Obama’s Middle East policy: pushing back against the pushback

When the Obama administration decided to get tough with PM Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues over settlements in Jerusalem and generalized noncooperation with American national security interests vis-à-vis peace in the Middle East, the big challenge always was holding Congress. The President has a majority in both houses, and therefore control by his supporters of key committees, in addition to strong support from the Jewish community generally which is almost entirely Democratic. However, as I’ve been recently explaining, the Israeli strategy, I think from the beginning, has been to play Congress off against the White House and deal with a divided, rather than a united American government. As long as Obama can hold Congress on his side, and not Netanyahu’s, he’s essentially in the drivers seat. However, if Congress begins to seriously challenge him, it becomes much more difficult and politically risky and costly to confront Israel over settlements in Jerusalem and other issues. A couple of weeks ago, the President laid down the marker by saying that the lack of peace costs the United States significantly in “blood and treasure.” In other words, this is in the national interest, indeed, he called it “a vital national interest,” of the United States and not simply a bilateral, let alone domestic political, matter.

Outrage from Israel and its most dedicated supporters outside of the government started, really, during the first Netanyahu visit to Washington in the spring of 2009. He and his entourage were apparently not particularly surprised at the toughness coming from the White House, especially on settlements and the relationship between Iran policy and Israel/Palestine policy. However, they were apparently flabbergasted and appalled that typically reliable Jewish members of Congress backed up the President and were not sympathetic to the arguments they were forwarding. They went back to Israel hurt and confused, at least as much as politicians can be. During the present confrontation which began with the Biden visit that was supposed to be a lovefest and a healing of wounds but that was sabotaged by the Ramat Shlomo fiasco, the President’s greatest source of authority and leverage has been that Congress, including key Jewish members, has thus far stuck with him. It’s completely unimportant what Republicans like Eric Cantor or marginal figures like Shelley Berkley have to say. The question is, what do the key Jewish members, and indeed other members, of the foreign policy elite in both houses have to say? So far, for the most part, they’ve been very supportive of Obama.

However, in the past week some cracks in the ice have begun to appear. The letter signed by some 300 congressmen and a similar one signed by about 75 senators was pretty irrelevant, because it consisted mainly of boilerplate about the importance of US-Israel relations and did not criticize the administration directly. It was a no-brainer for most of these politicians, and no challenge to the administration in practice. However, for many weeks, Jewish advocates and others have been piling on the pressure towards members of Congress, especially Jewish ones, that siding with Obama in this instance represents some kind of betrayal of Israel or some such gobbledygook.

My suspicion is that, as I’ve written several times in the past, on a number of occasions the Jewish pro-Israel lobby (there are, of course, others) has overreached during this confrontation, most obviously the ADL’s attack on Gen. Petraeus. And, there have been other incidents like the AIPAC Congressional letters cited above, and letters to the President from World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, angry articles by advocates such as Ed Koch, Alan Dershowitz and Shmuley Boteach, and an obnoxious ad signed by Elie Wiesel attacking the idea of negotiations on the status of Jerusalem. Wiesel’s ridiculous text emphasized Jewish rights in Jerusalem but dismissed any idea of a Muslim connection to the city, and preposterously claimed that Muslims can settle anywhere in Jerusalem, making it impossible for any informed person to take it seriously.

All of this pressure has begun to take its toll on certain legislators, and the first significant casualty was always likely to be Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY, significantly), and so it proved. At the same time that it was being reported that Jewish American leaders were publicly criticizing but privately supporting the administration (in a reverse of the usual public praise versus private criticism), Schumer was letting it be known that if this spat over settlements in Jerusalem dragged on, he was prepared to begin to side with Netanyahu and Israel rather than Obama and the United States. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when he finally came out of the closet on the “Nachum Segal Show” (you can’t make this stuff up) to vow that Jewish members of Congress “will be meeting with the President next week or the week after, and we are saying that this has to stop.” He added that, “There is a battle going on inside the administration, one side agrees with us, one side doesn?t, and we?re pushing hard to make sure the right side wins and if not we?ll have to take it to the next step.” No doubt that’s true, but for chutzpah this is pretty ripe. He added, for good measure, “Palestinians don?t really believe in a state of Israel, they, unlike a majority of Israelis, who have come to the conclusion that they can live with a 2-state solution to be determined by the parties, the majority of Palestinians are still very reluctant, and they need to be pushed to get there.” As if, of course, there was any real basis for believing the present Israeli government is not “very reluctant” on a two-state solution.

Obviously, if it’s just Schumer, this is highly containable, but, as I say, it’s the first really significant crack in the ice, and who knows who these other “Jewish members of Congress” are who will also meet with the President on this issue and what they will say. Reacting to all of this, the administration led by figures such as Sec. Clinton, NSA Jones and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been on something of a charm offensive over the past week or so designed to try to explain to the mainstream Jewish American community that the Obama approach is, in fact, in not only the American national interest — a case made bluntly and clearly by Pres. Obama himself, as well as Sec. Clinton, Sec. Gates, Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus, among others — but also in the Israeli interest as well. If Schumer is right, and undoubtedly he is, that there is a “battle” going on inside the administration, the side that argues that the lack of peace (not, of course, Israeli policy in general) is antithetical to US strategic concerns has already won, and there’s no going back on this. It’s a consensus, and if mainstream Jewish American organizations and Jewish American members of Congress and Senators like Schumer don’t like it, they’re really just going to have to get used to it. The charm offensive thus far is working. Apart from Schumer and some individual or marginal figures in the House, there has been no major series of defections from the legislators who are Netanyahu’s only hope of beating back the President of the United States.

So, the charm offensive is wise and strategically sound. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post last week said, somewhat incoherently, that while Pres. Obama had the right policies on Middle East peace he has been unable to communicate this to the Israeli public and therefore was on the brink of some kind of “blunder.” Roger Cohen of the New York Times (almost certainly no relation) argued that Israelis, and by implication their Jewish-American supporters, operate mainly from an irrational set of existential fears that do not take into consideration Israel’s actual strategic prowess. In other words, Israelis and their American friends, especially among Jewish Democrats, are one of the main beneficiaries of the Obama approach but many of them don’t realize this. And, both publicly and privately administration officials are trying to explain that their policies keep uppermost in mind the need to deal with Iran in a serious and effective manner, which is the most urgent concern of the Israeli government and also the mainstream American Jewish community. The message is: this is about Iran, whether you get that or not.

Thus far most strategically positioned Jewish Democratic members of Congress have stuck with Obama and Biden rather than defecting to Netanyahu and Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai. This is because they are genuinely loyal Americans loathe to side with another government over their own and also because they are loyal Democrats whose political future is strongly tied with the strength of the administration and, especially, the President. The charm offensive is required to solidify these impulses, since they’ve been under fairly heavy attack both on and off the record from those who would want these Jewish Democrats and others to actually side with the Prime Minister of Israel rather than the President of the United States.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve written many times that the name of the game for Pres. Obama is holding Congress, and if the charm offensive towards the Jewish community helps him to continue to do that, it can only be a good thing. There is, after all, no change in policy here, only an effort to explain it to a skeptical and alarmed constituency that is politically and strategically important. It therefore shouldn’t alarm supporters of the President’s policies, but rather encourage them.

And, there are real reasons for suspecting that Pres. Obama’s pressure on the Israeli leadership is starting to pay off. On Friday, there was a swath of interesting reports that suggested that the Israeli leadership is really feeling the pressure. The leaders of both Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman’s party) and Shas (Yishai’s party), the twin centers of ultra right-wing gravity in the present cabinet and Israeli society in general issued statements suggesting that they would not be categorically opposed to an unannounced settlement freeze in occupied East Jerusalem. Akiva Eldar and several other Israeli journalists wrote about the potential for a “gentleman’s agreement,” which is another term for the older idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in which Israel would not announce any settlement freeze in Jerusalem but would also refrain from any significant building, especially in Arab areas. Pres. Abbas has said several times that such an unannounced but effective freeze would be sufficient for a return to negotiations. And clearly the White House would be satisfied with such an arrangement as well. In addition, PM Netanyahu on Friday said that he was open to the idea of a Palestinian state with “temporary borders,” obviously a nonstarter from the Palestinian point of view but new language from him, and, more significantly, that the long-term future of Arab areas of Jerusalem were ?a question that will arise in the final-status arrangements.? This obviously is a far cry from the “undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people” or any other version of the usual, impossible, boilerplate.

None of this significant movement is imaginable outside of the context of the present US-Israel confrontation, and Obama’s policies generally. It could all be posturing for American consumption, but more likely it reflects a real discomfort in the Israeli government with the present standoff, especially as they have yet to be able to seriously muster significant congressional support against the White House, and therefore signifies potential real changes in Israeli policy. So, while there is pushback going on in Washington, there are actually serious signs of progress on the broader diplomatic front. That’s why the administration’s charm offensive pushback against the angry pro-Israel pushback is so important. And, it helps to explain why people like Schumer are starting to break with the administration and the extent to which the rest need to hold firm. This is about results, and there is every reason to think they’re actually starting to be produced.

There is a second, perhaps more significant pushback beginning to develop, and it’s a serious and coordinated assault on the reputations of Pres. Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad aimed at an American audience, including many powerful people, that frankly doesn’t know very much about them. Again, it’s all about results that are starting to be produced. In particular, the policies and approach of PM Fayyad have been deeply alarming to many Israelis and their supporters on two grounds: first, his approach actually threatens to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, to which some of these individuals are deeply opposed; and second, even some those who theoretically are not categorically opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state are greatly disconcerted to find Palestinians taking the initiative and creating their own “facts on the ground” that narrow the range of Israeli options and force issues they would prefer to see left up to diplomacy and the caprices of Israeli domestic politics.

The most dramatic gesture in this direction has been the announcement yesterday that the so-called “Palestinian Media Watch” run by an extremist settler called Itamar Marcus, is planning to run widely placed ads all over the American media accusing Abbas and Fayyad of “glorifying terrorists” and therefore, by implication, of being terrorists as well. This dovetails with increasing concerns coming from the Israeli military and right-wing about not only Palestinian state building, but more specifically the wave of Palestinian nonviolent protests that are being increasingly encouraged and, indeed, lead by the Palestinian national leadership including the President and especially the Prime Minister. I’ll have a lot more to say about this slanderous and preposterous attack in the near future, especially as it continues to develop. Stay tuned on both counts.