Tensions have eased a little of late, some pro-Israel players in Washington argue, between a fresh, young president newly recognizing the limits of his power, and a second-time prime minister all too aware of the limits of his.
A little over two weeks ago, an extremely high-ranking figure in the US administration contacted Robert Wexler, the former Democratic congressman from Florida who had resigned his seat in early January to become the head of a Washington think tank, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.
Wexler is an important figure to the administration. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of candidate Obama’s presidential campaign – from back in the spring of 2007. He is widely credited with having helped the Democratic contender win the crucial state of Florida en route to the White House. As a dependable, veteran supporter of Israel during his dozen years in Congress, moreover, Wexler’s endorsement of Obama played its part in assuaging some fellow Jews’ concerns about the then-largely unknown candidate’s commitment to Israel.
The contact last month was to encourage Wexler to make use of another of his areas of expertise – Turkey. As a congressman, Wexler was a prominent figure in the House’s Turkish caucus, and thus a familiar and friendly face to Turkish politicians. Now the president wanted Wexler to serve as an American bridge over the troubled Turkish-Israeli waters. Obama was concerned at the deterioration in ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, and believed Wexler could be just the man to pour some calming oil.
Accordingly, without much publicity late last month, Wexler flew to Ankara and met with President Abdullah Gul. There he doubtless offered his heartfelt insights into the challenges facing Israel, and urged the president to act as a moderating force with Recep Erdogan, the prime minister who has been so notorious a critic since Operation Cast Lead a year ago.
It is far from clear that Wexler’s quiet diplomatic mission will have any lasting effect. Cold-shouldered by the EU, Turkey’s beef, so to speak, is not solely with Israel; the country is clearly edging out of a Western embrace toward a deepening relationship with some of our region’s more unsavory regimes.
The very fact that the White House was paying close heed to the worsening Israel-Turkey ties, and that it made the effort to encourage Wexler to try and heal them, however, is cited by some of those who act on Israel’s behalf in Washington as emblematic of the wider concern Obama feels for Israel’s well-being. Here is an example, one such insider said to me this week, of a president much-maligned in some Israeli and American Jewish quarters for perceived antipathy to Israel, working without fuss, behind the scenes, to advance Israel’s interest – acting quietly and efficiently on behalf of an ally in the best traditions of the American-Israeli partnership.
MORE BROADLY too, in the view of some of these Washington insiders with whom I spoke this week, the partnership between Obama’s America and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has become a little smoother of late, after the tensions of previous months.
The last few weeks, they note, have been marked by an absence of the hitherto familiar public demands, by administration figures up to and including the president, that Israel give further ground to the Palestinians in the cause of a resumption of direct negotiations. At present, it would seem, the administration is angrier with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the failure to restart substantive talks, and with various Arab states for failing to provide the small steps toward wider normalization with Israel that might, in turn, have encouraged greater Israeli flexibility.
While it would dearly have loved Netanyahu to call a halt to all building for Jews beyond the pre-1967 lines, the insiders argue, the administration has developed an appreciation for some of Netanyahu’s political constraints and does recognize that even the limited moratorium on settlement building declared by the prime minister was a move of considerable significance for a Likud leader. As Obama put it during an address in Florida last week, “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is actually making some effort to try to move a little bit further than his coalition wants him to go.”
That doesn’t mean that the heat will be off Israel for any substantial length of time. Indeed, another bout of pressure is almost certain, when (rather than if) the latest efforts to budge Abbas produce no concrete shift.
The frustrations Obama’s administration feel with Israel are emphatically still there. The White House remains convinced that Israel is undermining everybody’s interests, including its own, by expanding settlements. And it still thinks, misguidedly, that it should push for dramatic progress on the Palestinian front as a means of securing wider Arab support for concerted pressure on Iran, when the truth is that only if Iran’s nuclear drive is thwarted will the forces preventing Israeli-Palestinian progress be weakened.
But still, for now, some of these insiders reiterate, things are a little better. Ties between a fresh, young president newly recognizing the limits of his power, and a second-time prime minister all-too aware of the limits of his, have reached a certain maturity.
AND THEN they go on to list a number of factors that critics of Obama’s policies tend to marginalize when claiming the administration is hostile to Israel.
They note that in a year when the US is grappling with financial strains more acute than they have been for decades, foreign aid to Israel is untouched, secure and considerable – in the familiar region of $3 billion this year.
They highlight America’s unique cooperation with Israel in military development, which is enabling Israel to maintain its crucial qualitative military edge in the region.
They stress that the administration has been rock solid on the Goldstone Report – voting in vain against its adoption in the United Nations Human Rights Council in October, and again in the General Assembly in November. While countries from which we might have expected better failed to stand up for what amounted to Israel’s right to self-defense, and while certain European nations have now become no-go zones for Israeli leaders facing a genuine fear of arrest for purported war crimes, they point out, the US is firmly in Israel’s corner.
A ferocious assault on Israel’s legitimacy is under way at innumerable American university campuses – the disease of British academia spreading across the pond. But the administration is robust. We’ve really only got one significant partner in this particular aspect of the battle against our delegitimation, they add, but if you’ve only got one ally, thank goodness it’s America.
And they assert that on the matter of the most potent threat to Israel, the Iranian nuclear drive, the Obama administration is determined to push for more biting sanctions and has, as promised, made the issue a priority in all its bilateral relationships, seeking to chivvy reluctant players into intensifying the economic pressure on Teheran. Israel’s own leadership, they argue, has by no means abandoned all hope of the US-led sanctions having an impact, especially when combined with the abiding internal Iranian opposition to the mullahs’ regime.
SO YES, these insiders acknowledge, there are tensions between
Washington and Jerusalem – always have been, always will be. But the
fundamental relationship remains strong. The foreign aid, the support
in diplomatic forums, the military partnerships – these are immensely
significant. These are not things that we should take for granted.
Fair enough. Except that, not too long ago, these were things that we could
take for granted.