Vol. 10, No. 6 August 17, 2010
- President Obama came into office with strong preconceptions about foreign policy and especially about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Obama’s view, the parameters of a future peace settlement were already clear. All that was necessary was to convince the Arab world that America was not in Israel’s pocket.
- To prove it was not following Israel’s lead, the Obama administration decided to force Israel to halt any construction over the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line), including within Jerusalem neighborhoods, taking a relatively peripheral issue and making it a decisive element in U.S.-Israel relations. There had been no settlement freeze in the Oslo Agreements, and the U.S. and Israel had reached bilateral understandings during the last decade that allowed Israel to address the needs of its citizens in the settlements without taking additional land in the process.
- The main result of the administration’s new policy was to encourage the Palestinians to take more hard-line positions. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas began to insist on preconditions for direct negotiations which never existed before. Palestinian leaders hoped that the Obama administration would lay its own plan on the table, which they expected would be closer to their positions than to those of Israel, and asked themselves: Why should we negotiate with Israel if the Obama administration might impose a peace settlement anyway?
- On Iran, the Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Tehran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite, stressing that if Iran’s nuclear program were neutralized, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalized elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace, especially Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria.
- The Obama administration now appears to have concluded that the tactics it employed against the Netanyahu government were self-defeating. But it is premature to establish that it has revised its overall strategic outlook.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to say, “What you see from here, you don’t see from there” – meaning that there is a difference between how you understand the Middle East before you are in a position of power and how you perceive it when you are in office. Apparently, this truism also could be applied to the Obama administration.
President Obama came into office with strong preconceptions about foreign policy and especially about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Generally, he sought to be a transformative president in all areas: he wanted to transform America internally as well as America’s relations with the world, even if it meant that in doing so he would create tensions with its traditional allies, like Britain and Israel. In his address in Cairo on June 4, 2009, he spoke about the need for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
As with every new administration, Obama wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessor. He was going to stop what was, in his mind, the “imperial policy” of George W. Bush, based on global confrontation and unilateralism. His alternative was based on diplomatic engagement, even with America’s worst enemies. The U.S. was going to rely more heavily on the UN and on operating multilaterally. This was more than just a shift in policy to define the Obama presidency differently from that of Bush. Obama’s approach was part of his ideological world view through which he and his senior advisors hoped to redesign America’s global strategy.
A key part of this strategy was emphasizing the prevention of nuclear proliferation in the world. In September 2009, Obama was the first president to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council which dealt with this very issue. Yet he is now learning how severe the problem is becoming. For example, not only Iran is making great strides in seeking nuclear weapons, but also Syria has not given up on this same quest, with the aid of North Korea. If the Iranian race for nuclear weapons will not be halted, it is now clear that the other states of the Middle East will aspire to obtain a nuclear military capability.
Obama and the Palestinian Issue
Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama was determined to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue right from the start of his administration. He raised it in his major speeches in Ankara, Cairo, and in his first address to the UN General Assembly. In Obama’s view, the parameters of a future peace settlement were already clear. All that was necessary was to convince the Arab world that America was not in Israel’s pocket. He still made references to Bush-era diplomatic initiatives, like the 2003 Roadmap and the 2007 Annapolis Conference. But he refused to acknowledge the 2004 U.S. letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even though it had won bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. The first active step that the Obama administration decided to take to prove that it was not following Israel’s lead on these issues was to force Israel to halt any construction over the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line), including within Jerusalem neighborhoods.
These new demands created difficulties within the Israeli and U.S. political systems. But they mainly involved taking a relatively peripheral issue and making it a decisive element in U.S.-Israel relations. It should be remembered that there was no settlement freeze in the Oslo Agreements and, nonetheless, they were signed by the PLO. The Quartet Roadmap of 2003 did include a freeze on natural growth of settlements, but the U.S. and Israel nonetheless reached bilateral understandings that allowed Israel to address the needs of its citizens in the settlements without taking additional land in the process.
The entire U.S.-Israel discussion about settlements in the past focused on the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip before 2005, when Israel pulled out). The U.S. did not insist on a settlement freeze in Jerusalem. Now it was demanding that Israel halt construction of Jewish homes not only in the West Bank, but in the eastern parts of Jerusalem as well. The freeze that the U.S. was demanding represented a sharp break from the past.
The main result of the administration’s new policy was to encourage the Palestinian side to take more hard-line positions than in the past both with respect to Israel and the U.S. The Palestinian Authority head, Mahmoud Abbas, began to insist on preconditions for direct negotiations which never existed before. Nor did Obama obtain credit in the wider Arab world for his new policy. Pragmatic Arab leaders wanted a forceful American policy against Iran, which was their primary preoccupation. They were not ready to make gestures to Israel themselves. For example, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was not prepared to provide Obama with a quid pro quo from the Arab world in the event that Israel agreed to a settlement freeze. Worse still, the enemies of the U.S. in the Arab world viewed the new policy coming out of Washington as an indication of weakness.
The main purpose of Palestinian diplomacy, under these conditions, was to spark a U.S.-Israel crisis by entering into proximity talks with the Netanyahu government and have them end in failure. As a result, the Palestinian leaders hoped that the Obama administration would lay its own plan on the table, which they expected, not without reason, would be closer to their positions than to those of Israel. The Palestinians asked themselves: Why should we negotiate with Israel if the Obama administration might impose a peace settlement anyway?
As U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to produce positive results, leading commentators began to question whether the stress the administration placed on resolving the conflict was misplaced. Aaron David Miller, who was involved in the peace process for two decades in the State Department, questioned in Foreign Policy if this was still a core issue.1 Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly head of policy planning in the State Department, also argued, “it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is.”2
Why, nonetheless, has the Obama administration stressed the Palestinian issue so much? The answer appears to be a combination of Obama’s own ideological proclivities and his own reading of the U.S. national interest. Thus, in April 2010, he declared that conflicts like the one in the Middle East end up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” He appeared to be making a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America’s war against radical Islamic groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While this harsh statement may have reflected the inner thinking of the administration, it eventually concluded that these tactics didn’t work. There were internal political pressures in the U.S. to soften the tone on Israel, especially with the November 2010 mid-term elections coming up.
Obama and Iran
To many observers, it seems that the Obama administration’s policy is really changing on the subject of Iran. On June 9, 2010, at long last, the U.S. reached a consensus in the UN Security Council and pushed through the adoption of new sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 1929. On July 1, President Obama signed a bill imposing tough new U.S. sanctions against Iran that targeted exports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Tehran. It also banned U.S. banks from doing business with foreign banks providing services to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Obama’s diplomatic contacts also appeared to yield real results. Shortly after Resolution 1929 was adopted, the EU adopted new measures against Iran on July 26. Norway, Canada, Australia, and Japan all announced new steps against Iran, as well. The U.S. and Israel previously had real differences on Iran as the Israeli government was skeptical about engagement. It felt that new Western sanctions should have been put in place already in September 2009. Still, the Netanyahu government greeted the new U.S.-led actions positively.
One of the great U.S.-Israel differences was far more strategic. The Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Iran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite: in Jerusalem, government officials often stressed that if Iran’s nuclear program were neutralized, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalized elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace, especially Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria. However, the U.S. and Israel never resolved their differences over regional strategic priorities.
Has the U.S. Administration Changed?
Speaking to a group of rabbis on May 13, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel frankly admitted that the White House had “screwed up the messaging” on Israel.3 In another statement expressing regret about administration policy towards Israel, President Obama himself admitted he got “some toes blown off” making missteps in sensitive U.S.-Israel relations, when speaking with Jewish Democratic members of Congress at a closed-door meeting.4
There have been some indications that the administration had learned some lessons from its almost obsessive focus on settlements. On July 7, a day after his summit meeting with Netanyahu at the White House, Obama gave an interview to Yonit Levy of Israel Channel 2 television, who tried to bring up the settlement issue:5
Question: Will you, by the way, extend – request that Israel extends that settlement freeze after September?
President Obama: You know, what I want is for us to get into direct talks. As I said yesterday, I think that if you have direct talks between Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Netanyahu, their teams, that builds trust. And trust then allows for both sides to not be so jumpy or paranoid about every single move that’s being made, whether it’s related to Jerusalem or any of the other issues that have to be dealt with, because people feel as if there’s a forum in which conflicts can get resolved.
Obama did not say that if the Israeli government refused to extend its ten-month settlement freeze, the U.S. would react harshly. He seemed to chastise the Palestinians for becoming paranoid “about every single move that’s being made.” His priority was to get to direct talks. But that did not mean that the administration’s policy on construction in the settlements had changed. He also did not signal whether he was pulling back on his insistence on a freeze in construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of the eastern part of Jerusalem.
In short, the U.S. and Israel still have significant differences over the peace process and the issue of Iran. The Obama administration appears to have learned that the tactics it employed against the Netanyahu government were self-defeating. But it is premature to establish that it has revised its overall strategic outlook. President Obama’s prioritization of an American effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to continue because he believes that it can transform the difficult relationship between America and the Islamic world that became sharper after 9/11. This approach by the administration is not a question of tactics, but rather a matter of world view. And it is likely to accompany the U.S.-Israel relationship in the months and perhaps years ahead.
* * *
1. Aaron David Miller, “The False Religion of Mideast Peace,” Foreign Policy, May-June 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/19/the_false_religion_of_mideast_peace
2. Richard N. Haass, “The Palestine Peace Distraction,” Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748704448304575196312204524930.html
3. Herb Keinon, “Emanuel to Rabbis: U.S. ‘Screwed Up’,” Jerusalem Post, May 16, 2010, http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=175654
4. S.A. Miller, “Obama: Israel My ‘Land Mine’,” New York Post, May 19, 2010,
5. “Interview of the President by Yonit Levi, Israeli TV,” White House, July 7, 2010, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/interview-president-yonit-levi-israeli-tv
* * *
Zalman Shoval, a member of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel’s Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the first Camp David conference.