Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The case for Obama's weakness that the GOP won't use

As count-the-accomplishments plaudits for President Obama mount in this election year, it's disturbing to read Peter Beinert's account of Obama knuckling under to Netanyahu (adapted from his forthcoming The Crisis of Zionism).

The outlines were clear enough in contemporary accounts. The administration called for a settlement freeze and settled for the semblance of one. As the "freeze's" short term approached its end, the administration tried desperately to bribe the Israelis into an extension, and failed.  The never-really-started peace talks ended, and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement effectively disappeared from the agenda.  Now Israel's got the U.S. and the world riveted on the alleged "existential" threat from Iran.

At this point, Obama is hemmed in, thanks in large part to the disloyal opposition screaming at every juncture that can be no daylight between Israeli interests as defined by the Netanyahu government and American interests (as defined by the Netanyahu government).  Beinert's point is that it was not always that way.  At the outset, the Obama administration had the leverage to make its conditions stick. Or at least to have made a good-faith effort, which they failed to do:

The American Jewish groups, recounts one former Obama campaign Middle East adviser, were “scared to death.” Another adds that “when the Israelis thought Obama would go to the mat [on settlements] they were terrified.” But Obama did not go to the mat. Asked by Mitchell for advice, Daniel Kurtzer—ambassador to Israel during Clinton’s first term--said that had he been asked before the president made a public demand, he would have advised against making a settlement freeze including “natural growth” a precondition for negotiations. However, Kurtzer argued, now that the president had announced the policy, he had to succeed. When Mitchell responded that success would be hard to achieve, Kurtzer replied that it might be necessary to examine policy options that had long been considered in private, such as exempting settlement goods from the U.S.-Israeli free trade agreement or closing the IRS loophole that allows Americans to receive tax deductions for money they donate to settler groups. Another outside expert circulated an unofficial document called a “non-paper” to Obama Middle East officials, which listed a variety of carrots and sticks the administration could deploy, including recalling the U.S. ambassador in Israel for consultations, canceling an Israeli military delegation’s visit to the Pentagon, and letting it be known that the United States would not veto a UN resolution criticizing settlements.

But when challenged by Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies, Obama did what he had done during the campaign: he retreated. His Israel policy would never be the same. Obama’s backpedaling undermined Mitchell. Mitchell’s strategy had only made sense when accompanied by presidential pressure. When Obama refused to apply that pressure, he needed a new strategy, one premised upon his unwillingness to confront Netanyahu.

The Palestinians understood this:
If the settlement freeze had been designed to strengthen Abbas and Fayyad, the Obama administration’s retreat from it had the reverse effect. The accounts of meetings between American and Palestinian officials during Obama’s settlement climbdown are excruciating. Urged on September 16 by Mitchell’s deputy, David Hale, to accept a temporary freeze riddled with exceptions, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat predicted, “this will mean more settlement construction in 2009 than in 2008.” “Let me be candid,” he declared the next day, “you made a great effort to get a settlement freeze and you did not succeed. . . . Therefore, no settlement freeze at all, not for 1 hour. More construction in 2010 than 2009. You know this.” Hale responded, “We cannot force a sovereign government,” prompting Erekat to reply, “Of course you could.”

Once the fig-leaf West Bank freeze was in place, the next step was the Jerusalem humiliation:
Once the administration abandoned its demand for a full settlement freeze, it needed to force the Palestinians to as well. To make that more palatable, American negotiators promised that Israel would not launch high-profile construction projects in areas of East Jerusalem that the Palestinians considered especially sensitive. But having learned that he could defy Obama with impunity, Netanyahu felt little need to be conciliatory. “This government has shown that you don’t always need to get flustered, to surrender and give in,” crowed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Once Netanyahu “realized that Obama was not willing to twist his arm,” explained Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar, “he got more chutzpah. He saw that Obama was a paper tiger.”
I reckon there's a counter-narrative. There always is. In this case, it might involve enumerating the full extent of right wing and Jewish pressure not to try to force a real freeze on Netanyahu, and the purported folly, as intimated by the account of Kurtzer's reaction above, of taking on that fight -- perhaps the political impossibility of imposing the economic punishments outlined by Kurtzer.

But Beinert's core premise, attributed to Kurtzer -- "now that the president had announced the policy, he had to succeed" -- rings true.  It was manifest as events unfolded that Obama had been rolled by Netanyahu.  The irony is that for all the Republican accusations of Obama's weakness on the world stage, they can't and won't make the charge that has real credibility.  When it comes to Israel, they have to reverse ground and cast Obama as a ruthless bully of a betrayed ally.

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