In insisting that Israel reverse its settlement policies, President Obama has clearly decided to raise a marginal Middle East issue above all others, at least for now: The policy is a likely loser — abroad and at home.
State Department officials last week told the new Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, that they were concerned about Israeli construction of a 20-unit apartment complex, designed to house Jews in East Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu on Sunday declared that he couldn’t accept the American diktat — indeed, he stated firmly that Jews should be able to live anywhere in their ancient capital.
But that may not be the final word. After all, “freezing” Israeli settlements is the only Mideast position that the administration states clearly and in detail, even as all its other regional policies remain ill-defined and at times self-contradictory.
For example, Washington has yet to clarify how it plans to disarm Hezbollah. On Sunday, the terrorist group injured several members of a UN peacekeeping force that was trying to inspect an illicit weapons cache in Southern Lebanon.
True, there are many internal Lebanese political considerations involved in disarming Hezbollah, including the need to bolster our allies in Lebanon. But there are similarly internal Israeli political sensitivities to consider before confronting Bibi on municipal issues in Jerusalem.
Obama seems to think that pressuring Israel will yield dividends in the form of greater Arab cooperation with America. He also seems to assume he’ll pay no price in domestic politics because US supporters of Israel, especially among his voters, don’t like Israeli settlements anyway.
Both assumptions may be wrong.
A new book on the Middle East, “Myths, Illusions and Peace,” deftly skewers the first idea: “US action has often been predicated upon expected Arab responses to favorable US policy” — but time and again, when America did as the Arabs asked, a “favorable Arab response” failed to materialize.
Dennis Ross, Obama’s National Security Agency point man on the Middle East, co-authored that book. The president either isn’t getting Ross’ advice, or is ignoring it.
Obama continues to act as if settlements are the most important stumbling block to a peace agreement in the Arab-Israeli dispute, and as if settling the Arab-Israeli dispute will force all other regional dominoes to fall in place.
Yet, as “Myths” explains, such a regional “linkage theory,” stressing Israel’s must-do’s above all else, is “the mother of all myths” about the Middle East. For starters, a Paletstinian-Israeli peace won’t change the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Osama bin Laden‘s beef with us started when we based troops in Saudi Arabia.
Then there’s the assumption that most Obama voters, including strong supporters of Israel, won’t consider the president “anti-Israel” for leaning on the Netanyahu government over settlements.
Early last week, Obama had his first White House meeting with a group of American Jewish leaders, including the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman. Foxman, a veteran leading figure in Jewish-American politics, says no one demanded that Obama stopped pressuring Israel, but some told the president that “we were disturbed by this perception that his government is leaning only on Israel.”
Then, just a couple of days later, the State Department hit the new Israeli ambassador with its complaint about the East Jerusalem project. Netanyahu, sensing a “red line has been crossed” (as one Israeli official told me), decided to publicly defy Washington.
What will American Jews think? Obama may have been misled by the White House group. Many of the Jewish leaders he invited in are heads of groups, like Americans for Peace Now and J-Street, that act as if the only way to support Israel is to oppose its government.
Whoever set the guest list “stacked the deck,” as Foxman explains it.
While the administration emerged from the meeting believing that it can continue pressuring Israel unharmed, “I think they are miscalculating,” Foxman says. “In the Jewish community, even those who are opposed to settlements are now supporting Israel” in the growing dispute with the administration.
Indeed, Foxman warns, Obama may lose even more credibility once American Jews realize that “in the administration’s jargon, ‘settlements’ means ‘Jerusalem’.”
All of which applies to non-Jewish supporters of Israel as well.
To avert such political erosion over his foreign policy, Obama may want to soon directly address Israelis, as he did Arabs and Muslims. He should also start tending to some of Israel’s concerns with as much sensitivity as he does those of others in the region.