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.