Monday, November 5, 2012

What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part One

by Jonathan S. Tobin

If you listen to President Obama’s Jewish surrogates, you hear them tell you that Barack Obama is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. According to the president’s Jewish detractors, he is one of its worst foes and his re-election could lead to its destruction. Where does the truth lie?

Let’s start with one clear fact. Israel’s survival does not depend on who is elected president of the United States. As important as the U.S.-Israel alliance may be — and it is absolutely vital to the state of Israel’s well-being and security — the Jewish state will not collapse if Barack Obama is re-elected. Nor will it enter a new golden age if Mitt Romney wins. Responsibility for Israel’s defense falls primarily on the shoulders of someone who is not on the ballot on Tuesday: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If the president of the United States seeks in the next four years to pressure Israel to do something that will undermine its security, Netanyahu — or one of his opponents, should he fail to be re-elected in parliamentary elections that will take place the day after the American president is inaugurated — can say no, just as his predecessors have done. Israel’s leaders have rarely been shy about taking unilateral or pre-emptive action to forestall a threat, and that won’t change. It should also be pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so deeply entrenched into America’s political culture that even should the president seek to significantly alter or undermine that alliance, the political price for such a decision would be so costly as to deter all but the most fanatical ideologue.

That said, there would be significant differences between a second Obama administration and a first one for Romney in terms of the impact on Israel.

The first and most obvious difference will be in terms of the tone of the relationship. Though Democrats have spent the last year trying to make the public forget about it, President Obama has spent most of his time in office feuding with the Israeli government about a number of different issues.

Though Obama has not overturned and has, in fact, strengthened the security relationship between the two nations in some respects (something for which he deserves credit but which was nothing more than a continuation of the policies of his predecessors, as his defenders claim), Obama came into office determined to reverse what he thought was his predecessor’s mistake in being seen as too close to Israel. He succeeded in putting more daylight between the two allies, but that was about all he accomplished. His foolish decision to push hard for another round of talks with the Palestinians just at the time that the latter had signaled their inability to negotiate a peace deal on any terms was his first misjudgment. He compounded that error by pushing the Israelis to make unilateral concessions on settlements that did nothing to appease Arab demands, but ironically put the Palestinian Authority in the position of having to sound as tough on Israel as the Americans. Even when Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze, the Palestinians balked at talking.

Even worse, the president established a position on the status of Jerusalem in 2010 that did more to undermine Israel’s claim on its capital than that of any previous American administration. That led to unnecessary and quite bitter fights with Netanyahu that strengthened the Israeli at home and convinced the majority of his people that Obama wasn’t their friend.

Then in 2011, Obama tried to push hard on Israel to agree to the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations. This was a slight, though significant, alteration of previous American positions that was made worse by Obama’s repudiation of Bush’s promises to respect the changes on the ground since 1967 (i.e. the major settlement blocs and new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem).

Even the Iranian nuclear threat, an issue on which Obama has always paid lip service to Israeli concerns, the president managed to turn agreement into dispute by refusing to agree to Netanyahu’s request for “red lines” that would put some limits on the time allowed for diplomacy before action was contemplated. While there are genuine differences between the two allies on Iran, this was one point that could have been finessed had Obama wished to do so. But even after nearly a year of an election-year charm offensive, the president refused to meet with Netanyahu and produce even a limited consensus on the issue.

The irony is that Obama’s spats with Israel were completely unnecessary, as the Palestinians took no advantage of his attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction. Nor have the Iranians used the time Obama has granted them, first by his engagement policy and then by a belated sanctions regime that has allowed them to get closer to a nuclear weapon, to come to an agreement that would remove the possibility of a conflict.

Since Netanyahu is the odds-on favorite to be re-elected in January and, barring an unforeseen development, be in office for all of the next four years, should Obama win, the one thing we can be certain of is that relations between the two countries will not be smooth. The variables involve how much Obama has learned from the failures of his policies over the past four years and how much they would differ from what Romney would do.

On the first point, there is room for debate.

It is entirely possible that Obama has learned his lesson, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Anyone who believes that Mahmoud Abbas has the will or the ability to actually negotiate or sign a peace accord hasn’t been paying attention to anything he’s done during the eight years of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. There is even less reason to believe Abbas’s Hamas rivals will be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Would Obama really be so foolish as to risk another bruising battle with a re-elected Netanyahu for the sake of a peace process that even he must know is doomed?

Maybe. Given Obama’s loathing for Netanyahu and his lack of general sympathy for Israel (as Aaron David Miller memorably put it, he’s the only U.S. president in a generation “not in love with the idea of Israel”), it’s a certainty that he will be picking more fights with the Israeli if he is re-elected.

While, as we have seen, the alliance can survive even four years of near-constant tension, one shouldn’t underestimate the damage these battles do to Israel. They encourage, as they have in the past four years, Israel’s Palestinian antagonists to be even more intransigent. They also help isolate Israel at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism is causing Europe to be even more hostile to the Jewish state.

There is little doubt that, despite the ardent defense of his pro-Israel bona fides by Democrats, a re-elected Obama will be inclined to be even more intolerant of Netanyahu and Israel’s insistence on standing up for its rights in the peace process and on the question of the Iran threat. Though Romney’s relationship with Netanyahu is probably not as close as some Republicans imply, it is a given that there will, at least for a time, be more cooperation and a lot more trust between the two governments, even if the vital security relationship won’t be altered all that much.

In part two of this post, I’ll discuss the impact of a second Obama administration on the question of Iran. In part three, I’ll go into more detail about whether a President Romney might be any different.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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