Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Israelis read Obama right. Well, half right.

I have been arguing that the Obama administration's promise to reassess its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of Netanyahu's late-election disavowal of a two-state solution is not an expression of pique but the seizing of an opportunity. A report from the New York Times' Jodi Rudoren suggests that a lot of Israelis agree with me:
Several Israeli analysts said the administration’s criticism of Mr. Netanyahu seemed like a pretext for a longstanding plan to change the United States’ policy of protecting Israel in international forums, which the administration has said it will reassess. Others suspect a ploy to undermine Israel’s lobbying efforts against the American negotiations for a nuclear accord with Iran.
I don't know that there was a longstanding plan; policymaking is usually more reactive than people assume. But any rational U.S. actor (see Baker, James) would look for an opportunity to alter the U.S.'s one-sided relationship with Israel -- the U.S.'s near-total absence of leverage, the political imperative to provide unconditional support no matter how thoroughly Israel undercuts U.S. policy, the impossibility of imposing consequences such as limiting aid or joining the rest of the world in condemning Israeli settlement activity.

I see Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser (cited by Rudoren), as half right here:

Everybody understands this is part of the political campaign,” Mr. Eiland said of Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election comments promising that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch“To try and say: ‘I caught you; I heard you say something. Since that’s what you said, I’m going to make a reassessment,’ it sounds like, ‘Well, I have been waiting until you make such a mistake, and now I’m going to exploit it.’ ”“To try and say: ‘I caught you; I heard you say something. Since that’s what you said, I’m going to make a reassessment,’ it sounds like, ‘Well, I have been waiting until you make such a mistake, and now I’m going to exploit it.’ ”
Well yes, Obama is going to exploit it. But not because he thinks the words provide a pretext, but because he thinks they express Netanyahu's true policy as he pursued it for twenty years. Here's where he and his administration part company with Israelis:
In contrast with the White House, leading Israeli voices seem to have accepted Mr. Netanyahu’s post-election clarification that current circumstances make it impossible to imagine meeting his longstanding conditions for supporting a Palestinian state. While Israel’s Arab politicians rejected Mr. Netanyahu’s apology on Monday for an election-day video in which he warned about Arab citizens’ descending in “droves” to the polls, several of his most virulent Jewish critics praised it. 
Those sentiments, like the election results, reflect the Israeli electorate's comfort with Netanyahu's approach to a Palestinian state: pay lip service to the goal but act to undercut it. The pretense maintains  unconditional U.S. support.  Obama's message is that the pretense has been blown, and Israelis don't want to hear that.

It's important to note that in dismissing Netanyahu's attempted walk-back, Obama is focused not just on what Netanyahu said while campaigning but in the substance of his alleged stance now, as expressed on U.S. TV, Here's what he said at a press conference in Afghanistan yesterday, as reported by Igor Volsky:
But Obama pointed out that Netanyahu’s efforts to clarify his comments set forward “a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created but of course the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet any time soon.”

“I think the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time,” he said. 
Rudoren is probably right that Obama's words and actions may backfire in their effect on Israeli sentiment. Israelis have always distrusted Obama because he's sought to moderate the unconditional support they've come to expect and confidently demand. The question is whether Obama will keep U.S. Jews with him and so loosen AIPAC's grip on policy.

By moving openly and directly to sabotage the talks with Iran, Netanyahu accelerated a process of forcing U.S. Jews to choose between him and Obama. By bypassing the administration while accepting an invitation to address the Republican Congress, Netanyahu, not Obama,  moved to render unconditional support for Israel a Republican stance rather than an American one. Obama is intimating that he will, yes, exploit that opportunity to break the Israel lobby's chokehold on U.S. mideast policy.

Chastising Netanyahu: Fury or cold calculation?
On U.S. support for Israel, Obama is turning the battleship a few degrees
Administration rebuke to Netanyahu name-checks those 'indissoluble bonds'

No comments:

Post a Comment