Crimea and punishment?

The US president is being inserted into the process of the Middle East peace process, even against his better judgment.

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The conventional wisdom prior to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington this week was that he would be hurried and pressured by President Barack Obama to accept the Kerry framework for negotiations with the Palestinians.
The US president refrained from intervening in Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, leading to both sides wearily assuming that until he does, the “process” will go nowhere, but now that both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are to meet with Obama in the White House, the president is being inserted into the process, even against his better judgment and assessment of the probability of success.
Enter Ukraine, particularly the Russian policy and actions in Crimea. A new, instant conventional wisdom prevailed: How lucky is Netanyahu? He’s off the hook.
Ukraine represents a huge geopolitical crisis with wide-ranging implications and such a foreign policy distraction that no one will care, let alone expend energy and political capital, to deal with the tedious ad nauseam Israeli- Palestinian peace process.
Who cares, right? Enter President Obama, who goes out to disappoint Israel and the punditocracy and grants an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg.
In it, Obama says horrible, obnoxious, incendiary and patently anti-Israel things.
The president had the audacity and shamelessness to suggest that Israel needs a peace deal with the Palestinians, that time for the two-state model is running out, that Israel is in danger of being isolated in the international arena, that the US will find it increasingly difficult to defend Israel in international forums. An unbelievably unprecedented harsh scolding.
Unless, of course, you count all US presidents since Lyndon Johnson, four of the last five Israeli prime ministers, three heads of the Mossad, three heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and more than 55 percent of the Israeli public. Oh, and a majority of American Jews if you bother to read polls.
They all say the same.
Buy why get carried away and confused by facts? As early as 2009, Netanyahu concluded that Obama is after him and lacks any true sympathy for Israel’s predicament.
After all, Obama, according to the extraordinarily knowledgeable Sen.
Ted Cruz of Texas, is the most anti-Israel US president “in modern times.”
Unless, of course, you ask President Shimon Peres, former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff or the head of the Mossad. They have a different take on Obama’s support for Israel.
Perhaps Cruz, clearly devastated and distraught by the Bloomberg interview, merely compared Obama to presidents Martin Van Buren or Zachary Taylor, neither of whom ever said anything critical of Israel. Ever.
But there is a downside to the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
First, when one now talks of “sanctions,” the first thing people in the West think of is measures the US wants to impose on Russia, not on Iran. So an unfortunate beneficiary of the reprioritization of US foreign policy is Iran. And, to an extent, Syria. They will be dealt with, but Ukraine is by far a bigger deal.
Secondly, Netanyahu did not deflect pressure – which was surely not applied in the form of an interview repeating things Obama said previously – or win time.
He only extended, or delayed, by a few days or weeks the decision he will have to make on accepting the Kerry framework with all the bravado of the “Yes, but” and the “We won’t sacrifice Israeli security,” as if anyone wants him or expects him to. Right-wing, left-wing or in the vast, nondescript Center, you would have to be profoundly silly and myopic to applaud the idea that the US will be less engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian process.
In fact, let’s see how Israelis and Palestinians manage without John Kerry. Let’s put to a test the sustainability of the status quo. Naturally, this is hyperbole.
Kerry will return to the Middle East. But the president may not. And that more than anything is the punishment for Crimea. That when a crisis like that erupts, the relative insignificance of the Israeli-Palestinian process is on global display. But what may be insignificant to the US is critical to Israel.
The notion that a distracted US and president preoccupied with Ukraine and Russia will “leave us alone” is not good news, even if you do not believe in the viability of the current process. It is a possible nightmare because the next US president and the next secretary of state may actually think it is not a bad foreign policy idea to “leave us alone.”
The writer was consul-general in New York and adviser to four foreign ministers. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.