Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obama’s Dilemma

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.


morris108 said...

I think any man given the chance to “do the right thing” would lunge at the opportunity, instinctively. So I don’t buy the claimed considerations for future electoral success as being influential. Quite simply, Obama has a gun to his head.

Bibi sets Obama’s Clock Back

DICKERSON3870 said...

RE: “To put in bluntly, Israel is probably a lost cause and can no longer be saved from itself…” - Slater
MY COMMENT: Perhaps all that remains, is to see whether continued support for objectionable Israeli policies eventually causes the Democratic party to fracture. I already consider myself an independent or a Green rather than a Democrat largely due to Israel.

Lafayette said...

A highly intriguing post. If it's true, the statesmenlike thing to do would be to think long-term, and to start attempting to distance the US from Israel peicemeal. First, perhaps, by raising the issue of the $200 billion Israel has received from the US thusfar. In an economic crisis this linkage seems easy to make. It seems that there are things Obama could do with the Bully Pulpit which would not involve trying to force a short-term political solution, which could very well be impossible anyway.

Jim said...

RE: To put in bluntly, Israel is probably a lost cause and can no longer be saved from itself:

This is precisely the leverage that Obama could use; Israel is destroying itself, the Palestinians are the silent witnesses to the collapse of a worthy ideal (safe haven for a persecuted minority) whose seriously flawed intellectual and moral foundation will collapse like a house of cards.

In that sense, the real enemies of the Israeli people, in addition to themselves, are the Dennis Ross's and AIPAC missionaries who preach a gospel that is no longer credible.

This is a great article to me because it delineates the political realities without resorting to conspiracy theories in order to explain Obama's behavior.

I would suggest, however, that the power of language will trump political realities. Cairo still stands as a stake in the ground. We all know that political kiss and make up pronouncements do not ring true and do not erase the underlying reality.

Juan said...

Prof. Slater here highlights the stark differences between what is wished for (a just settlement) and the political realities (which unfortunately seem quite unfavorable to such a settlement). There appears to be a very real danger of a paranoid Israel destabilizing the middle east. If we avoid attacking Iran and manage to prevent an Israeli attack, we should be grateful...

stamboul said...

You might be right that Israel is a lost cause and can't be saved from itself. But assuming that that is the case, is it really in the interest of the Obama administration to remain tightly associated with it as it acts more and more irrationally and draws more and more condemnation? That in itself is a major cost.

"There appears to be a very real danger of a paranoid Israel destabilizing the middle east."

A paranoid Israel has been destabilising the Middle East for decades.

stamboul said...

"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."

I don't think this is true. While the national religious camp is growing increasingly over-represented in the army, this is mainly at low and mid-level ranks, and it has yet to seriously penetrate the top brass, according to the recent ICG report on the religious right. In fact, pressure may be all the more urgent now, because the army is still in the hands of comparatively sane people, but may not be in say ten years time.

Jerome Slater said...

Thanks for your comments. I will address several of the issues raised here and elsewhere, in a brief new post.

I hope stamboul is right about the army, but I continue to have grave misgivings. After all, for more than a few years the military already has ignored or emasculated Court rulings, and perhaps even those of the government and a number of Israeli observers have questioned whether the military is really under firm civilian political control. And all this even before the inevitable rise to top leadership of the religious and the settlers.

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