The Region: The notable shift in the Obama administration

The Region The notable

To say that US President Barack Obama hates, seeks to destroy and/or is pressuring Israel is a staple of the Internet rumor mill. A large portion of the far right would like to believe it. But it isn't true. Looking beyond the president's tone, miscomprehension of regional realities and all-too-apparent eagerness to please the world, the latest developments have made this so clear that it is time for people to adjust their view. The result is not an ideal relationship but one comparable to that which usually existed under his predecessors. It is a situation not directly dangerous to Israel. Indirect problems are another matter but here Israel is in the same boat as everyone else who wants strong, sane American leadership in the region and, indeed, US interests themselves. This outcome, however, was far from inevitable. FROM HIS political background, Obama learned three negative attitudes toward Israel. If things had gone otherwise, these might have been expressed as major policies during his presidency, the disaster that many foresaw and some still misperceive. • Indoctrinated by the far left into the Third World, "anti-imperialist" narrative, Obama disliked Israel and saw it as evil, taught by such people as Rashid Khalidi, an Edward Said acolyte and Palestinian propagandist, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an outright anti-Semite. • He thought Israel was too strong. Israel was seen as so powerful that it could afford to make huge concessions without risk. And Israel was faulted for the peace process not succeeding. • He thought Israel was too weak. It needed peace quickly or might collapse and thus had to be forced to make huge concessions for its own good. Obama only held the last of these three objectively hostile views after the inauguration, but it was dissipated by the first half-year or so of his experience. The other two were already dropped. So why did Obama shift his stance? During the campaign he came to learn that Israel's supporters were active, energetic and would fight back even when almost no one else would confront him. In addition, the fact that he could gain Jewish support gave him an added incentive to pull back. Put simply, being anti-Israel was a political liability. Obama knew it and shifted accordingly. Since the political costs of an anti-Israel stance are continuous, he needed to follow this change after he became president as well. Moreover, he needed Congress, which after a brief period of silence, intimidated by Obama's victory and apparent popularity, has returned to its usual pro-Israel stance. In addition, though, he began to discover that his views didn't work in the real world. His attempt to pressure Israel failed, thanks to the Israeli government. A key factor here was the tough, superb maneuvering of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ably supported by President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The government could not possibly have handled Obama better. At the same time, the obvious fragility of the current coalition proved another persuasive factor that made Obama pull back. I shudder to think what would have happened if Tzipi Livni had been prime minister. IN ADDITION, as always, intransigence on the Arab and Palestinian side was so extreme that even the Obama administration couldn't ignore it. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was absolutely uncooperative with Obama, throwing away an incredible strategic opportunity. Obama thought Arab states would fall in line behind him - especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia - but they refused to help. It is said that his meeting with the Saudi king, who went into an anti-Israel diatribe, was a particular shock. Syria and Iran also showed they were not so open to friendly engagement. All these factors have helped force a rethinking process on Obama and his administration. To this day, the US government under Obama has not taken a single material step against Israel and no such development seems to be on the horizon either. While there are many criticisms that can be made of Obama's Middle East policy, it has swung in a more pro-Israel direction while still maintaining the kind of "evenhanded" balance frequently seen in his predecessors. The latest examples include: • A continuation of joint US-Israel military exercises, consultations over Iran, arms sales and the use of Israeli equipment by the US military. • A policy change on the idea of a settlement construction. First, the administration shifted to accepting the idea of reciprocal Arab concessions, now Obama speaks of "restraining" rather than freezing construction, trying to negotiate some compromise. • A tough stand by the administration in denouncing the Goldstone report, which was designed to bash Israel over the Gaza war, and on blocking its use to sanction the Jewish state. • A specific mention the need for a Jewish State of Israel by Obama in his UN address last week, reflecting one of the Israeli government's most important demands, which is rejected by the Palestinian Authority. • An emphasis on the need for talks without preconditions, thus specifically rejecting the Palestinian demand (which originated with him) of a settlement freeze before negotiations could restart. • Seeking Arab overtures toward Israel and vice versa, in contrast to his original stance. • Praising the Israeli government for its flexibility and taking up the theme of raising Palestinian living standards. • Not echoing the Arab demand that Israel join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. • Maintaining demands for changes in Damascus's behavior before further engagement can proceed. Sometimes, relatively positive formulations are misinterpreted by some the opposite way. For example, when Obama said at the UN that he considered post-1967 Israeli settlements to be illegal, he was only echoing long-standing US practice. He was also saying that Israel's existence should not be questioned and by not mentioning settlement construction, Obama was actually backtracking on that issue. His statement did not imply that Israel must return to 1967 borders. Of course, the administration policy does not comprehend things like the impossibility of comprehensive peace due to Palestinian obduracy, the need to bring down the Hamas government in Gaza for progress on peace or stability, and other points required for an effective US policy. But comparing it to positions under the last half-dozen US presidents shows less change than looking at rhetoric alone would seem to indicate. Can it change again? Definitely, but in which direction? If Obama is determined to push the peace process forward, the Palestinian leadership will teach him what they taught his predecessors: that it is the real roadblock. Arab states will frustrate him because they won't lift a finger to help. Again, there are many criticisms that can be made of the Obama administration, especially with regards to Iran. On these issues, the administration might not learn its lessons since Obama's clear reluctance to identify and confront the radicals could well push it into a dangerous passivity. That, not appeasement, is the biggest threat. In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted on bilateral relations with Israel and on its concept of a peace process from a position of relative hostility to the historic US policy default stance.