At one level, Gideon Levy’s bitter blast at Obama’s “cowardly” policies towards Israel is perfectly correct. Writing today about Obama’s unctuous behavior toward Netanyahu in their meeting yesterday and his apparent abandonment of U.S. pressures over the ongoing expansion of Israeli colonization in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Levy argues:
“If there remained any vestiges of hope in the Middle East from Barack Obama, they have dissipated….The worn-out, wizened old face of the longest "peace process" in history has been awarded another surprising and incomprehensible extension. It's on its way nowhere. The reality is that Israel has again managed to fool not only America, but even its most promising president in years… Two statesmen met in Washington on Tuesday who are looking smaller and smaller….”
It is true that Obama has all but abandoned any hope that he would make serious use of American leverage to pressure Israel into agreeing to the establishment of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state—indeed, for that matter, of any kind of Palestinian “state.” What accounts for Obama’s failure? It is possible that part of the explanation may simply be that Obama genuinely believes in the standard Israeli hasbara and US mythology about Israel-as-victim, driven not by ideology and expansionism but legitimate “security” concerns. Remember that at least two of his closest advisers on Israel are Dennis Ross and Rahm Emanuel. Ross, as is well known, has long been “pro-Israel,” meaning not only wrong but demonstrably disingenuous. (see here); as a congressman, Emanuel’s positions on Israeli-related issues did not significantly deviate from those of AIPAC.
However, even if Obama privately shared the views of, say, J Street and Americans for Peace Now—and for that matter, of those critics (like me) well to the left of those organizations--it is far from clear that his policies would, or even should, differ from his current ones. First of all, there are probably insurmountable problems with the domestic politics of Israeli issues. Obama and the Democratic party can only lose if they antagonize the American Jewish community, whose financial and electoral support may be crucial in any close congressional or even presidential election.
Nor is it just a matter of the approaching elections: it is all too likely that a significant number of otherwise liberal Democrats would have abandoned Obama’s domestic program, including the health care reforms, if he had been leaning hard on Israel in the last 18 months.
Similarly, if Obama were to take a harder line on Israel now, the prospects for congressional passage of the rest of his domestic agenda would be even dimmer: the balance of power in congress may be held not only by a handful of Republicans but also by Democrats who might not shrink from holding Obama’s domestic program hostage to his Israeli policies. And all this even before the forthcoming congressional elections, whose likely outcome will make matters even worse.
Worst of all, it is highly doubtful that anything the United States can do would result in meaningful changes in Israeli policies. Consider the strongest action the U.S. could take: making its diplomatic, economic, and military aid to Israel conditional upon a two-state settlement. Not only is it the case that such a dramatic change in U.S. policies is all but unthinkable, new policies would probably not work: even if Netanyahu was inclined to bow to US pressures (in any case, unlikely), he would almost certainly face fierce and violent domestic resistance, and it is by no means certain that the Israeli army, in which the settlers and the religious fundamentalists are increasingly powerful, would side with the government.
To put in bluntly, Israel is probably a lost cause and can no longer be saved from itself: it is hard to see what could arrest the country’s headlong flight into paranoia, moral collapse, increasing domestic repression of even Jewish dissidents, and general national stupidity.
In that light, what would the critics of Obama—and emotionally I share their reactions—have him do? Would they really have Obama risk the loss of his domestic program, his congressional majority, his reelection prospects, and the return of the increasingly neanderthal Republicans to national political dominance, all for the sake of policies which would have little chance of working and could easily make things even worse?
In short, if Obama is thinking along these lines, that would represent not craven pandering to the Israel Lobby or to domestic politics in the narrow sense, but—I fear--rational calculation, the logic of which seems compelling.