Analysis: Obama stays close to home

Obama’s talks push stems from domestic concerns.

Obama 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Obama 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Many and varied were the ways the US could have announced the relaunch of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians last Friday.
One way would have been for US President Barack Obama, who has invested so much time and energy into the diplomatic process, to announce the talks himself. He could have stood on the storied White House lawn, where so many Middle East ceremonies have played out in the past, and made the announcement in his own inimitable, dramatic fashion.
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But he didn’t. Rather, Obama entrusted the chore to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made the announcement, and then left Mideast envoy George Mitchell to face the reporters and fill in the details.
This method of unveiling the talks says much about Obama’s expectations and something about part of his domestic political considerations.
Mitchell, during his press conference, was asked what happened precisely now – after months of trying – that made it possible for the two sides to restart the talks. What was the turning point? He gave a diplomatic non-answer.
“We believe it’s the recognition by the parties themselves, by their leaders – Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas – that the best outcome is an agreement which results in two states living side by side in peace and security, and that the only way that can be achieved is through direct negotiations between the parties in which the United States will be an active and sustained participant, and with the full support of our many friends and allies around the world, including, of course, specifically, the Quartet.”
OK, the reporter followed up, but why – really? Mitchell responded again with more diplomatese.
What Mitchell did not – or could not – say, was that one of the reasons, though surely not the only one, why the US pushed the Palestinians hard now to relaunch the talks has to do with something far away from either Jerusalem or Ramallah: the upcoming US midterm elections, in which Obama will be struggling to retain Democratic control of Congress.
Obama badly needs a foreign policy achievement, and – at least until the talks stall, which the US is unlikely to allow until after the November elections – he can point to getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table as one such achievement. Granted, it’s not peace in Northern Ireland, but it’s something, and this president needs something, right now.
That Obama selected Clinton to make the announcement also indicated that his expectations are not over the moon, and that he wants to retain his own little exit ramp.
Think US Mideast policy over the last 18 months and you think Obama, his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Adviser James Jones, Jones’s deputy Tom Donilon, NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough, NSC staffer Dennis Ross and Mitchell. But you don’t necessarily think Clinton, whose public role in this process has been rather limited.
Yet not only did Obama let Clinton make the announcement, but she – not the president – will be there when the talks between the sides actually start.
Obama will host the principals, plus Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II, for a ceremonial dinner on September 1, but Clinton will do the grunt work by launching the actual talks on September 2.
This is a good way for Obama to watch and see where the process is headed, before deciding whether to take credit – it if succeeds – or distance himself from it and leave the responsibility to the State Department if it fails.
There may also be a tactical reason in not getting the president involved intimately in the talks themselves from the very beginning, the way Bill Clinton did during the Oslo years. In this way the US administration will keep the heaviest artillery, the president, for the end, when some serious “squeezing” of the sides needs to be done, rather than “wasting” him at the outset.
Another reason for what the Palestinians say has been unprecedented US pressure on them to enter the talks has to do with Obama’s continued hemorrhaging of Jewish support.
Despite Obama’s recent charm offensive that included meetings with Jewish congressmen and senators, his warm welcome of Netanyahu last month at the White House, and an empathetic interview he gave to Channel 2, he continues to lose Jewish support.
A Pew Research Center poll last week found that while 72 percent of American Jews considered themselves Democrats or leaning toward the Democrats in 2008 – and indeed, Obama captured some 78% of the Jewish vote in that year’s presidential elections – now only 60% characterize themselves as Democrats; as opposed to 33% of American Jews saying they are either Republicans or lean Republican.
In a year in which there are key congressional and senatorial races in states with large Jewish populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, this trend could be extremely significant. It is not unlikely that somewhere lurking in the back of the minds of those in the administration dealing with the peace process was the thought that a renewed peace process right now would play very well among American Jews in places like Boca Raton and Philadelphia.
This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that this was the only factor in the administration’s decision to lean hard now on the Palestinians to enter direct negotiations. But one would be politically naïve not to realize that it was certainly one of those factors.