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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Obama and Israel: The Limits of "Change"

On April 15 and April 16, two separate full page ads appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The 4-15 ad was entitled "An Open Letter to President Obama".It was from the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder. The thrust of the letter was described as thus: "We are concerned about the dramatic deterioration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Israel."  The 4-16 ad was from Elie Wiesel, international Jewish icon, Nobel Prize winner and holocaust survivor. It's main thought was; "Jerusalem must remain the world's Jewish spiritual capital . . ."

The impetus for these concerns is of course the failed mission of Vice President Biden to Israel to deliver the Administration's message that in the interest of restarting indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel should suspend further settlement construction in disputed territories. As Biden was delivering his message, the Israeli govt. announced the planned construction of over one thousand additional housing units in Jerusalem. The Obama Administration, through several voices including Sec.State Clinton declared the episode and insult and a major set back for the peace process. Additional, negative commentary followed from other Administration officials and of course the issue was inflated and over analyzed by the press. The Israeli government apologized for the timing of the announcement but not the policy and the settlement construction will continue.
Additionally, the President, said to be frustrated by the intransigence of the Netanyahu govt. is said to be considering offering his own detailed "peace plan" after which he would apply intense "pressure" on Israel to consider. So do these events represent a "sea change" in the long and supportive relationship between the U.S. and Israel? Elie Weisel and Ronald S. Lauder obviously see storm clouds on the horizon.

To assess the situation the obvious question needs to be asked: Is the Obama Administration's reaction to these events a matter of overreaction and inexperience, or is it a calculated move? Assuming it is the latter because of the experience of old Middle East hands like George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, if they were consulted, the question then becomes: What does the Administration hope to gain by pursuing an increasing adversarial relationship with Israel? The only possible answer is that it is part of Obama's outreach to the Muslim world through an attempt to portray a more "balanced" U.S. position in the sixty two year old confrontation. But one definition of diplomacy is the "art of the doable" and the creation of such a diplomatic departure fails this test. Most Muslims don't live in the Middle East so the diplomatic target would more realistically be the Arab states and Iran. But diplomatic nuances, unless followed by concrete policies are unlikely to change the attitudes of the passive civilian populations in these states and will have no effect whatsoever on the agenda of the militants whose focus is on Israel and not the United States. The immediate result is simply the continuation of a precipitous decline of the Obama Administration's support among the population of Israel.

However, in realistic terms there can be no policy/support crisis between the U.S.
and Israel. Obama can only apply diplomatic pressure i.e. contact with Israeli officials and public statements. The fundamental leverage the U.S. has with Israel is the approximately 2.94 billion dollars in annual financial and military aid which was formalized as part of the 1978 Camp David Accords which produced the Israeli/Egyptian Peace Treaty and provided Egypt with an annual aid package also, approximating 1.3 billion dollars annually. Obama has been unsuccessful in implementing meaningful economic sanctions against the rogue state of Iran over the far more serious issue of nuclear weapons development. Would/could, the President seriously contemplate reducing this support  to Israel in what would effectively be economic sanctions against America's only democratic Middle Eastern ally?  Long standing domestic political implications are of course a significant barrier to such a major change in policy. The American Jewish population, although small is organized in support of the state of Israel and is geographically concentrated in key electoral states i.e. CA, NY, FL, IL. American Jews have been consistent in their support of the Democrat party, both in terms of financial support and voting behavior (historically voting for Democrat presidential candidates by a margin of @82%.

There is no question that unqualified support for Israel's Palestinian policies has eroded in recent years. This is most evident amongst the American Left where the Obama Administration and its core political support resides, and it reflects a similar tendency in Europe. However, the domestic political realities in the U.S. have not changed significantly and Obama has demonstrated a reality based political pragmatism which will make the current issues a non-crisis.

Elie Wiesel and Ronald S. Lauder can relax.

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