But does the same tenacity and steely resolve apply to his Middle East peace initiative? Is the President still in it for the long haul? Or is Mr. Obama getting ready to let Israelis and Palestinians “stew in their own juices”, as Israeli political analysts are fond of saying? Will he throw them off like excess baggage, weighing down an Administration already saddled with challenges enough for the next 3 years?
The first month of 2010 has provided several alarming signals.
State of the Union – the omission: As expected, the President’s agenda-setting address this week focused on the economy, health, and other domestic issues. But Obama did find time to touch upon Iraq and Afghanistan, and on North Korea and Iran – even if briefly. On Israel and Palestine, however, the President was deafeningly silent. Nary a word. Nada. Kloom. Not even a throwaway line about a two-state solution.
Time Magazine – Is peace too hard? In his interview with Time magazine last week, the President also made comments that seem to lay the groundwork for diplomatic disengagement. Voicing regret that he had raised expectations for progress too high, Obama plainly suggested that if a consummate diplomat like George Mitchell was unable to get Israel and the Palestinians to see the light, perhaps no one could.
More importantly, perhaps, Obama’s Time remarks seemed to be resurrecting the passive, laissez-faire attitude made famous by that Clinton-era mantra – “The US can’t want peace more than the parties themselves”. Foregoing any mention in his interview of American strategic interests in the region, Obama meekly laid out a minimalist American role that amounted to encouraging the sides, “to recognize … their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution”. As if this were 1991, not 2010.
The interview contained not a hint of an “American plan”, a renewed American push or even the energetic engagement that characterized the start of the Obama presidency.
Giving up on Netanyahu? On the day following his State of the Union, President Obama visited Tampa, Florida, where he delivered a subtle, but stinging, backhanded compliment to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, Obama remarked, was making, “some effort to try to move a little bit further than his coalition wants him to go” (emphasis added). Ouch!
The Harvard-educated Obama, of course, is fully aware that Netanyahu’s domestic political limitations are not a ‘constraint’, but a strategic choice. Following his election, Netanyahu selected the type of coalition he wanted (right-wing, with a centrist Labor fig leaf). He explicitly avoided assembling the type of government that (if he truly wished) could make the “bold gestures” that the President told Time were still sorely lacking on the Israeli side.
(A quick look at the results of the last Israeli elections makes that clear: Of 120 Knesset members, Netanyahu could count on the support of 82 for peace moves – assuming that he could bring his own Likud party along. And a centrist Likud-Kadima-Labor government would have commanded a healthy 68 to 52-seat majority.)
But the President’s despair of Netanyahu might be even greater. After all, this was the same Obama who chastised Republican party leaders on Wednesday night for choosing “short-term politics” over “leadership”. “We were sent here,” he scolded leaders on both sides of the aisle, “to serve our citizens, not our ambitions”.
Ascribing Netanyahu’s hesitancy to domestic pressures, therefore (as he did in both Tampa and Time), appears to be much more than dispassionate political analysis. Coming from the mouth Obama, it seems a barely-veiled way of saying that Israel’s Prime Minister lacks the stuff of which history-makers are forged.
No help from the region: But if the President has indeed started to throw in his Middle East towel, can we really blame him?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Netanyahu declare that Israel would never remove its military from the Jordan Valley section of the West Bank, and that he would continue to expand settlements, such as the city-settlement of Ariel and Kfar Etzion.
And we’ve seen the faux-moderate Defense Minister Ehud Barak grant university status to the West Bank College of Ariel, further enlarging Israel’s occupation footprint. (Paradoxically, we’ve also seen Barak – the Jekyll/Hyde of Israeli politics – warn that Israel’s occupation would turn it into an apartheid state!)
On the horns of a dilemma: A group of “wise-men” – veterans of American diplomatic engagement with Israel, led by former National Security Advisers Stephen Hadley and Sandy Berger – sees the status quo as unsustainable: “International tolerance of Israeli policies is eroding,” warns a member of the group, “and Palestinian democrats are coming under increasing pressure. The prospects for a two-state solution are eroding … as Palestinians lose confidence that peace is possible.”
The US, the group says, must therefore choose between one of two strategic approaches: a “minimalist approach”, in which Washington goes through the motions of diplomacy, just to keep up appearances (i.e., the Bush strategy); or an expanded US role in which Washington assumes the job not of kindergarten teacher (“don’t fight, kids”) but of active mediator who puts specific final-status proposals on the table.
Obama will soon have to make a choice, for Israelis and Palestinians won’t get the job done alone. Let’s hope he chooses the path of engagement; the path that might help Israel emerge from conflict and isolation. Let’s hope the President chooses not to quit.