What Has He Done? Obama, Israel and the Palestinians

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October 28, 2009

One of the highlights of the spectacularly successful J Street conference was the keynote address by General James Jones, the National Security Advisor to President Obama. In his address, Jones reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to reaching a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, a regional and comprehensive peace agreement, and maintaining Israeli security and its qualitative edge in military capabilities.

This was, of course, all greeted with enthusiastic applause from the crowd. But outside of Jones’ speech, there was a distinct sense among many participants at the conference that Obama is either not up to the task, or that the obstacles in his path are simply too great for any American president to overcome.

These murmurings echoed a conversation I had recently with a key staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a Democrat and strong supporter of Obama’s policy. In that private talk, he expressed his concerns to me that the President had made some mistakes and had been outmaneuvered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That staffer isn’t alone. Obama’s Capitol Hill supporters are not close to jumping ship yet, but there are worries that he might not be able to succeed at the admittedly herculean task he has taken on with Israel and the Arabs.

I think those fears are somewhat misguided, although they are certainly based on some very real missteps Obama has made thus far. Before I go into that, let’s look at why these concerns are surfacing now.

There are three main mistakes that Obama has made that are causing worries among those who believe in his efforts: the insistence on a full settlement freeze so early on, his failure thus far to go to Israel to try to win over the Israeli public, and the bungled attempt to pressure Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw the request at the UN Human Rights Council for further action on the Goldstone Report.

Let’s look at those three issues and see what negative as well as positive results came from them.

The Settlement Freeze Demand

The Bad: By starting from a maximalist position on settlements (complete freeze, including natural growth, Jerusalem and settlement blocs), the Obama Administration alarmed Israel’s supporters in Congress and had to begin backing off that position almost immediately. This has made the American position look weak and has resulted in some mainstream, strongly pro-Israel Democrats softening their initial support for Obama’s approach.

It also put Mahmoud Abbas in a difficult position. He followed the early Obama lead and insisted that a complete freeze on settlement construction was a requirement for re-starting peace negotiations with Israel. He now finds it very difficult to back off that position, and was embarrassed when he relented to American pressure and met with Obama and Netanyahu at the UN in September despite the lack of a freeze.

The other Arab states as well have a harder time making even token concessions to Israel while it continues to defy the call for a freeze.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu comes out a hero for standing firm against the US demands and refusing anything but a short-term freeze that would exclude Jerusalem and any projects already in the pipeline. Moreover, he has now openly brought ongoing settlement construction firmly into mainstream Israeli minds, as a symbol of Israeli independence. This has helped to cement the schizophrenic attitude among Israelis that at once supports a two-state solution but also resists a halt to settlement expansion.

The Good: Of the three mistakes we’re discussing, this one has received the most attention. However, it is also the one with the biggest silver lining. The old loopholes that Israel has used to vastly expand settlements since the beginning of the Oslo era have been brought into the light of day, and are finally receiving massive public scrutiny. The hollow arguments used by the Israeli Right that “settlements are not an obstacle to peace” have been exposed as the farces they are. The need to stop settlements is more firmly in the eyes of both the Israeli and American publics than at any time in history, and by a very wide margin. The ideological settlers themselves have taken notice, and are worried, while their own distance from the Israeli mainstream has become more apparent.

As Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch notes, the current flurry of settlement activity likely reflects a belief on the part of both the settlers and the Netanyahu government that there will be some kind of freeze in the near future. True, it is unlikely to include Jerusalem, but it is almost certain to take hold in all the key areas of the West Bank. This drama is far from over and it is likely to look much better later than it does now.

Obama Hasn’t Spoken Directly to the Israeli People

The Bad: Of all of the three missteps by the new US government, this is the most puzzling. Obama is the most popular American president abroad in recent memory, but his standing in Israel is dismal, with some polls having his approval rating among Israeli Jews in single digits. Surely his top advisers, like Rahm Emmanuel and Hillary Clinton, know that the fact that he has yet to really reach out to the Israeli people is a major factor in these low ratings.

Across the political spectrum, there have been calls for Obama to come to Israel and make his case. Yet he hasn’t done so, and this also has the effect of reinforcing Bibi’s obstinacy. After all, if Obama is seen by Israelis as putting undue pressure on Israel, the overwhelming political momentum in Israel will want Bibi to resist. Even if he wants to be more cooperative with the US stance, it is more difficult for him to do so when that stance is so unpopular in Israel.

Right now Israelis, whether they back the idea of a settlement freeze or not, feel that Barack Obama is not their friend. They believe he is willing to go to Cairo to speak directly to the Muslim world, but unwilling to go to Jerusalem to speak to the Israelis. And until Obama does go there, that feeling is certain to persist.

The Good: There seems to be scant advantage in this. The only bit of hope in this regard is the idea that Obama’s team can hardly be ignorant of the problems his avoidance of talking to the Israeli people is causing, so perhaps there is some strategy at work here that will become clear down the road. But that has to be taken on faith. I really believe Obama has a strategy here, but it’s very easy at this stage to question that, and if you do, it appears to be a major, ongoing blunder.

Pressuring Abbas to Withdraw the Goldstone Petition at the UN Human Rights Council

The Bad: This was a real foul-up. In my discussions with State Department officials, it became quite clear that the administration severely underestimated the Palestinian reaction to Abbas withdrawing the Goldstone petition at the UN Human Rights Council. That boggles the mind and raises serious concerns about the administration’s familiarity with the Palestinian street. This is a problem that has dogged previous administrations as well.

Though Abbas re-submitted the petition to the UNHRC, his standing, already very weak, took what might have been a crippling blow when he appeared to appease the US by abandoning the victims of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Hamas capitalized on this, successfully portraying itself as being the only political leadership who would defend the interests of the Palestinians.

The Obama administration wanted to ensure that the Goldstone Report did not make it to the UN’s larger bodies, either the General Assembly or the Security Council. But this was an ill-conceived way to do it, and the result ensured that the UNGA would surely consider it, vote on it and quite likely endorse the UNHRC recommendations.

Netanyahu initially called this a great victory, but the end result meant far more pressure on him to do something that at least appears serious in response to Goldstone. He may, perhaps, still feel satisfied that Mahmoud Abbas has been further weakened, but a weakened Palestinian Authority cannot possibly serve Israeli security interests.

The Good: There appears to have been some important lessons learned from this fiasco. The US administration has recognized that significant moves must be made to strengthen Abbas’ position, and my sense is that there is a real increase in Obama’s attention to the Palestinian street. Similarly, while the US now will have to deal with Goldstone at the UNGA, its steadfast call for a credible, independent Israeli investigation (which echoes those calls from Israeli civil society groups, like this one, that have been ringing out since the end of Cast Lead) has a lot more weight and is clearly having an impact in Israel.

Israeli voices from the left to the far right are now endorsing the call for investigations.

So What Is the Obama Scorecard To Date?

Obama’s critics have jumped on these errors, but this happens in an atmosphere where little has been accomplished. That’s hardly a fair assessment, since Obama has only been in office for a little more than nine months, and could take little action until Israel’s own new government took power on March 31. So, really, we’re talking about seven months. Did anyone really expect major breakthroughs in so short a time?

Obama’s critics have focused on these mistakes during that time, and, yes, they were certainly all setbacks. But there have been accomplishments as well. Settlers have been put on the defensive. Many roadblocks and checkpoints have been removed in the West Bank. Israelis have lived in one of the “quietest” periods of this length in recent years. Palestinian leaders have made strides in both security and institution building. Syria has repeatedly signaled its openness to negotiations.

Most of all, Obama has rallied a consensus in the international community to actively pursue an end to the Israeli occupation and to real security for Israel. He has brought together a much more united globe behind a two-state solution.

That is certainly not terribly substantial. But it’s very early, and the fact that Obama has started his work on this now bodes well for the continued effort. It may well also turn out that these early mistakes were just the object lessons needed to solidify both tactics and concrete action going forward.

With the triumph of the recent J Street conference, the American political scene remains intensely animated. There is now a significant reservoir of support for Obama’s peace initiative. Push back from conservative quarters has been strong, and we have seen several examples of Congress feeling that pressure. Nonetheless, Obama still has strong support among important Democrats in Congress.

The US president needs to maintain this goodwill, especially for the next year, after which the Democratic majority is likely to slip. If Obama can pull this off, there is no more reason today to doubt that he can make significant progress in his first term than there was when he was first elected.

Naysayers are pointing to Obama’s mistakes while ignoring his accomplishments. In fact, neither has been all that enormous. The course toward a two state solution, one is sustainable for both sides, remains the right approach. The obstacles towards achieving that remain great, but the fact that Obama’s mistakes have gotten more press than his accomplishments should not be discouraging. The need for peace should instead buoy support for the substantive friendship that Obama has already shown toward Israel, which contrasts so strongly to the partisan toadying of the previous administration.

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