Why Obama's approach to Israel is collapsing. Rapidly.
"Obama is not 100 percent right to confront Bibi on settlements," a Clinton advisor blew back at me after my July 1 ForeignPolicy.com piece "Cut Bibi Some Slack." "He is 200 percent right!" This from a guy who had argued for years that public confrontation is not the right way to deal with Israel because it undermines the confidence that is a prerequisite for progress in the peace process.
Barack Obama himself addressed the issue in a meeting with American Jewish leaders on July 13. Asked if it were a mistake to let "sunlight" show between the United States and Israel, the U.S. president demurred, "We had no sunlight for eight years, but no progress either."
Obama's conclusion that former U.S. President George W. Bush achieved nothing by working with Israel is amazing, considering that Bush brought the father of the Israeli settler movement, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw every soldier and every settler from every square inch of Gaza in August 2005 in the largest test of the "land for peace" concept in Israeli-Palestinian history. You would think the experience of the Bush years would have led the Obama team to an opposite conclusion: If settlements had been the obstacle to peace, why did Sharon's removal of 8,000 settlers from 21 settlements lead to the rise of Hamas, thousands of Qassam rockets fired at Israel, and war instead of peace?
And they might reflect on the testimony of Elliott Abrams, who negotiated the Bush administration's compromises on the natural growth of settlements that the Obama team now disavows. "There were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank," Abrams wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation ... the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza. ... There was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to ... confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the 'Greater Israel' position. ... He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze."
And they should heed the words of Sharon's negotiator in that bargain, Dov Weisglass: "Final-status peace treaties ... will require many American guarantees and obligations, especially in respect to long-term security arrangements. Without these, it is doubtful whether an agreement can be reached. Yet if decision-makers in Israel ... discover, heaven forbid, that an American pledge is only valid as long as the president in question is in office, nobody will want such pledges."
The theory of "tough love" toward Israel is also failing the test, if it is intended to win concessions from the Palestinian side. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who just completed intensive negotiations with an outgoing Ehud Olmert government that was continuing "natural growth" of settlements within the agreed Bush limits, now says the incoming Benjamin Netanyahu government must "stop all settlement activities in order to resume peace talks over final status issues." His chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, adds, "There can be no half-solutions with regards to the settlements."
This is a hardening of the Palestinian position. Abbas did not cut off negotiations when Olmert said publicly to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in April 2008, "It was clear from day one to Abbas ... that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter. ... Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem ... areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement." Abbas continued meeting with the Olmert government. In fact, Erekat boasted to a Jordanian newspaper a few weeks ago that he and Abbas achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees -- all while the limited growth permitted by the Bush understandings continued.
Now, Obama has generated inflated and unsatisfiable expectations in the Arab world, a belief that the U.S. president can and will force total Israeli capitulation and an absolute freeze. The Los Angeles Times reports, "President Obama's public quarrel with Israel ... is developing into a test of the U.S. leader's international credibility, say foreign diplomats and other observers." Anything less than a 100 percent halt "will not only disappoint the Arabs whom the president has courted, but also will be read by adversaries around the globe as a signal that the president can be forced to back down." Or, as Erekat himself put it on Voice of Palestine radio, "If settlement continues ... Arabs and Palestinians [will] believe that the American administration is incapable of swaying Israel to halt its settlement activities." A prominent Palestinian observer, Ghassan Khatib, states, "Should the U.S. government ... fail to make Israel abide by its international commitments, especially regarding ending the expansion of settlements, it will sabotage efforts to renew the political process."
The Obama people might actually learn something from Abrams, who warns that, when eventually there is a compromise between the Obama and Netanyahu governments regarding settlements, the two sides will put "contrasting spins" on the agreement for their respective audiences. It will be difficult for the Obama administration to explain why there are what will be depicted by critics as loopholes. Maybe then they will ask themselves whether they were wise to do it with a public fight?
For now, they are still on the wrong track. Days ago, Israel's new ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was warned that the United States wants a halt to construction of 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded, "There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city's east." How could the administration believe that any major Israeli political party could possibly agree to making any part of Jerusalem Judenrein? Just how far do they plan to go with this policy of confrontation?
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