Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Obama’s Dilemma: Addendum

A number of commentators, here and elsewhere, justifiably frustrated by Obama’s waffling—or worse—on Israel, have suggested a number of executive actions that he could take that would not require Congressional authorization.

The most obvious one is the “bully pulpit” strategy: Obama could seek to educate public opinion on the ways in which Israel is harming U.S. interests and national security, not to mention harming itself.   Several commentators have pointed to Eisenhower’s 1956 success in using strong U.S. pressures to force Ben-Gurion to withdraw Israeli forces from the Sinai, following the 1956 war.

The problem is that Barack Obama does not have the nearly untouchable standing with the American public as did Dwight Eisenhower, Benjamin Netanyahu has neither the intelligence nor the political standing as David Ben-Gurion, and the Israel of 2010 is not the Israel of 1956.

To be sure, I don’t doubt that if Obama would make a strong and public case for US sanctions, it would have a significant impact on general public opinion.  The problem, however, is that the overall electoral consequences both in Congress and in the 2012 presidential campaign would be more likely to be negative for the Democrats than positive: there almost certainly would be a substantial defection, both in terms of voting and contributions, among Jews, and it is hard to imagine that this would be offset by a shift towards the Democrats by those who otherwise would vote and contribute to Republicans.   In close elections, the defection of the Jews, and maybe some Christian fundamentalists, might well be enough to tip the balance towards the Republicans.

Incidentally, political science (for once), has something useful to tell us about this phenomenon: a small minority who feel very strongly about an issue can offset a majority whose views are on the other side but for whom the issue is not very important.  Hence the political power of narrowly-focused interest groups: not only the Israel Lobby, but the NRA, farmers, etc.

Moreover, as I argued, even a shift in American policy would not be likely to force Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.  Indeed, it might make matters even worse, as a defiant nationalism could cause a backlash in Israel: think Serbia in the 1990s, at least before we bombed them.  Since no one suggests a similar treatment of Israel, the far milder measures that the U.S. might take could well result in even nastier and more dangerous Israeli policies, including a greater disposition to attack its enemies, real and self-created, “before it is too late.”  A nuclear-armed Samson is not what the doctor ordered.

All in all, then, it is hard to see why Obama and the Democrats would want to take on Israel or suffer the domestic consequences of doing so.  And even though I am undoubtedly a far stronger critic of Israeli policies than Obama and his closest advisors, I’m not sure that if I were in his shoes I would do anything much different.

I hate to reach such a gloomy conclusion, but unless someone can explain to me where my analysis fails, I can’t see how to avoid it.


Paul Lookman said...

Just a few quotes from Noam Chomsky’s article “Do We Face a Real Confrontation with Israel? We should be cautious about the idea that Obama will promote a serious regional peace initiative for the Middle East”:

“Obama continues to support all of these programs, and has even called for substantially increasing military aid to Israel for an unprecedented ten years (Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus, March 4).”

“If Obama were serious about opposing settlement expansion, he could easily proceed with concrete measures, for example, by reducing US aid by the amount devoted to this purpose. That would hardly be a radical or courageous move. The Bush I administration did so (reducing loan guarantees)….”

“Obama once again echoed Bush's advocacy of two states, without saying what he means by the phrase "Palestinian state." His intentions are clarified not only by crucial omission, but also by his one explicit criticism of Israel: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop" (my emphasis). That is, Israel should live up to Phase I of the 2003 Road Map, though the truth is that Obama has ruled out even steps of the Bush I variety to withdraw from participation in these crimes.

The operative words are "legitimacy" and "continued." By omission, Obama indicates that he accepts Bush's "vision": the vast existing settlement project and infrastructure is "legitimate," thus ensuring that the phrase "Palestinian state" means "fried chicken."”


Paul Lookman said...

For many years, the Israeli government has pursued an active settlement policy, moratorium or no moratorium. Perhaps little known, to that end the organization Nefesh B'Nefesh was established in 2002, which since 2005 works “in partnership” with the Israeli government, after prime minister had arranged for government funding “on a trial basis”. Nefesh B'Nefesh formulates its mission as follows: "... we aim to educate and inspire the Jews of the Diaspora as to the centrality of the Jewish State to the Jewish people and its desirability as a Jewish home. Such enhanced awareness will send an unmistakable signal of Anglo-Israeli Jewish solidarity and of our mutual determination to strengthen the State of Israel and thereby increase the likelihood of an ever expanding Aliyah [return of Jews to the Promised Land] reality".

Nefesh B'Nefesh is actively recruiting candidate-immigrants from the US, Canada and UK, whom it offers substantial financial and personal support. Candidates can call an 0800 number, attend meetings, and even take a heavily subsidized flight to Israel for an on-the-spot inspection of their prospective new homeland. Prior to that, they can visit Nefesh B'Nefesh’s well documented website, where they can click on a map ( to select their (illegal) settlement, amongst which several in “Northern Israel”, on the Goland Heights, Syrian occupied territory.

All this is happening uninterruptedly, with the political and financial support of the USA. Again, Obama could easily cut the budget dedicated to this end. So, what is he waiting for?

I have dedicated an article on this matter on my (Dutch language) blog today (

Anonymous said...

Jerome, good analysis.

I think the unpicking of the knot has to start in Israel. It is not only the case that Israel's current strategy is counter to US interests, it is actually suicidal in the long run for Israel. The ideal way forward is some major paradigm shift in Israeli perceptions and I suspect sanctions while appealing would not achieve that, though they did ultimately work in South Africa when the time was ripe.

Your piece explains why/how the minority can block the desire of many young Israelis to have a secure and prosperous future. It breaks my heart to talk to young Israelis effectively in exile because of the pigheadedness of the leaders like Netanyahu, who doesn't seem to have the makings of a De Klerk; and also young Palestinians in a similar situation.

I had a shot at a way forward on my blog:

It is intended to be generative, build on the South African process, but most of all focus on a process rather than the specific content of a deal. In my conflict experience, one might predict what a deal might be (and can even shuttle it into existence by a so called One Text approach), but it is far better that the two sides 'grow up' and cut their own deal without offing responsibility for solution onto their 'parents' so to speak.

Let me know what you think.

Juan said...

I agree with Prof. Slater that Eisenhower's position was far more "untouchable" than is Obama's. Moreover, the Lobby presumably had far less power then than now. I suggest that another difference is that Eisenhower had experienced the horrors of war first-hand, and his wish to prevent further wars strengthened his determination to call out the Israelis. Although I voted for Obama with high hopes, he is beginning to come across to me as a very bright but equally opportunistic politician. Obama--as the first African-American president--cannot take the risk of seriously damaging his legacy and his party's long-term interests for the sake of peace and justice in Palestine. Something pretty bad is going to have to happen for Obama to be a real peace-maker. I'm thinking something like an Israeli attack upon Iran, which leads to a sharp intensification of oil prices and economic downturn (at the minimum). Last, I would like someone to explain why seeking a just I-P settlement makes that person politically a "leftist."

Anonymous said...


Here are some Bible verses that Pres. Obama avoids:
Proverbs 19:10 (NIV): "It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury - how much worse for a slave to rule over princes!"
Also Proverbs 30:22 (NIV) which says that the earth cannot bear up under "a servant who becomes king."
And Ecclesiastes 5:2-3 (KJV) advises: "let thy words be few...a fool's voice is known by multitude of words."
Although Obama is not descended from slaves, he may feel that he's destined to become a black-slavery avenger.
Or maybe an enslaver of all free citizens!

Also Google "Mayor 'Napoleon' Bloomberg."

[caught the above on the web - Nicholas]

bon said...

What in hell are you talking about? The majority of Israelis support the two-states solution. That's the fact. Likud, Kadima, Avoda, MERETZ, Lieberman (yes!) and even SHAS had committed themselves to this idea in one form or another. If Israeli public would think that Netanyahu is too stubborn, or too weak, or too stupid not to grasp the opportunity to get rid of Palestinians, they would toss him out as they did in 1999. Unfortunately, lots of things happened since then, and lots of Jews had died, and right now Israelis don't think they should move a finger until they have trustworthy, copper-bottomed partner on the other side and the American president capable of delivering. What Obama should have done is to sit on Abbas till the man signs the shortlist of Israelis' expectations - end of conflict, no more claims, demilitarization, "refugee problem" solved outside Israel, no support for Israeli Arab nationalism. Then with this list Obama could turn to Israelis and set the shortlist of Palestinian reciprocal demands: evacuation of the majority of settlements, land swaps, territorial continuity, economic cooperation, water rights, East Jerusalem. Instead, Obama've chosen to press Israel for unilateral concessions, orchestrated a humiliation campaign for a democratically elected Israeli leader, refused to embrace the Zionist narrative in Cairo and then was totally surprised when his strategy backfired. Instead of admitting that your Messiah has acted like an idiot and blew his chance to advance peace, you're prattling about how peace is impossible because the Jews are just too damn strong. Shame.

Anonymous said...

Excellent comment, Bon, but there are a handful of problems in your argument:
1. It is true that a bare majority of Israelis will say they support a two state solution--but not the measures that every serious observer knows are necessary to bring it about. Therefore, your comment that they support "this idea in one form or another" is meaningless.
2. Even if a majority of Israelis supported a MEANINGFUL two-state solution, they would not or could not impose it on the increasingly strong minority who would oppose it, some of them violently.
3. Jews have died since 1999 since they continue to occupy and repress the Palestinians, some of whom violently resist.
4. If you are saying that Abbas doesn't meet your definition of a trustworthy etc partner, then you are really saying is that no Palestinian leader could every meet your definition.
5. A president capable of delivering. No president can "deliver"--you mean impose--a settlement on either side.
6. Just what "unilateral concessions" has Obama "pressed" on Israel. Obama's only "demand" is for Israel to stop its settlement expansion, the obvious first step--and a small one at that--to a two state settlement. And "pressed?" In fact Obama has caved in repeatedly.
7. Just what is this "humiliation campaign" that Obama "orchestrated?" Perhaps you have in mind the global revulsion against the Israeli attack on Gaza and other assorted war crimes that have characterized the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians for decades? And far from "orchestrating" this reaction, the Obama administration has repeatedly dissociated itself from it, as in its opposition to the Goldstone report and its pointed ignoring of the similar reports and investigations of other human rights groups, including a number of Israseli ones.
8. Democratically elected? To begin with, even a democratically-elected leader is not given moral or legal carte blanche to carry out war crimes. Hitler came to power in democratic elections, and there are plenty of other examples.
In any case, Netanyaha was democratically elected only by the Jews, not by the inhabitants of all the people living in land controlled or occupied by Israel. Note I did not say all the CITIZENS of that land, because Israel can--in fact, has--deal with that problem by simply denying citizenship to about 50% of the population. Or perhaps you think that the Palestinians are rightly regarded as being citizens of the independent states of Gaza and the West Bank?
9. Refused to "embrace the Zionist narrative?" You mean the "narrative," large parts of which have been repeatedly and definitively shown to be false, particularly by Israeli historians, political scientists, journalists, and even archaeologists? Anyway, I'm not sure that Obama has failed to embrace it, and if he has, it would be the first step towards peace.

Other than these nitpicks, you've made an impressive argument.

Jerome Slater said...

"Anonymous" is me; I hit the wrong button.
See also today's blog.