The Mideast After Massachusetts

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January 22, 2010

The special election held in Massachusetts this week to fill the seat opened by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy was certainly a stunner. The Republican victory, in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic, is widely seen as an indictment of President Barack Obama’s presidency.

The very next day, a very savvy Americans for Peace Now (APN) released a statement calling on the President to ratchet up the pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about achieving a just and viable two-state solution. How does the shift in the Senate affect the Obama Administration’s policy and tactics regarding Middle East peace? Will APN’s call be heeded?

The actual effects of the loss of the mythical “60th vote” in the Senate is much less than it is being made out to be. The Democrats never really had the filibuster-proof number of votes in practice. They were counting on Joe Lieberman, an independent and one of the most craven opportunists in the Senate, for that total, for one thing. As we saw with the health care bill, the Democrats, who have always been far less unified than their Republican counterparts, end up being held hostage to their most conservative elements in their quest to achieve the requisite votes.

Republican Congressional majorities can always count on a few defectors from the other side of the aisle, while Democratic majorities must always fear their own defectors. So this was much less of a loss than it seems.

But what was much more important was the sense that the President is now very vulnerable in the public arena. American memories are short, as is their patience. As could be expected after he won the presidency, Obama is being blamed because he can’t clean up messes in one year that were many years in the making (many more years than just the previous eight in many cases). Thus populist anger turns on the White House, and ends up appealing to those who put America in this mess in the first place.

Then again, Obama’s campaign promises raised expectations, as did his early proclamations and actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama himself said as much in an interview with Time Magazine. The problem with setting the bar too high is that when you fall short, no one notices the small improvements, only the grand shortcomings.

With the Israelis and the Palestinians, Obama created a serious problem with his initial call for a total freeze on settlements. This backfired badly; it strengthened Netanyahu’s rejectionism as he appeared to stand fast but with pragmatic, rather than defiant, words against American pressure; it put PA President Mahmoud Abbas in an impossible position where he can now settle for nothing less than a full freeze lest he appear softer on settlements than the Americans; and it meant that Obama has now already played one of his most powerful cards without the political will to back it up.

Quietly, Obama has also strengthened American military support of Israel, but that quiet means that he has garnered little credit for this from either the American Jewish or Israeli communities. Even in the West Bank, where conditions have improved in recent months, there is little faith in Obama. A big reason for this is his perceived indifference to the situation in the Gaza Strip. While Obama has expressed his sympathy for the plight of the Gazans, he has taken virtually no visible action about it.

These public perceptions are important because, if any sort of increased pressure is to have a positive effect, it must be helping to generate significant political momentum towards an agreement in the Israeli and Palestinian publics.

This is also where the effects of the Massachusetts election are going to be most keenly felt. APN is also right in saying that Obama is going to be attacked on any Mideast peace efforts, so he might as well go after an agreement forcefully. Frankly, I doubt the Obama Administration will share that calculation in the wake of Massachusetts.

Barack Obama is not likely to be interested in pursuing a political battle over Israel given his recent setbacks. The only way he is likely to choose such a course is if he really believes he can get something done. He will want to approach the Israel-Palestine issue with an eye on 2012, not on November’s midterm elections. But progress toward even that target date must begin now. and would have to be predicated on the kind of serious but practical pressure that APN advocates.

If that is the plan, then its success will depend, in part, on any such pressure being supported among some significant American, Israeli and Palestinian constituencies. They don’t need to be majorities, at least at first, but they have to be at minimum minorities that are large enough to carry some political influence.

And that brings us back to the need to win over the people. J Street and APN can deliver some political support for a credible peace push that is moving forward, even slowly. They can’t begin to match AIPAC, but they can provide enough support to keep the Administration on track.

However, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, a lot more needs to be done. Israelis need to know that Obama has acted forcefully to enhance Israel’s security. They must know there have been deeds, not just words, in that direction. Israelis must also have a clear sense of what Obama means when he articulates a vision of a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. This will allow Kadima and parts of Israeli society to the left of that party to coalesce around something substantive and create the support an Obama peace push needs there.

On the Palestinian side, it comes down to one word: Gaza. The ongoing siege has done serious damage to the Hamas-ruled territory, and prevented any rebuilding either from the years of siege or last year’s Israeli offensive. But this has only affected the people. Hamas, according to Israeli intelligence, has re-armed and is stronger than ever, despite increasing popular dissatisfaction with them. The closure of the Gazan economy has left smuggling as the only growth industry, and that is heavily taxed by Hamas and cannot be effectively monitored.

This ought to help Obama make the argument to lift the siege, and this is what he will need if Mahmoud Abbas is to take the political risks Obama will need him to take in order to move the peace process forward. It is a way for Obama to promote human rights and Israeli security at the same time, and re-establish himself as a moral leader in this conflict. If he does not act on Gaza, and Israel cuts a deal with Hamas to lift or ease the siege, it will give Hamas a victory and completely undercut the PLO.

With these two steps, Obama can deal from a position of strength and employ the kind of tactics Americans for Peace Now is suggesting. It will give Obama a useful tool for 2012, and could contribute to a rebound from what is likely to be a Democratic setback in November’s Congressional elections. Foreign policy is not the greatest arena for a President to win votes. But it is a place where the President can do more himself. Obama needs to find ways to make progress in his agenda without depending on the “Party of No” or the naysayers and Blue Dogs in his own party.

President Obama should consider one more thing. The situation in the Mideast is deteriorating. He might be forgiven for setting expectations too high and falling short. However, if the region descends further into conflict or reasonable avenues of progress appear to permanently close, it will be a huge setback for Obama in foreign policy, which remains his best bet to show his superiority to the Republicans.

There is no time to waste. Israel’s leadership is retreating into more and more of a siege mentality, and Palestinian hopelessness is starting to boil. It’s been said over and over, but it’s true—the two-state solution is certainly on the endangered species list. Barack Obama is not going to resolve this quickly, but without swift and determined action starting now, people like myself and the good folks at APN will have to start to wonder if we shouldn’t look for another line of work.

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