Sunday, March 22, 2015

On U.S. support for Israel, Obama is turning the battleship a few degrees

As Obama discussed U.S. policy with respect to Israel in his recent sit-down with Huffington Post's Sam Stein, there were a couple of surprise turns -- at least, surprising to me as a transcript reader.

First, this:
OBAMA: Well, I had a chance to speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, congratulated his party on his victory
'Congratulated...his party.' Not Netanyahu himself, not for the campaign he ran. Every word that Obama has said in response to Netanyahu's late-stage campaign comments and the election results has been calibrated to pressure the prime minister to prove by deeds, not words, that he is walking back his campaign promise to forestall a Palestinian state on his watch. Congratulation of the party, rather than the man, arguably advances that aim: "So we’re evaluating what’s taking place. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu still has to form a government; we’ll be in close consultation with them."  On the plus side, Netanyahu's surprise success came at the expense of parties on his right, so should he reverse tone and course he has some room to maneuver.

No one expects him to, though. Which leads to the second surprise turn of a sentence:
HUFFPOST: Is there any reason at this point to believe that he's serious about a Palestinian state?
OBAMA: Well, we take him at his word when he said that...
When he said what? Maybe this, post-election, on Fox News?  -- "I didn’t retract any of the things I said in my speech six years ago, calling for a solution in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes a Jewish state,"

Nah. This:
we take him at his word when he said that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region.
No one believes that Netanyahu will negotiate in good faith with Abbas - in fact, even in his walk-backs, he made it clear that there are no achievable conditions under which he would do so. So Obama is holding him to his late-election pronouncements as a public rationale for the shifts in U.S. policy he has floated this week, such as a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a two-state solution based on 1967 lines, with swaps. That may be a very mild form of pressure, as Daniel Larison suggests.  But any shift in U.S. protection of Israel from world opinion as expressed through the U.N. would be significant -- a turn of the battleship of U.S. policy by a few degrees, to borrow one of Obama's favorite metaphors.

For all the media murmurs about Obama's alleged pique at Netanyahu's conduct -- from undercutting last year's peace talks to addressing a fawning Congress in the runup to the Israeli election to denying the two-state solution and denigrating the Arab vote in the campaign's last days -- I think that Obama is exploiting Bibi's self-exposure coolly and clinically to repoint the most unwieldy of policy battleships -- that is, one powered by the most powerful of lobbies.   In the last few weeks Bibi has shaken up even staunch U.S. supporters by forcing U.S. Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, to choose between himself and Obama.  he has knocked out the prop long enabling U.S. tolerance of Israeli settlement growth -- at least nominal commitment to a two-state solution.

That's an opportunity. There is an inexorable logic to changing course when Netanyahu has embraced a course that Obama has long pronounced unsustainable. Nancy LeTourneau highlights how almost pre-scripted current administration moves are in light of past pronouncements:
here is something President Obama said to Jeffrey Goldberg about a year ago:
What I’ve said to him [Netanyahu] privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on...

I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.
...Those who want Israel to survive as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with their neighbors have no choice but to work towards developing a two-state solution. That is exactly what President Obama will continue to do.
By disavowing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu offered Obama his flank. Exploiting that opportunity to enable new forms of U.S. pressure on Israel is Obama's course just now.

Related: Administration rebuke to Netanyahu name-checks those "indissoluble bonds"

Update, 3/23: Denis McDonough, speaking to J Street, just reinforced this read:

And again, from State Dept. spox Marie Harf:

Next posts:
Israelis read Obama right. Well, half-right
Chastising Netanyahu: Fury or cold calculation?
On U.S. support for Israel, Obama is turning the battleship a few degrees

1 comment:

  1. Sigh. I wish it were more than just floating policies by the President. I wish he'd actually withdraw cover from the UN resolution.