by Jonathan S. Tobin
The Washington Post trod over some familiar territory this past weekend with a 7,000-word retrospective on the Obama administration’s Middle East peace process misadventures. The account strives to put President Obama in a favorable light. But even the most sympathetic narrative of this period must come to grips with the president’s blundering, most of which was rooted in his determination to distance the United States from Israel in a vain attempt to score points with the Arab world. For the first three years of his presidency, Washington was focused on pressuring Israel, a policy that alienated the Jewish state but did nothing to nudge the Palestinians to make peace.
The Post’s lengthy rehashing of the president’s Middle East follies is part of the paper’s series of pieces evaluating the history of the last four years. It is worthwhile for the way it places in perspective the administration’s election-year Jewish charm offensive that has walked back some of the previous stands. It also makes clear that while President Obama deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the way he made a bad situation worse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also ought to be held accountable for her role in the ongoing debacle. That’s a not unimportant point considering that Clinton is in Israel this week as part of an attempt on Obama’s part to smooth over relations.
Though the president’s surrogates continue to try to portray him as Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House, the Post provides a reminder for those who care to remember the truth that he arrived in office determined to put an end to the closeness between Israel and the United States that had developed during the Bush administration.
The Post describes a meeting with American Jewish leaders that took place in the wake of the June 2009 president’s speech to the Muslim world and his snub of Israel during his visit to the Middle East:
“If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the president.
Obama politely but firmly disagreed.
“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Obama not only didn’t understand what had happened under Bush when the U.S. attempted to force the Palestinian Authority to eschew terror and embrace democracy, he knew nothing about the way the Arab world regarded the U.S.-Israel relationship. Rather than interpreting his kicking Israel under the bus as an invitation to compromise and make peace, it merely convinced them they could just sit back and let Obama hammer Israel. Even when Prime Minister Netanyahu acceded to Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze in the West Bank, not only did he receive little thanks from Washington, the Palestinians continued to refuse to negotiate, secure in the belief the president would do the dirty work for them.
The same thing happened in 2011 when Obama ambushed Netanyahu before he arrived in Washington for a visit by giving a speech in which he called for the 1967 lines to be the starting point for future negotiations over borders. Obama had “in a single morning changed decades of U.S. policy on how the negotiations would unfold on the final borders of Israel.” Though the president tilted the diplomatic playing field in their direction, the Palestinians still wouldn’t budge and instead sought a futile end run around U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations.
Just as interesting is the Post’s account of the way Clinton helped turn what should have been dismissed as a minor kerfuffle over the announcement of a new housing start in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden into a major diplomatic incident. Though Clinton is still viewed by many American Jews as a friend of Israel, her 45-minute lecture of Netanyahu in which she treated the building of homes in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods of Israel’s capital as an “insult” to the United States was, in its way, just as significant as Obama’s later speech on the 1967 lines. Rather than moderating the desire of some in the administration to bash Israel, Clinton took a delicate situation and blew it up and in the process established a U.S. position on the status of Jerusalem that went further than any of Obama’s predecessors toward undermining Israel’s hold on its capital.
Though Obama’s Jewish surrogates are beating the bushes this year portraying the president as a stalwart friend of Israel, he began his presidency pursuing policies that won the applause of the left-wing J Street group and shocked the pro-Israel community. In the last several months, those stands have been reversed, leaving J Street isolated as the president now eschews any talk of pressure on Israel or distancing the U.S. from the Jewish state.
Optimists will view this sea change in policy as a result of Obama learning the hard way that the Palestinians are not interested in peace. Less sanguine observers will merely point to the calendar and note that the president’s conversion to more conventional pro-Israel policies coincided with the start of his re-election campaign. Those who believe he will stick to the stances he has taken this year if he is re-elected would do well to read the Post account and ask themselves whether their trust is warranted.Jonathan S. Tobin
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