Sunday, September 25, 2011

Obama's Impossible Dilemma--And Ours

After a promising beginning, the Obama administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have reverted to the US norm—essentially unconditional support for Israel’s follies. In particular,  Obama’s UN speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dreadful. But while outrage is fully justified, we should also recognize the fact that Obama—and therefore we on the left as well—are in an impossible dilemma.

Let us suppose that instead of saying all the wrong things, Obama were to say all the right ones. Let us further suppose that he didn’t merely say all the right things, he actually did the right things, at least insofar as he had the power to do so. Suppose he said that from this moment on, the Obama administration would end all its diplomatic, political and moral support of Israel until it agreed to the international consensus two-state settlement? What would be the consequences?

First, Congress would refuse to support him, and so the administration would be unable to end U.S. economic and military support of Israel, by far the most important components of potential U.S. leverage.

Second, as in the past the outcome of both the presidential and congressional elections could turn on just 2-3% (or indeed, much less) of the electoral vote. That means that there is a huge risk that the next presidency and both houses of Congress will come under the control of a Republican party that is dominated by know-nothings and the lunatic fringe. That is unbearable to contemplate—it could result in the worst crisis in American history since the Civil War.

Third—and this is really the clincher—I fear that Israel is so far gone that even if Obama said and did all the right things, even if he was reelected, and even if the Democrats controlled both houses of congress, it would not move Israel in the right direction.

In my view, the withdrawal of American support might well result in an Israel that would become even more irrational and violent than it already is. Do we really think that the settlers and the large numbers of Israelis that support them would give up? There is little chance that the increasingly hardline Israeli police and military would or could enforce an end to the occupation—on the contrary some Israeli analysts fear that a military coup against a government agreeing to end the occupation would be a real possibility.

Alternatively, rather than responding favorably to serious American and international pressures, it is at least as likely that Israelis would conclude that everyone is against them anyway, so the hell with them all.

If this assessment is right, then we are asking Obama to adopt policies which are likely to fail in Israel, but which could easily have disastrous consequences for our own country. In short, if I were in Obama’s shoes today, I fear I would grit my teeth and do pretty much the same as he is doing.

But what about after the elections—supposing Obama is reelected? Would that free him up to take on Israel and its supporters in the U.S? For one thing, many of the domestic constraints would remain. Moreover, suppose the problem is more deeply rooted than in what many believe to be Obama’s cynicism (though I have been making the case that it is probably more appropriate to view it as realism). That is, how do we know that Obama is not merely making hardnosed concessions to the American political realities, but is himself ignorant of the true history and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Suppose he actually believes in—or, at least, half-believes in—his nonsensical and infuriating rhetoric? After all, not even domestic political realities mandated that he choose Dennis Ross as his primary adviser on Israel.

In any case, it is hard to envisage any realistic near or middle-term set of circumstances that would result in Israel agreeing to the international consensus two-state settlement. Many who share this assessment conclude that therefore the goal should be a one-state settlement. It is a puzzling argument: all the factors that have destroyed a two-state settlement make a one-state settlement even less likely to occur. That is, no one-state advocate has explained why and how the Israelis would agree to give up a Jewish state in which they are a large majority and hold all the important sources of political, economic, and military power in favor of a democratic binational state in which the Palestinians would be the majority.

What, then, to do? Despite my own bleak analysis, I find it unbearable to conclude that nothing at all can be done. Over the longer run, it is possible that an international BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) might succeed. As I have argued, it also might backfire, but that is just a risk that morally must be run, in the hope that the pariah status of Israel would result in the South African outcome rather than the Samson one.

In the shorter run, however, Israel is beyond saving, whether by itself or by the United States. Therefore, I don’t see any alternative to what Obama is doing: right now it is this country that needs to be saved from itself.


Anonymous said...

"...the withdrawal of American support might well result in an Israel that would become even more irrational and violent than it already is."

You are not alone in this view. Apparently (according to Scott McConnell's article of last year []), there are fears in Washington that they're not dealing with a rational actor -- one with a coupla hundred nukes.

I think this may be a bit overblown -- until I think about the very real possibility that Avigdor Lieberman will succeed Bibi as PM. Then all bets are off: it's impossible to predict behaviour when those you're trying to predict are irrational.

I would rather have seen Obama just bow out of the whole I-P business without having to stand up at the UN and make an ass of himself. But in that dreadful speech, he pretty much said to the two parties: You're on your own.

However, now, with the "leak" about those bunker-busters (we actually knew about them several months ago -- as discussed on Silverman's site), we have renewed discussions about an Israeli assault on Iran. That would drag Obama right back into the thick of it, as he would be obliged to follow Israel right into that certain fiasco.

(I'm not really anonymous, I'm delia ruhe, but I don't have much choice here.)

Jerome Slater said...

Hello, Delia:

I don't understand--you should be given the option, in the post comments box, of using your real name. Doesn't it work for you?

Ran Greenstein said...

What you ignore is that Obama has failed consistently to challenge Israeli policies and has given the Israeli government a blank check (effectively saying 'we will fund and support you diplomatically whatever you do, even if you defy us'). By doing that, he made it easier for the right-wing in both Israel and the US to ignore him, and made it more difficult for anyone wishing to challenge Israeli policies. He has pushed J-Street to become AIPAC-lite, and marginalized progressive voices everywhere. So, his impossible dilemma is of his own making, not something imposed on him by objective circumstances. Netanyahu was actually terrified back in 2009 when they first met, but quickly realized that there was nothing to fear from Obama: all talk (and very mild one at that), and no action

Jerome Slater said...

We are in complete agreement about the nature of Obama's policies, although it is hard to understand why you think I "ignore" them, since I wrote that his administration has reverted to "the US norm—essentially unconditional support for Israel’s follies." Does that differ from "giving the Israeli government a blank check?"

That aside, you are quite wrong in arguing that Obama brought this on himself, with the obvious implication that he could have successfully challenged Israel's policies without a Congressional backlash and serious electoral consequences. Indeed, the congressional backlash would have likely doomed Obama's domestic policies as well, for a number of liberal "pro-Israel" Democrats might well have defected.

Not many who are familiar with the state of U.S. domestic politics on the Israeli issue would subscribe to your argument that Obama's dilemma was "not imposed on him by objective circumstances."

Ran Greenstein said...

He could have used his power as president to re-shape the debate, already back in 2009, so that by 2011 what you regard as inevitable (backlash) would not have been so inevitable. For example, if he had started out by saying that ALL settlements were illegitimate (not just 'continued settlement activities'), then maybe he would have been able to negotiate a halt to current expansion. But instead, he started out from where he wished to end up, and all subsequent developments were a dilution of the original goal. This is a problem with most of his domestic strategies as well, of course.

If he had offered a different narrative of what security means (or how it can be achieved), he would have made himself less vulnerable to the accusation that he abandoned Israel's security needs. If he had not given up from the start on the option of applying pressure (conditioning financial and diplomatic support on real concessions), he would not have been regarded as a useless pushover by Netanyahu. All these 'ifs' go back to 2009, when he had enormous political capital. By 2011 he had wasted all of it and got nothing in return...

The problem with the 'objective circumstances' argument is that it takes for granted what we have today, without realizing that people's responses are shaped by a political process, and that Obama played a major role in entrenching the power of the Israel lobby (by kowtowing to AIPAC, disseminating mainstream Israeli propaganda points, appointing Dennis Ross, and the list goes on). All that was not on the cards 3 years ago, and part of it - at least - could have been prevented. But in the absence of a counter-force, that would have forced him to pay a price for his shameful capitulation to the Israel lobby, we have got the result that you rightly bemoan. And if progressives say that they would still vote for him (because the alternative is worse), than the pattern of taking for granted support from the left, and then proceeding to pander to the right (unsuccessfully as it turns out), would inevitably continue.

Jerome Slater said...

You make a strong case, but I remain unconvinced:

1. I do not find it persuasive that if Obama had done all the things you (and me, for that matter) think he should have done,it would have convinced Netanyahu that he had no choice but to end the settlements and the occupation. As I argued, I think it more likely that he would have dug in even deeper. And even if he were personally committed to 2 states, do you see him ordering the army to expel the settlers--including from the Jewish "neighborhoods" in East Jerusalem?

2. Yes, progressives are in a box; we have to support Obama not merely because the alternative is "worse," but because it is absolutely intolerable. And yes, the consequences of doing so are as you say--but we didn't make the U.S. the way it is today.

Realities are realities, or to quote Peter Viereck: "Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away."

Ran Greenstein said...

All precedents show that when the US means business and applies pressure on Israel, the Israeli leadership yields or is kicked out of office (as happened to Shamir in 1992). There is no reason to think Netanyahu would have been different IF he had a sense Obama was serious. But Obama wasn't. He spoke softly but did not carry a big stick, and renounced in advance any attempt ever to do so (using the good offices of Dennis Ross). So, why would Netanyahu bother to do anything differently if there was no price to pay?

In any event, it is not a private affair between Obama and Netanyahu: handled correctly, a confrontation between the two would have done a lot to change both Israeli and US public opinions, and thus to shape reality (not deny it but actively intervene in it). But Obama did not even try...

the dour goat said...

I agree that the issue is difficult for Obama. But I think you understate the opportunity for Obama to have stood up to the lobby as well as the US's degree of leverage over Israel.

When he came to power Obama had a very strong mandate for change and a great deal of political capital behind him. If he had have made a sustained push then and openly put the choice to the then Democratic-controlled Congress between backing their newly elected, enormously popular President and a foreign state, he would have stood a reasonable chance of facing Israel and the lobby down.

Amongst other things, the Israel lobby, though enormously influential, is at bottom a paper tiger. Congress does not toe the line because of some basic law of physics or because of any real affection for the Israeli far right. The lobby's power over Congress rather stems from fact that if one member steps out of line, or a handful of members, the lobby can mobilise significant resources against them. But it can't realistically mobilise against large numbers of members, especially on an issue that the vast majority of US voters, Democratic voters and even US Jews are simply not particularly interested in. (Nor can it realistically decide a Presidential election). A popular, newly elected President could have offered serious cover for large numbers of members of Congress to defect from their allegiance to the lobby, especially if he made a real effort to highlight their choice. It's much too late for that now, but Obama could have done more when he came to power if he had really wanted to.

I think you underplay the US's potential influence over Israel. If the US has no real power, why does Israel bother with its enormous effort to sway the US government via the lobby? Israel clearly cares deeply about keeping the US on side. Amongst other things, it is enormously dependent on the US for its supply of hi-tech weaponry. It is also beholden to the US in the diplomatic arena, over issues it cares deeply about such as Iran. It relies on US bribes for keeping its neighbors more or less on side. Furthermore it is also more or less entirely dependent on the the US and Europe for its external trade - and Europe to a large extent simply follows US leadership on the issue. Israeli voters also have a clear history of rejecting leaders who damage relations with the US.

If the US wants to put really serious pressure on Israel, it can. And if Obama would have made a determined effort to do so early in his Presidency, he could have. Instead, from the get go, he put Dennis Ross in charge of the whole thing.

Obama IS a cynic entirely beholden to the establishment. He has proven that on a wide range of issues. Look at his disgusting comments and actions on the Bradley Manning case (declaring him guilty before having been tried and justifying what effectively amounted to a regime of torture for him). Look at his choice of key economic advisers (ie Goldman Sachs bankers) and his administration's refusal to take any serious action against the financial industry in the wake of the crisis. Look at his stepping up of the drone war and extrajudicial killings - now even of US citizens. Look at his administration's stance on the protests in Bahrain (and in Egypt until it became clear that Mubarak was going to fall regardless). The fact is he was never the change-oriented idealist he portrayed himself as. He is a cynical, risk-averse, career-focused establishment politician who gives a good speech and not much else, and his record on Israel is simply one of many reflections of that.

Jerome Slater said...

We have some differences. I really don't think that Obama ever had the leverage to face Israel and the lobby down. Congress toes the line, and would have resisted any serious efforts to pressure Israel, in part because it has everything to lose and nothing to gain, politically and electorally, by challenging Israel and the lobby--but also because many key congressmen are ideologically or otherwise genuinely "pro-Israel."

Sure Israel makes great efforts to keep the US on its side, but it doesn't necessarily follow that if it failed to do so, it would radically change its policies. As I argued, it is at least as likely that loss of US support would drive it further into a corner, with unpredictable consequences.

Paul Lookman said...

I feel Jerome Slater is too pessimistic when he says “I find it unbearable to conclude that nothing at all can be done.” Like most commentators, I feel that Obama could and should have rolled up his sleeves on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict early on in his presidency. However, given the current absurdities in US politics, the president should perhaps realize that his chances for reelections are next to zero, so he might just as well take a number bold of initiatives. For one, he could start getting serious by personally addressing the Knesset and tell the Israeli legislators that nobody is above the law. He could appear on Israeli television repeatedly addressing the Israeli electorate to educate them on what is really going on. See That changed attitude of the president of the United States might arouse wealthy international sponsors to join forces and initiate a vast public relations and (paid) advertising campaign in Israel, on Israeli and selected international media. A strong and sufficiently long upheld communications campaign, controversial as it might be, could change the vast misconceptions among the Israeli population, which in turn could cause a different voting attitude at next elections. At the same time, a similar activity could be undertaken in the US itself, taking the wind out of the sails of the Israel Lobby and American right wingers. Voters in the “only democracy in the Middle East” should be confronted with all the facts on the ground.

fuster said...

Obama didn't have endless domestic support to push the Israelis, but he sent out advisors to see what could be done. What he heard back was that no real progress was likely because Iran, through Hamas, was blocking any deal that the Israelis would make.

Obama had no motivation to throw all his clips in the pot when he didn't have the cards.

Paul Lookman said...


I am not the only one who feels Obama can and must take a bold initiative. You might like to take a look at Yale emeritus international economics professor Gustav Ranis’ article “Obama must sway the Knesset on peace” at

Jerome Slater said...

Pabelmont and Anonymous recently submitted a commentary on this blog, Anonymous responding to Paul. However, when I tried to publish them, I think I made an error and they disappeared.

Please try again!

Paul Lookman said...

James’ article inspired me to write an article of my own, which just appeared on my blog ( A version in English will appear shortly and will be announced on Twitter.

Paul Lookman said...

The Israel-Palestine conflict, an impossible dilemma for Obama? Now on