It's not just Barack Obama

Every US president's first year term is problematic for Israel.

February 22, 2010 22:56
4 minute read.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.. (photo credit: AP)


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In January, President Barack Obama granted an interview to Time magazine to mark his first year in office. In discussing the Middle East peace process Obama admitted, "…the Middle East peace process has not moved forward. And I think it's fair to say for all of our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be. I'll be honest with you. This is just really hard."

This was hardly news in Israel. In the US, the similar response is "Well, duh." Yes, making peace in the Middle East is really hard, but Obama's frustration may actually reflect a historical and almost predictable truism about American Middle East policy in the first year of a president's term.

The following is an excerpt from Si Kenen's book Israel's Defense Line: Her Friends and Foes in Washington. Kenen, my mentor, was the founder of AIPAC. He wrote in 1981:

"During the first year of a new presidential term, the petro-diplomatic complex invariably pressures the incoming administration to downgrade Israel and to court Arab friendship. That has been true in every first year except 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was beyond Arab reach. After the election, dust settles on the [parties' pro-Israel political] platforms and Israel's foes use inoffensive euphemisms to urge Washington to be 'more impartial, more evenhanded.'"

Historians can verify Kenen's formula. Look at Dwight D. Eisenhower's pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1957, when he threatened to block contributions from American Jewish organizations to Israel.

The administration tried to divide the Jews of America with secretary of state John Foster Dulles inviting a group of major Jewish philanthropists, including leading non-Zionists, to use their influence to persuade Israel to accept the US position.

Jimmy Carter's term is another classic proof, with him pushing in his first year for a "comprehensive settlement" with all the parties to the conflict, including the Soviet Union. None other than Egypt's Anwar Sadat saw the folly of such a policy, and he and Israel's Menachem Begin succeeded in securing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, despite Carter's initial objections. Carter went on to accuse Begin of lying on the issue of freezing settlement construction, claiming that it was to be an indefinite freeze. There are three sources to refute Carter's claim:

1. Sadat himself.

2. Notes/protocols from Camp David.

3. Members of Carter's staff.

They all backed Begin's claim that the freeze was to be for a duration of no more than three months.

EISENHOWER admitted years later that he was mistaken for pressuring Israel. In 1965 he told his friend and Jewish leader Max Fisher, "...looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I never should have pressed Israel to evacuate the Sinai." What was the reason for the regret? First, perhaps he recognized that with the US making the maximalist demands on Israel, the Arab states had no reason to make any concessions in the peace process. Why should they?

Today, why would Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas be willing to demand anything less on the settlement issue than what Obama demanded just months ago - a full freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem?

I believe Eisenhower also realized that the withdrawal would lead to war, something we in Israel learned the hard way after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Neither withdrawal was secured by negotiations with iron-clad guarantees or a change in the uncompromising hatred of Israel - in the 1950s and '60s it was Gamal Abdul Nasser's hatred that led to the 1967 war; in the last few years it was Hamas's hate that led to Operation Cast Lead.

Indeed, Obama's recent recognition that there is no quick fix for the Middle East conflict may be what we call in Jewish tradition, "reishit hochma," the beginning of wisdom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated it February 14 at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha. "This is hard work," she said. "I know people are disappointed that we have not yet achieved a breakthrough. The president, Senator Mitchell and I are also disappointed. But we must remember that neither the United States nor any country can force a solution."

The administration, as it starts Year Two, has also apparently learned that the linkage of Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was a recipe for disaster. Half a year ago, a senior White House official reportedly declared, "Any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory." What a victory for Ahmadinejad was inherent in that alleged statement.

Since then we've come some way toward that "reishit hochma," the knowledge that there is no quick fix, and Israel's neighbors should pay attention to the messages now coming from Washington. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close ally of the Obama administration, also spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum last week where he banished the utopian Pollyannish vision of the administration's first year: "Peace alone will not solve all the region's problems," Kerry said. "Ask yourselves: If peace were delivered tomorrow, would it meet the job needs of the entire region? How many more children would it send to school? Who really believes that Iran would suddenly abandon its nuclear ambitions? So we know that Israel/Palestine is central, but we must develop a much more practical partnership that extends well beyond regional conflicts."

With this more realistic attitude toward the region, there is reason for some optimism as the US and Israeli leadership begin their second year in office.

The writer is a consultant on public affairs and served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He serves as the strategic advisor to the Jerusalem Conference. He blogs at

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