By Barry Rubin*
17 April, 2009
There are many people eager to see President Barack Obama and his administration bash Israel, or predict that has already happened. But the administration has yet to make any significant direct anti-Israel actions or statements. I expect this widely predicted conflict isn’t going to take place.
Let me repeat the word "direct." Inasmuch as the U.S. government gives up too much to Iran, Syria, and radical Islamists, it hurts Israel’s interests, as well as those of most Arab governments and the United States itself.
Still, what’s happened so far is being taken out of context by those who want a U.S.-Israel confrontation because they hate either Israel or Obama. This could, of course happen but hasn’t yet.
The story contrasts with U.S.-Europe relations. Obama’s trip to Europe was a failure. To everything he asked—a parallel strategy for dealing with economic troubles, getting Turkey into the European Union, or more help in Afghanistan—the Europeans said "no." Then everyone proclaimed the visit a great success.
With Israel, it’s the opposite in which nothing actually goes wrong but is made to seem that way. Let’s look at the examples and defuse some supposed bombs.
--Endorsing a two-state solution is hardly an attack on the Netanyahu government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t oppose a two-state solution—and hasn’t for 12 years--but emphasizes this would only happen if and when a Palestinian leadership proves its credibility and makes a decent offer.
This raises an extremely important point. Israeli policy shouldn’t consist of saying, "We want peace and a two-state solution" ten times a day. It should incorporate its own demands that the PA lives up to commitments and that any negotiated solution include Palestinian as well as Israeli concessions.
Giving the Palestinians a state is conditional on that happening, not a blank check given whatever they do. There’s nothing wrong with Israel demanding reciprocity. The strategy of offering everything and demanding nothing neither made Israel popular nor brought about a negotiated solution.
--U.S. engagement with Iran: While this is risky and likely to give the Iranian regime time to develop nuclear weapons administration statements say the purpose of engagement is to stop its progress. I’m not sure that a Bush administration would be doing much more. The key point will be whether the Obama administration ever concludes Iran’s regime doesn’t intend to change its behavior.
Vice-President Joe Biden’s statement opposing an Israeli attack on Iran was in the framework of the Bush administration stance that Israel should give diplomacy more time to work. It doesn’t close off a U.S. shift at some future point when this is an immediate issue.
--Obama’s endorsement of the Saudi plan as a positive element in the peace process is nothing new either.
--The administration apparently will boycott the Durban-2 hate-fest. If it returns to the UN’s anti-human rights’ council the test will be whether U.S. diplomats really wage a battle there.
--While talking a great deal about engagement with Syria, the administration has not made any concessions and the Syrian regime is visibly upset. Jeffrey Feltman, the man in the State Department most supportive of Lebanese sovereignty and skeptical about the Syrian regime and Hizballah, is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also expressed critical reservations about the Syrian regime.
--Only one high-level presidential appointment, White House advisor Samantha Powers, is clearly anti-Israel.
--Money for Gaza. The administration appropriated a huge amount of money for Gaza reconstruction but the conditions on not giving it to Hamas seem serious and there’s been no rush to send the funds.
An extremely important factor here is that in fact it is the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, not Israel, are the barriers to peace. An Obama presidency would be far more dangerous if there was a PA determined to say anything to get a state, get U.S. pressure Israel to massive concessions, and then break its word.
But that’s not the case. The PA will criticize Israel but offer nothing. It won’t provide a moderate alternative program to Hamas, stop incitement, accept resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state rather than Israel, make any territorial concessions, or agree that a two-state solution permanently ends the conflict. And it won’t accept Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestine which—according to the PA’s own constitution—is an Arab and Muslim state.
It’s entirely predictable that the PA won’t give those who want to ram through a two-state solution based only on Israeli concessions the bare minimum they need to make such a strategy credible. The same point applies to Syria and the Golan Heights.
Given that situation, there won’t be any serious broad collision between the United States and Israel over the peace process, whatever smaller storms erupt from time to time as they have done with previous administrations.
Why are direct U.S.-Israel relations relatively secure? Aside from the other side’s intransigence, which will inhibit U.S. policy from giving them more, is a very specific factor. Obama was historically anti-Israel but learned in the campaign that he could insult large sections of the American people and abandon the most basic assumptions of American patriotism and get away with it.
In contrast, though, he learned that it is too politically costly to attack Israel.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t administration policies that damage—indirectly but seriously—Israel’s security. First and foremost, is a strategy that will give Iran the time needed to develop nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Obama administration approach will embolden radical, terrorist, Islamist forces in the region and demoralize relatively moderate Arab regimes.
Ironically, the biggest loser from Obama’s policy is not Israel but the Arab states and peoples threatened by Iran and Syria, Hizballah and Hamas.