up on Thursday.
And it will likely
be a wish that will be granted.
A lot has changed in the four years since
Obama, soon after his inauguration in 2009, appointed George Mitchell as his
Middle East envoy and set Palestinian- Israeli peace as his administration’s top Middle
First of all, today’s Middle East looks nothing like it
With Syria imploding, Egypt going through a deep change, Iran
continuing its relentless march toward nuclear arms and political Islam on the
rise throughout the region, reaching a Palestinian-Israeli agreement does not
hold the same urgency right now. Obama has a lot of other issues in the region
that are more pressing.
And that is something Netanyahu has to be
Most acknowledge that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship
needs a reset. Not the US-Israeli relationship, but rather the Obama-Netanyahu
one. And that is not an insignificant difference.
are wide and broad, and are not at the whim of any one individual, even a
president returning for his second term.
When it comes to Israel, as
Obama found out during his first two years in office, there are limits to how
far he can push the envelope. This became apparent in the spring and summer of
2010, after the disastrous visit by Vice President Joe Biden and Israel’s
announcement of new building in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem. At
that point, Israeli-US ties hit a nadir.
At a certain point, when
Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer went on the radio criticizing
Obama on Israel, the US president realized he was pushing too hard and too fast,
and his tone changed dramatically. This is when it became clear to him that
there were limits and restraints governing how much he could alter the US-Israel
The doom-and-gloomers argue, however, that now that Obama
does not have to run for reelection, he will have to worry less about political
allies like Schumer, and can “take off the gloves.”
But can he? Obama did
not seek reelection so he could just oversee the government. He has a domestic,
economic agenda that he wants to push. Indeed, in his lofty victory speech
Tuesday night in Chicago, he made almost no mention of foreign affairs,
concentrating instead on domestic issues.
And for Obama to successfully
push his domestic agenda and thereby carve out a legacy for himself, he is still
going to need political allies, even during a second term.
Even if he
wanted to do so, and few think he actually does, he would not be able to ignore
the massive support for Israel that remains in Congress.
Doing so could
make it difficult for him to push forward his domestic priorities, at a time
when the American public is clamoring for a break in Washington’s gridlock and
when he will need to somehow win cooperation from the Republican- led
Although Obama cannot seek reelection, Congress will be facing the
electorate in two short years. And while the president may no longer have to
consider Jewish voters or donors, those in his party seeking reelection will
need to do so, and are sure to make their voices heard.
In other words,
do not expect any dramatic changes to the administration’s policies toward
Israel now that Obama has won a second term. What once was is what now will be,
for better and for worse.
Also, expect voices to be raised saying that
now is the natural time to push the reset button in the rocky ties between
Netanyahu and Obama.
And, indeed, that reset may be pushed. But not
Israel is now 76 days away from its own elections, elections
the Obama administration would just as clearly like to see Netanyahu lose – as
Netanyahu would rather have liked to see Republican candidate Mitt Romney win on
The reset will come when both leaders realize that they
have common interests to pursue and will have to live with each other for
another four years.
Netanyahu now realizes he will have to live with
Obama for four more years. The same cannot be said in reverse, at least not yet,
not until our elections on January 22. That reset, if Netanyahu wins, will only
begin on January 23.