As a long time commentator on American policy in the Middle East, I have been following with interest the discussion on the recent visit by Barack Obama to Israel, Jordan, and the state-or-non-state of Palestine. Most have observed that the Obama efforts amounted to little more than words completely bereft of possible action, with most of the stroking being done to placate the Israelis. That would certainly seem to be accurate, but I think there was more to the visit than meets the eye, exemplified by Obama’s holding a lengthy private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after which Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for the 2010 killing in international waters of nine Turks on board the Turkish flagged ship Mavi Marmara, which was attacked while taking humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel also agreed to pay reparations for the deaths. The step backward by Netanyahu came after repeated assertions by the Netanyahu government over the past three years that Israel had done nothing wrong and would never apologize. Netanyahu’s former Moldovan bouncer Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman immediately denounced the apology as a "serious mistake…that hurts the motivation of IDF soldiers." Obama’s insistence that the Israelis make nice with Turkey was possibly based on a White House assessment that Turkey is an actual ally and critical to American regional interests while Israel is not, though it was likely expressed more diplomatically than that.
To be sure, Obama’s assertion that Israel is America’s "eternal ally" and "greatest friend" makes one cringe, but it appears to be part of what is required to keep Israel’s friends off one’s back, politically speaking. Some have pointed out that like the Holy Roman Empire which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, an eternal alliance with a country with which there is no actual alliance is more than a bit oxymoronic. Nor has there ever been any alliance that can be construed as eternal, as eternity is a divine attribute and alliances are usually based on temporarily coincident national interests, none of which are evident in the U.S.-Israel relationship. But perhaps Bibi, with his direct pipeline to the Almighty, knows something that the rest of us have not yet become aware of.
The frequently false perception among people like myself who oppose U.S. policies is that somehow the president should be able to "do something" to make things better. That may be true in some instances but in the case of Israel, the president is very much backed into a corner on his options by an all-pervasive Israel Lobby supported by a subservient congress and media. Note for example the letter drafted by AIPAC and sent by Senator Ben Cardin to the White House on the eve of the Obama departure for Israel, signed by seventy-seven Senators, including Rand Paul from whom we had hoped for something better. The letter hits all the usual hot buttons about Israel’s "right to defend itself" and promises more U.S. taxpayer support for the Iron Dome defense system before warning "Palestinian efforts to bypass direct negotiations with Israel by taking unilateral steps for international recognition are, in our view, unacceptable. When you meet with Palestinian leaders, you should make clear that the pathway for peace is through unconditional direct negotiations between both the Israelis and Palestinians and that the United States vigorously opposes any Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations." As usual, it’s those pesky Ay-rabs.
Okay, so Obama did everything but French kiss Bibi, which he may have done in private, but he acknowledged the alleged Iranian nuclear threat without at the same time accepting Netanyahu’s definition of what constituted a red line, revealing yet again his reluctance to get involved in a new war in Asia. He also did some other things that must have riled his hosts and that no other American president of recent vintage has dared to do. He humanized Palestinians when addressing an audience of young Israelis, describing how two young Arab girls reminded him of his own daughters, and saying "But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes- look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."
In his first speech in Jerusalem Obama called on the Israeli people to force their government to make peace. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted from the Jerusalem International Convention Centre that the "Head of the settler’s council is sitting behind me at Obama’s speech and looks as if his head is going to explode." Jeffrey’s odd syntax aside and parse it any way you want, Obama was telling the Israelis some unpleasant truths, that the recent policies of Israel’s right wing governments will lead nowhere. He also told the Israelis, that in spite of the often expressed reservations about the Palestinian leadership, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a reliable negotiating partner who should be respected (which may or may not be true). The Israelis, perpetually paranoid about their security blanket that we Americans refer to as the United States Defense and Treasury Departments, have paid attention to those messages even as they watch the formation of the most extreme right wing government in their history. Obama’s comments join with those of the many thoughtful Israelis who, though currently in a minority in the Knesset, have long been arguing for a peaceful settlement with their neighbors.
Obama made one glaring error in fact during his speeches to the Israelis, claiming that the Arabs had refused to make peace with Israel. In fact, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah sought a complete agreement with Israel as early as 1987 and a comprehensive Arab proposed peace plan has been on the table since 2002 only to be ignored. Obama’s speech to Abbas was lackluster but it did several times refer to the Palestinian State, a curious phrase as he and the Israelis have been working hard to discourage the emergence of such an entity. He was also hammered in some circles because he told Abbas to forget about the settlements and begin negotiating. Painful to hear, but as Netanyahu will continue to build settlements anyway it might be better to have some talking going on at the same time, even if it is a given that Israel will not discuss anything in good faith. So Obama avoided raising the issue of Israeli settlements at all, which we all know are the central issue blocking any peace agreement. But there is nothing that Obama can do to stop the nearly continuous expansion as Netanyahu cannot form a government without the support of the extremist wing nuts called settlers, just as he does not care to permit any kind of Palestinian state larger than a postage stamp.
Obama did speak out strongly on the settlement issue in Cairo in 2009 and again in 2011, after which he was beaten down by Netanyahu and a U.S. Congress that popped up twenty-nine times as they listened in awe to the Israeli leader’s cogent explanations of why all Arabs are scumbags and Iranians, even if they are not Arabs, should be bombed. So the president can’t do anything to stop Israeli policies that he knows are self-destructive and serve no conceivable American interest.
The Obama State Department has also consistently denounced the news of each expanded settlement as "unhelpful." Put some teeth into it? Exactly how can he do that as any cuts to the $3 billion plus that Washington gives to Tel Aviv every year would result in a congressional revolt and a storm of negative media coverage. The last president who tried to withhold money from Israel was George H. W. Bush and he paid the price when the media discovered there was something wrong with the economy (even though there wasn’t). And if Obama were to try to fiddle Israel’s annual tribute congress would likely move the appropriation over the Defense Department budget to make it untouchable, which it has already threatened to do.
So I have to give the win to Obama on a TKO even though I wish he had not made the trip at all and would have preferred that he tell Bibi to take a hike shortly after stepping off of Air Force One. He told the Israelis some unpleasant truths about themselves and their neighbors which they certainly don’t hear from their own rulers and have never encountered from a sitting U.S. president; he appealed directly to the Israeli public and encouraged them to force their leaders to make peace, a direct slap at Netanyahu; he got Netanyahu to fold on the issue of Turkey; he avoided falling into the trap of an Israeli definition of a tripwire for war with Iran; and he might have even provided a tiny opening for some actual negotiation between the two parties. Was it all just hot air or will anything come of it? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.