Fundamentally Freund: Obama's teachable Mideast moment

It is clear from his inadvertent 'achievements' so far in the Middle East that the new US president still has a lot to learn.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
For a president who has been in office for just over seven months, Barack Obama can at last point to some meaningful change that he has brought about in the Middle East. Thanks to his administration's arm-twisting and bullying of Jerusalem over settlements, Obama has unwittingly succeeded in galvanizing the Israeli public like never before. The result is a broad coalition that extends all the way from the moderate left, through the center and over to the reasonable right, giving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plenty of political breathing space. Consider the following: On Monday, left-wing Defense Minister Ehud Barak signed permits approving the construction of 455 housing units in various Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. This is the same Barak who, as prime minister, sat down with Yasser Arafat at Camp David nine years ago and offered the Palestinians virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza on a silver platter. Yet here he is, lending a hand to building the Land of Israel, in defiance of the dictates from Washington. This is no small achievement. Thousands of additional Jews will now be able to make their homes over the so-called Green Line, strengthening the Jewish presence in the very areas that Washington so desperately wants to tear away from us. Ironically, in this respect, Obama has managed to attain what various right-wing MKs and settler lobby groups could only dream of. Through his obstinacy, the American president has inadvertently brought about a resumption of construction in the territories by unfairly pressing Israel to agree to a "freeze." NO MATTER how one looks at it, Obama misplayed his hand, thinking he could push Israel around. But this approach has clearly backfired. Instead of dividing and conquering the Israeli public, Obama has instead riled them up and united them. In this regard, Obama can also point to another significant achievement on his watch. Previous American presidents, regardless of their stature at home, have consistently enjoyed high approval ratings among Israelis. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were all adored by the general Israeli public, which viewed them as true friends. The result was that Israelis trusted them and their judgment, even when they took stands inimical to our interests, thereby making it more difficult for our leaders to openly defy Washington. Yet here too Obama has managed to alter reality. As a recent Smith Research poll conducted on behalf of The Jerusalem Post revealed (August 28), just 4 percent of Israelis now think Obama's policies are pro-Israel, while 51% consider his administration to be pro-Palestinian. In effect, Obama has changed the way Israelis view America. It was once considered unthinkable for a prime minister to say no to the United States, yet that is exactly what is happening now, and the bulk of Israelis support it. INDEED, WHEN Netanyahu's coalition was sworn in on April 1, could anyone have imagined that within just a few months it would successfully stand up to Washington over the issue of settlements? Sure, Obama can and will point to the six-month moratorium on further West Bank construction as a concession that he squeezed out of Jerusalem. But the fact is that the cranes and bulldozers will continue apace in Judea and Samaria for a long time to come, both on the 2,500 units already under construction and the new ones approved this week. And that is what makes the Netanyahu government's achievement here so noteworthy. For instead of simply acquiescing to Obama's demands on settlements, he has outmaneuvered him, ostensibly giving him what he wants while in effect rendering it moot. And so, the building will carry on, but without the brouhaha that would otherwise have accompanied it. More importantly, Netanyahu has succeeded in changing the narrative of the Middle East peace process. For the first time in recent memory, Israel has actually said no to America on an issue of major importance. Supporters of Israel should breathe a sigh of relief at this development. It signifies a much healthier attitude on the part of the country's decision-makers and marks a new maturity in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington. If and when a final-status deal is ever negotiated, it is crucial that the Americans and Palestinians go into the talks aware that Israel is self-confident enough to stand firm on issues it views as vital to its existence. This is what Obama himself would likely refer to as a "teachable moment" on the Middle East - one from which he still has a lot to learn. In a short period, he has hardened the Palestinian position, strengthened the hand of Israel's settlement enterprise and led the Israeli public to reassess its blind faith in Washington. That's quite a record of achievement.