Obama’s opportunity

If Obama succeeds in preventing Iran’s nuclearization, this would drastically undermine this region’s extremists. It could also help ensure his reelection.

465_ Obama with US flag (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
465_ Obama with US flag
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
In the best-selling book Start-Up Nation, former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor Saul Singer and Dan Senor suggest that one of the main reasons for the success of our local hi-tech industry is the ability of Israelis in this field to learn from their failures. The Democratic Party’s anticipated loss of control over Congress in Tuesday’s mid-term elections presents an opportunity for President Barack Obama to follow the lead of those Israelis.
The Republican gains may be internalized by the US president as an overwhelming sign that voters were unhappy with his economic policies, but foreign policy dissatisfaction, including where this region is concerned, may have played a role, too. Polls have consistently shown that Americans want their president to be pro- Israel and that many Americans and Israelis do not believe the policies of the Obama administration thus far have fit that description.
A McLaughlin and Associates poll sponsored last month by the Israel Emergency Coalition found that 50.9 percent of Americans were more likely to vote for a candidate identified as pro-Israel, and just 25.2% were less likely.
Asked whether Obama has been less friendly to Israel than previous presidents, 51.6% said yes and 35.4% said no.
When Obama’s policies were characterized as publicly criticizing and pressuring Israel and not the Palestinians, 27% said they agreed with this approach, and 54.4% said they did not.
Obama himself and his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel have admitted that mistakes were made in the administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
That admission was followed up with what appeared to be a sincere effort to reach out to Israelis with the positive reception Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received at the White House in July and a warm interview Obama gave to Channel 2, in which he called preventing Iran’s nuclearization his “No. 1 foreign policy priority.”
But the outreach to Israelis appeared to take a step backward last month when Obama returned to publicly pressuring Netanyahu for concessions in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “Israel’s settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks,” he said. “We believe that the moratorium should be extended.”
Obama’s very public call for the extension of the moratorium made it all but impossible for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without Netanyahu breaking a promise he had made repeatedly to the people of Israel – to limit the moratorium on settlement housing starts to 10 months. Were it not for that public US pressure for a settlement halt, indeed, the negotiations might have resumed much earlier than they did, and might not have so rapidly lapsed again.
NOW OBAMA has at least two and possibly six years to adjust his course, the better to serve the emphatically shared Israeli-American interest in finding a viable, stable accommodation with the Palestinians.
A vital first step is that Obama make crystal-clear to Palestinian leaders that there would be significant negative consequences if they declared a state unilaterally. This is key for the advancement of the peace process, because if the Palestinian Authority is given to believe that the international community will endorse a state that has not come to terms with Israel, this will leave no incentive for the PA to accept the terms of compromise that are critical to a viable accord.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak remarked in a recent interview that, historically, Israeli governments had made concessions when they had one of three things: a trusted Arab partner, a revered American mediator or a desire to relinquish territory unilaterally. He said the first was true when Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, the second was true when he and Netanyahu made concessions to Bill Clinton, and the third occurred when Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Barak said that currently, Netanyahu lacked all three. Obama can help begin to change this by making his first visit to Israel as president at a strategically smart time.
ANOTHER CONSTRUCTIVE suggestion for Obama is to accompany the international sanctions on Iran with a credible military threat. The only time the Iranians froze their nuclear program was when American coalition forces invaded Iraq and Iran felt threatened.
Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon has said that Obama can blame problems with Afghanistan and Iraq on his predecessor, George W. Bush, but if Iran gets the bomb on his watch, that failure would be what people remember most about his presidency. If, however, Obama succeeds in preventing Iran’s nuclearization, this would drastically undermine this region’s extremists, liberate the moderates and strongly enhance the prospects of peace. It could also help ensure his reelection.