Argument

Is Barack Obama More AIPAC Than J Street?

The U.S. president is showing that he's hardly a leftist ideologue when it comes to Middle East peace -- and Israelis are starting to notice.

Anxiety about Barack Obama has afflicted Israelis since his meteoric rise to the White House. Here was an untested president, one whose agenda in the Middle East could only be imagined. Would Obama's America be Israel's lifeline in a dangerous and often hostile world? Or would this American president experiment with mistaken or even unfriendly ideas that could wreak havoc for Israeli security?

Israeli anxiety was particularly visible in the circle around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office two months after Obama in March 2009. The new prime minister and his aides were hearing a stream of worrying reports from Republican friends in the United States, some of whom who painted Obama as a closet Marxist or a confirmed radical with Muslim roots pursuing a Third World leftist agenda. Would Obama waste precious time chasing illusory "openings" for engagement with Iran while the Islamic Republic completed its final sprint to nuclear weapons? Would Obama be open to the dangerous advice of the pressure-on-Israel crowd and try to impose unacceptable terms for a Palestinian state, terms that the Israeli public and national security leadership believe would lead Israel to war and insecurity, not peace? Would he cluelessly undermine the broader strategic balance on which Israeli and regional security depends?

Israel's anxieties deepened in May 2009. Barely eight weeks after Netanyahu took office, Obama turned global attention to the most divisive issue in the U.S.-Israel relationship: Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell announced loudly that Obama wanted a total freeze on construction of Jewish homes, even in Jerusalem, and that Obama did not consider himself bound by earlier compromises about settlement issues.

Many Israelis, even some who despise the settlements, saw this heavy-handed approach as artless at best, if not downright antagonistic. The episode reinforced the perception that Obama was naïve about the Middle East and easily swayed by the left -- a decision-maker who could be erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. A theory emerged that placed much of the blame on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor David Axelrod, two American Jews from Chicago. Some of Netanyahu's people painted them as devotees of the strain of Middle East diplomacy that views Israel as the obstacle to peace.

Various acolytes of the American Democratic left, occasionally presenting themselves as representing the true Obama worldview only intensified the impression that Obama's team was unsympathetic to Israel. One after another argued that if only Obama acted to coerce Israel into accepting some perfectly reasonable agreements such as replacing Israeli security personnel in the West Bank with international peacekeepers, peace would be possible.

J Street advisor and former Council on Foreign Relations fellow Henry Siegman, for example, wrote that Israel is no longer a true democracy but an "apartheid regime" under "the influence of Israel's settler-security-industrial complex" that wants to "retain Israeli control of Palestine from the river to the sea." America's "special relationship with Israel is sustaining a colonial enterprise." But "President Obama is uniquely positioned to help Israel reclaim Jewish and democratic ideals on which the state was founded." This will, of course, require "forceful outside intervention." M.J. Rosenberg, formerly of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote that, "No matter who heads Israel's ... government, it is President Barack Obama who holds 51 cards in the deck." FP contributor Stephen M. Walt added, "Unless the U.S. president is willing and able to push Israel ... peace will simply not happen."

This chorus of voices from the Democratic left strengthened the impression in Israel that Obama, or at least some of his top officials, must agree. However, over the past 12 months, some counterevidence has begun to suggest that Obama and his top advisors are not in fact believers in the catechism of the ideological left.

Yes, Obama is drawing down in Iraq, as he pledged in his campaign. But this is a policy embraced by many in the center, not just the left. At the same time, he is greatly increasing the deployment of American soldiers in Afghanistan from 38,000 to 100,000.

Another important part of progressives' agenda is to cut what they saw as bloated budgets for national security, redirecting allocations to underfunded domestic programs. But Obama has rejected this advice and instead increased the Bush defense budget from $513 billion in fiscal year 2009 to $537 billion for fiscal year 2010 and $549 for 2011. If defense budgets are one of the best indicators of the direction of policy, Obama's defense budgets mark him as no leftist.

Another key indicator of foreign policy direction is a president's willingness to accept human life costs for national security goals. Obama is putting American soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, and he seems to accept that some level of civilian casualties is a regrettable but unavoidable reality if global security objectives are to be achieved. Obama has greatly increased drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan, undeterred by frequent reports of civilian casualties. In December, the president personally issued the order for U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, killing 35 suspected Al Qaeda agents but also, collaterally, dozens of civilians.

Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a form of encouragement by European liberals. But his Dec. 10 Nobel acceptance speech could have been written by a conservative: "Nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified," he said in Oslo.

On issues that touch Israel more directly, Obama's choices actually align him more closely with Israel than with his progressive colleagues. Many on the left continue to believe that the United States has not made a good-faith effort at diplomatic outreach toward Iran. But Obama said on Feb. 9, "We have bent over backward to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation.... We gave them an offer.... They rejected it.... They in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to [nuclear] weapons." The intelligence community is producing a new National Intelligence Estimate reportedly assessing a much greater threat from Iran than the 2007 document.

On Israeli-Palestinian issues, Obama and his team have changed the pitch, if not the words to the song, after his initial stumble on the settlements freeze. He has, to the consternation of the J Street left, accepted Netanyahu's compromise and moved on. Mitchell said on Nov. 25, "We believe the steps [toward a partial settlements freeze] announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact." In a Jan. 7 interview with Charlie Rose, Mitchell said, "The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. They don't regard that as a settlement because they think it's part of Israel." Mitchell had the unusual task of explaining to European allies on Jan. 12 why it is unrealistic to expect a freeze on construction in Jerusalem -- a freeze that he himself had demanded just months earlier.

Obama is also unyielding in the face of demands that he open relations with Hamas. He says this would undermine the peace process as long as Hamas continues to reject the existence of Israel, and it would undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. And he is striking a more realistic general tone about the prospects for radical change in the region. In an interview with Time on Jan. 21, he said, "If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems [in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations earlier] we might not have raised expectations as high."

In a series of recent statements, Obama has tried repeatedly to define himself as a man of the center, not the left. At a Jan. 29 meeting with House Republicans, he maintained, "I am not an ideologue." In a Feb. 9 interview with Bloomberg News, he said he is pursuing a "fundamentally business-friendly" agenda and is a "fierce advocate" for the free market. "The irony is that on the left we are perceived as being in the pockets of big business; and then on the business side, we are perceived as being anti-business."

The lesson Obama and his key advisers took from the Jan. 19 Republican upset victory in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race is very different from the one that is popular among progressives. MoveOn and two allied groups commissioned a poll to show that Massachusetts voters actually wanted a stronger health-care bill than the one Obama was supporting. But Emanuel and Axelrod paid more attention to the fact that the independents and swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 deserted him in droves, including suburban union members who also helped Republicans win formerly Democratic offices in New Jersey and Virginia. The Obama team is worried that independents and Democratic centrists are fleeing to the GOP. It is not the progressives that they want to woo.

Meanwhile, on the unhappy left, many now think that Obama merely postured as a progressive candidate in 2008 to outflank Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The Nation says he was never "a movement Progressive the way Reagan was a movement Conservative." Emanuel is the new whipping boy for many on the left, who say he cares more about the imperiled reelection prospects of "Blue Dog" Democrats in Congress than he does about scoring policy victories for the progressive agenda.

Of course, this could all be tactical, and not the true measure of Obama's ultimate intentions. But, at least for the moment, the anxiety in Israel is subsiding, and people are taking a more positive view of this president than they did a year ago.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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