Dennis Ross was the architect of a policy that centered on shielding the Israeli government from pressure while hoping that it would decide to end the occupation on their own. The result was an epic, two-decade long failure
Dennis Ross, president Obama’s top adviser on Israel-Palestine, is leaving the White House by December. Ross, a veteran diplomat who took part in the negotiations through the 90′s and until the failed talks between PM Barak and Arafat at the beginning of the previous decade, has let his decision be known in a lunch with Jewish leaders. This is not surprising: Ross has enjoyed good relations with Israeli and Jewish officials. Last night, when Ross’ departure was made public, Haaretz’s headline was “Netanyahu’s friend in the White House is leaving.”
Dennis Ross might have been valuable for the president in maintaining good relations with Israeli lobbyists in Washington and inside the Democratic Party, but his Middle East policies were a disaster. If a single man can be blamed for a two decades of failure, Ross is this person.
More than any neo-con, Ross can be identified with the way American administrations tried to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the last twenty years: creating a space for an Israeli internal conversation and once consensus is reached, forcing the Palestinians to agree to the Israeli terms, usually through a combination of threats and bribes targeting the political elites (serving as “Israel’s lawyer,” a diplomat working under Ross in Camp David called it).
The outcome was the one any reasonable person could expect: Shielded from outside pressure, Israelis have continued to strengthen their hold over the West Bank, while the “vigorous internal debate” in “the only democracy in the region” reached nowhere. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership, being forced to make more and more concessions without getting anything in return, lost all credibility with its own people, giving rise to other forces, which weren’t seen as taking orders from abroad.
The hope that the Israeli political process would lead the government into leaving the West Bank has failed again and again. Left on their own, it was proved that Israeli leaders will always prefer not to spend their limited political capital on evacuating settlements. The only exceptions – the Oslo accord and the Gaza pullout – came after the first and second Intifadas. The tragic truth is that violence has been very effective in gaining Israeli concessions, while America’s one-sided diplomacy only bought Jerusalem more and more time to expand settlements and make the two-state solution impossible.
True to his bizarre version of peacemaking, in the last couple of years Ross has been busy defending the most extreme government Israel has known, led by a Prime Minister that publicly boasted about the way he manipulated and deceived Ross’ own bosses at the Clinton administration. Finally, the Palestinian side lost both patience and faith in President Obama and his administration, and turned to the international community instead. Palestinians I spoke to last month told me that the boost in Abbas’ popularity wasn’t because of the UN bid itself – Palestinians are smart enough to understand it would get them nowhere – but because he finally stood up to the United States. Nothing could be more telling.
At the same time, the Israeli opposition was forced to support the Netanyahu government line, because when it comes to the peace process, no mainstream Israeli leader would take a position that is further to the left than the American negotiator. Ross and his team pretty much guaranteed that there wouldn’t be an effective opposition to Netanyahu at home and no pressure from abroad. Given these conditions, seeing the Israeli position move further to the right – the government now opposes concessions offered by both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in previous rounds of negotiations – shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Ross is finally out – let’s hope that this time it’s for good – but his ideas are still popular in Washington, and even in some European capitals. It’s hard to believe, but there are still serious, well-meaning politicians and diplomats who think that left on their own, Israelis wil simply wake up one day and decide to end the occupation. It won’t happen. The next Israeli government could actually be worse than this one, as hard as it is to imagine. Even if Netanyahu is not elected again, there isn’t a serious political force, or a single political leader, who sees it as his or her mission to lead Israel out of the West Bank and there won’t be any mainstream party even running on this platform in the next election. The current trends could easily continue for another decade.
Hopefully, Ross’ departure will serve as an opportunity to examine the entire American and European approach to the conflict, to the Palestinians, and to the government in Jerusalem.
This week, when the American president was attacked for his “open mic” rants with French president Sarkozy over the Israeli PM’s character, it was hard not to remember this video from 2001, in which Netanyahu bragged on how he manipulated the Clinton Administration and stopped the Oslo Accords.
[By the way, this clip was discovered and aired by Channel 10. Last week, it was revenge time for Netanyahu: The PM ordered all coalition members to oppose a new arrangement on the the channel's debts. As a result, Israel's second commercial channel - known for its aggressive and critical news desk - has announced it will cease to exist in 2-3 months.]
This is from Richard Silverstein’s transcript of the video:
Woman: Aren’t you afraid of the world, Bibi?
Netanyahu: Especially today, with America. I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved. Moved to the right direction.
Child: They say they’re for us, but, it’s like…
Netanyahu: They won’t get in our way. They won’t get in our way.
Child: On the other hand, if we do some something, then they…
Netanyahu: So let’s say they say something. So they said it! They said it! 80% of the Americans support us. It’s absurd. We have that kind of support and we say “what will we do with the…” Look. That administration [Clinton] was extremely pro-Palestinian. I wasn’t afraid to maneuver there. I was not afraid to clash with Clinton. I was not afraid to clash with the United Nations. I was paying the price anyway, I preferred to receive the value. Value for the price.
In the following segment, Bibi boasts about how he emptied the Oslo Accords of meaning by an interpretation that made a mockery of them:
Woman: The Oslo Accords are a disaster.
Netanyahu: Yes. You know that and I knew that…The people [nation] has to know…
What were the Oslo Accords? The Oslo Accords, which the Knesset signed, I was asked, before the elections: “Will you act according to them?” and I answered: “yes, subject to mutuality and limiting the retreats.” “But how do you intend to limit the retreats?” “I’ll give such interpretation to the Accords that will make it possible for me to stop this galloping to the ’67 [armistice] lines. How did we do it?
Narrator: The Oslo Accords stated at the time that Israel would gradually hand over territories to the Palestinians in three different pulses, unless the territories in question had settlements or military sites. This is where Netanyahu found a loophole.
Netanyahu: No one said what defined military sites. Defined military sites, I said, were security zones. As far as I’m concerned, the Jordan Valley is a defined military site.
Woman: Right [laughs]…The Beit She’an Valley.
Netanyahu: How can you tell. How can you tell? But then the question came up of just who would define what Defined Military Sites were. I received a letter — to me and to Arafat, at the same time — which said that Israel, and only Israel, would be the one to define what those are, the location of those military sites and their size. Now, they did not want to give me that letter, so I did not give the Hebron Agreement. I stopped the government meeting, I said: “I’m not signing.” Only when the letter came, in the course of the meeting, to me and to Arafat, only then did I sign the Hebron Agreement. Or rather, ratify it, it had already been signed. Why does this matter? Because at that moment I actually stopped the Oslo Accord.
The gambling billionaire, who publishes the pro-Netanyahu “Israel Hayom” tabloid, said he objects to an agreement with any of the current Palestinian leaders
Sheldon Adelson, Israel Hayom publisher (photo: 7th Eye / cc-by-nc-sa)
Unlike the confrontation between the White House and Jerusalem over the settlements during the administration’s first year, I think that the current rift has more to do with tones and personal mistrust than actual policy differences. More than anything, it seems that President Obama’s Middle East speech was meant to help Israel avoid isolation at the UN, but Netanyahu overreacted, and later decided to play tough, mainly for political reasons. As I wrote yesterday, it worked out for him quite well.
Apart from being a personal friend of the Netanyahus, Adelson is the publisher of the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), currently the most widely read paper in Israel (speculations held that the paper was started by Adelson to help Netanyahu personally). Many of Netanyahu’s men were on Adelson’s payroll until recently: The head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Nathan Eshel, was a deputy manager at Israel Hayom before joining the Neyanyahu campaign; former National Security Advisor Uzi Arad was part of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Research; the current NSA, Yaakov Amidror, was a pundit for Israel Hayom; the ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was a fellow at Adelson’s conservative think-tank, the Shalem Center.
And what does Adelson think of Obama? Here it goes:
Any of the Republican hopefuls “are going to be 180 degrees” different from President Obama in terms of “what’s good for this country and for Israel,” Adelson said, adding that Obama is “the worst president” for Israel.
“All the steps he’s taken against the state of Israel are liable to bring about the destruction of the state,” he asserted.
Like Netanyahu, Adelson will praise peace, but object to the international community’s definition of the two-state solution:
“Can you make peace with people whose sole mission is to destroy you?” he asked. “You don’t have someone who wants to make peace with you.”
He said that for the Palestinian leadership, “the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people,” and he sees no distinction between Hamas, the terror group that controls Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
“They sat with [PLO leader Yassir] Arafat for 40 years,” Adelson said of Abbas and Fayyad. “When he was planning terror, did they recuse themselves and leave the room?”
He said he saw no chance for peace as long as Palestinian children from the age of 3 are taught that “a Jew is a swine and ape” and should be killed.
“I favor peace,” he said, “but to be pro-Israel you also need to have a position vis a vis Israel’s enemies. And no reasonable person would make Israel sign with people pledged to destroy them.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, only 12 percent of the Jewish public views President Obama as “pro-Israeli.” Israel Hayom’s poll has Netanyahu’s Likud party picking up five seats following the PM’s US visit
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be satisfied with the result of his visit to the United States. A new poll published today shows growing support among the Israeli public for his positions regarding the two-state solution.
According to the “Hagal Hachadash” poll, published by the pro-Neatnayhu tabloid Israel Hayom, only 28 percent of the public support president Obama’s guidelines for a solution based on the 1967 borders. 61 percent supports the positions presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his speeches in Washington, those regarding a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and the rejection of a compromise that would divide Jerusalem into two capitals.
If elections were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would make gains, collecting up to 32 Knesset seats (it now holds 27). The rightist-Orthodox bloc would win 69 sets, while the center-left would hold on to an all-time low of 51 seats.
One interesting figure: Even in this poll, Kadima keeps its current 28 seats, indicating that Netanyahu won’t chip at Tzipi Livni’s base.
A different poll, conducted by the right-leaning Jerusalem Post, shows that only 12 percent of the Jewish public considers President Obama pro-Israel, while 40 percent of Israeli Jews categorize him as pro-Palestinian.
However, it is interesting to note that according to Israel Hayom’s poll, Obama is more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian (38 to 37 percent), and a clear majority of the public – 68 percent – says that “president Obama is committed to Israel’s security.” Some of the difference between the two polls can be explained by the fact that the Israel Hayom sample included Palestinian citizens, while the Jpost had a Jews-only sample.
Haaretz‘s poll from Thursday had Netanyahu’s approval rise by 13 points.
A few notes regarding these numbers: Earlier this week I quoted a Maariv poll that had 57 percent of the public somewhat supportive of the positions outlined in President Obama’s speech. It seems that the readers who posted critical comments of this item were right, and the way Maariv framed the questions in the poll “tilted” some of the public towards more moderate positions.
At the same time, we did have a series of polls in recent years which had around half of the Jewish public agreeing to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. What I think we are witnessing now is a shift of the public to the right, following the positions expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Since Netanyahu became Prime Minister, he was urged to present his own diplomatic vision. The thinking was that the PM is strong enough, and the public will follow him wherever he goes. It seems that Netanyahu finally made up his mind: He basically rejected the two-state solution, and as expected, many Israelis went with him.
Where do we go from here? I’ll try to deal with that question in my next post.
+972 magazine needs your support. Check this post to see why, and how can you help to keep this project going
According to Maariv’s poll, 57 percent of Israelis accept the principles outlined in president Obama’s Middle East speech. By being more pro-Israeli than the Knesset, the US Congress indicates that the road to peace and justice in the region cannot pass through Washington
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011. In Israel, Kantor’s view would have placed him in a settler’s party (photo: AIPAC)
In the morning following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress, a poll published by the Israeli daily Maariv indicates that while Netanyahu enjoys considerable support among Israelis, the public is far more inclined than its prime minister to make concessions to the Palestinians.
According to a Teleseker-Maariv poll, conducted last night, a clear majority of 57 percent of Israelis would have wanted Netanyahu to say “yes” (or “yes, but“) to the path to a two-state solution outlined in President Obama’s speech.
(As pollster Dahlia Scheindlin wrote on this site, such figures correspond to previous polls, which show, for most part, the support of most of the Jewish public for a two-state solution based on the ‘67 borders.)
At the same time, if elections were held today, the Maariv poll has Netanyahu’s Likud party receiving 30 seats (it holds 27 today), with opposition party Kadima dropping from 27 to 26 seats. The poll shows Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu rising from 14 to 16 seats.
If those numbers represent the real attitude of the Israeli public, then Netanyahu has presented a false picture in the speeches given during his U.S. visit– he enjoys a stronger coalition than he cares to present, but in rejecting the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, he doesn’t reflect the views of most Israelis.
My bet is that with time, more Israelis will come to oppose the ‘67-based solution and a compromise over Jerusalem, as the prime minister’s messages increasingly sinks in with some of his supporters, who are now more open to concessions than he is.
What’s even more interesting is how far to the right the Washington establishment is on these issues. If they were Israelis, all of those attacking President Obama on Israel – from the Senate majority leader to the Washington Post’s editorial page – would have been part of the right flank of the Likud, or a moderate settler party. Right now, the Israeli consensus – if such thing exists – is to the left of the beltway (though Netanyahu is working very hard to change that).
If the events of the past few days have taught us anything, it’s that the unique connection between Washington politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), the Jewish lobby and Israeli hawks is the main obstacle to the termination of the occupation.
Under the current circumstances, the road to justice and peace in the region cannot pass through the U.S. capital.
This morning, I posted an analysis of the latest diplomatic developments, titled “Obama finally confronts Netanyahu, but to what end?” The more I think and read about it, I get the feeling that I got at least some of the story wrong. Looking back on the events of the last couple of days, I don’t thing the president was really trying to confront Netanyahu. Yes, he accepted some of the State Department’s thoughts on the need to present a peace plan, but he didn’t go all the way with it, he didn’t say anything that should have embarrassed Jerusalem, and he was pretty hard on the Palestinians.
I actually believe now that Obama was trying to show Netanyahu a way to oppose the Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence. In outlining the path to the two-state solution, Obama was clearly aiming to the Israeli consensus. His plan was all too similar to the ideas former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak put forward – one could even argue that Olmert went a little further on some issues.
The problem was that Netanyahu overreacted—and not for the first time. The Israeli PM responded to the president’s speech with an aggressive statement, and he kept the same tone after the meeting with Obama. Americans don’t like to see their president schooled this way, and even some of the PM’s supporters in the US were surprised, even angered, by his choice of words.
The fact that the Israeli and American positions are not that far from each other, and yet they brought such clash between the two leaders, show the degree of mistrust and the lack of coordination between Washington and Jerusalem right now. Netanyahu can only blame himself for that.
I wonder whether Netanyahu is beginning to realize the mistake he made. It would be interesting to see what effect this would have on his next two speeches in Washington.
President Abbas has told Newsweek he is disappointed with Obama, but the American President has actually done a nice job of revealing the American double-standards with regards to Israel. Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s hawks are suggesting that in response to a Palestinian declaration of independence, Israel should annex the West Bank. Not such a bad idea
Newsweek has an interesting interview with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It’s titled “The Wrath of Abbas,” and in it Abu-Mazen shares with Dan Ephron his frustration and disappointment over the US administration’s recent moves, and most notably, the attempt to block the Palestinian diplomatic effort at the UN.
The US has vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding Israel would stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in recent weeks the administration has stepped up his rhetoric against the attempt to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state. Instead, the US is demanding that the Palestinians return to direct negotiations with Israel.
The heart of the matter for Abbas is the way the US backed down from its demand to freeze construction in the settlement as a precondition to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
… He [Abbas] told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”
Naturally, Abbas couldn’t agree to negotiate with Israel as construction in the settlements goes on – not after Washington itself put forward a demand to stop such activities. This is probably what John Kerry and other foreign policy veterans referred to when they claimed that the administration “has wasted 1.5 years.” But I am not so sure time was in fact wasted.
American administrations have been demanding Israel to stop building its settlements – and protesting when Jerusalem ignored them – for decades. All President Barack Obama did was try to actually uphold the stated policy – one that was shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. The result was a major crisis between Jerusalem and Washington, which hurt the President even in his own party.
In other words, the demand to freeze the settlements revealed that all previous demands and condemnations were no more than lip service, and that in fact over the years all administrations shared a support for unilateral Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza. This is why veterans of the peace process like Dennis Ross and John Kerry might claim it was a failed policy – because it called their bluff – even if that wasn’t what the President intended to do.
The problem was not Obama’s demands from Israel, but rather the fact that he backed down from them — “came down from the tree,” as Abbas put it — because of his political problems back home. Netanyahu was able to manipulate Washington in his favor, and the administration is now back to the old game: advocating direct negotiations and “monitoring” Israel’s actions on the ground, which is the code word for turning a blind eye.
All this is not enough for the hawks in Israel, who hate Obama with such a passion that they suspect he is behind the recent European moves and even the Palestinian unilateral effort. Ironically, a one-on-one with Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu would have probably resulted with the same headline as Newsweek’s interview with Abu-Mazen (except for the different name in the title, of course).
Meanwhile, the administration is floating the idea of publishing “Obama’s parameters” for a two state solution – ones that are likely to be rejected by both sides, as they are based on the 67′ borders (which Jerusalem doesn’t accept) and exempt Israel from its responsibility for the refugees problem, which is a non-starter for the Palestinians. Still, putting forward guidelines for a solution is not a bad idea, as long as the Americans don’t actually expect Netanyahu to negotiate on them in good faith.
There is zero chance that the Israeli Prime Minister will deliver any kind of solution. Netanyahu will not evacuate settlements; at best, he will create the false impression of agreeing to do it in a far away future, hoping that some turn of events will rescue him from the need to keep up his promises. It’s not just Netanyahu’s character and upbringing that pushes him to the right, but also the hawkish coalition he has built, the hard-line advisors he has surrounded himself with (the latest being the recently-appointed National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror), the messages he is sending the Israeli public, his connection to the neo-cons in Washington, and the threat from Avigdor Lieberman in the coming elections. In short, all signs point in the same direction: Netanyahu is playing on time.
Recently, some Israeli hawks have come up with a new idea: Answering a Palestinian declaration of independence with annexing the West Bank and canceling the Oslo accords (didn’t we do the second part at least a dozen times in the past?). It is unfortunate that this idea has very little hope of materializing. As even the settlers know, the Palestinian Authority and the “disputed” status of the West Bank is this government’s greatest—and perhaps only—diplomatic asset. I don’t suppose the Knesset members who initiated this idea meant that Israel should make the Palestinians equal citizens — those rightwing fanatics want the land, not the people — but annexing the territories will be the first step on a one way road that leads to the one-state solution. And as I wrote in the past, this is an option that should stay on the table.
With challenges to the Israeli PM around the corner, the White House finally has some leverage over Jerusalem. But will theadministrationuse it?
The main problem the White House faced in its attempts to renew the settlements moratorium was the lack of political leverage over Jerusalem. The administration offered Netanyahu some carrots, but it didn’t have sticks ready for the event of an Israeli refusal. It seems that president Obama simply couldn’t spend more political currency on confronting the Israeli PM and his powerful allies in Washington.
Ironically, it is the collapse of the peace talks that seems to present the US with an opportunity to force concessions out of Neatnayhu – or make him pay a price for his political choices. In the coming months, the Israeli PM will need the administration’s help in rescuing him from two tough challenges, one at home and one abroad.
At the UN, the Palestinians are expected to bring before the Security Council a resolution deeming Israel’s settlements as illegal.
“Final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties, not by recourse to the UN Security Council. We, therefore, consistently oppose any attempt to take final status issues to the council as such efforts do not move us closer to our goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.”
Yet as diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid notes, a vote in the Security Council can put the US in an embarrassing position:
In contrast to similar cases, the draft resolution distributed by the Palestinians this time is relatively moderate, avoiding extreme anti-Israeli language. The Americans may therefore find themselves isolated in the UN if they decide to veto the resolution, and they may find it difficult to do so.
Instead of looking at the Palestinian move as an attack on US policy in the region, the administration could chose to view the whole situation as an opportunity, and not a risk. In exchange for supporting Jerusalem, the US could demand Netanyahu to come up with an offer on borders (unlike former Israeli PMs, Netanyahu chose not to present a peace plan or even a map) and if Natanyahu refuses, deny him the diplomatic umbrella. The American argument could be very simple: if Israel wants to defend its settlement policy, it should make clear which settlements would be left in the final agreement, and which ones are to be evacuated (and therefore, couldn’t be expanded).
Netanyahu could use American help at home as well. He needs at least the appearance of negotiations to maintain his coalition. Labor strongman Binyamin Ben Elyezer said this week that if there is no peace process, Laborwould quitthe government in a month or two. Minister Avishay Bravermanwants out now. If Labor does quit, we might end up with an extreme rightwing coalition – but these don’t tend to last very long.
Since the announcement on the failure of the settlements deal, the Labor party is in turmoil, and pressure on it to leave the government is mounting. As long as US envoy George Mitchell is running back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Ehud Barak continues to claim he remains in government in the interest of peace. But the US could easily deny him this excuse.
Altogether, it seems that the failure of the moratorium deal actually helped Washington more than it did Jerusalem. For the first time in months, Netanayhu needs Obama more than Obama need Netanyahu.
With the new deal, the US might have given up all leverage over Jerusalem for the next two years, agreed to construction in Jerusalem (and ultimately, the rest of the West Bank), and seems to get nothing in return
Like that women in a townhall meeting before the midterms, I am exhausted of defending President Barack Obama. As if the last year wasn’t bad enough, the new deal Netanyahu was offered in exchange for a limited-Jerusalem-excluded-90-days-only moratorium, seems like the administration’s worst move ever.
Netanyahu apparently reached an understanding with Washington that the building freeze would not apply to Jerusalem, and that no further moratorium would be sought following the 90-day period.
In exchange for a freeze extension, the US would object to international attempts to force a diplomatic agreement on Israel in the UN and in other global forums, while utilizing the American veto power in the UN Security Council.
According to the proposal, the US would also boost its resistance to the de-legitimization campaign against Israel and to attempts by Arab states to deprive Israel’s right to self-defense [what's that? key words for Goldstone? for the Nuclear program?].
Moreover, the US Administration would ask Congress to approve the sale of another 20 advanced fighter jets to Israel worth some $3 billion. This would supplement a comprehensive future Israeli-American security agreement, to be signed alongside a peace deal, in the aims of addressing Israel’s security needs in any future treaty.
The F-35 Jets deal is not the big news here. Sooner or later, the US would have sold the plans to Israel, if only to help Lockheed Martin, who seems to be having troubles selling its new toys to the rest of the world.
The diplomatic assurances are much more troubling. By promising an automatic veto against any international move or any unilateral attempt by the Palestinians do declare independence, the Administration gave up any leverage over Jerusalem in 2011. And since 2012 is elections year, one can say that Netanyahu got a Carte Blanch from Obama and Clinton for the rest of his term.
Furthermore, the administration promised not to demand any more moratoriums, and to exclude Jerusalem from the current one. In other words, the White House agreed not to oppose construction in the settlements starting from January 2011, and to accept all construction in East Jerusalem right now. This is, by itself, a terrible move.
What did the Americans get in return? And what did the Palestinians get? apparently, nothing. The negotiations might resume, but it’s hard to believe that any breakthrough will be reached in the next couple of months. The two sides are simply too far from each other on every key issue. My guess: the Palestinians would end up abandoning the talks or refusing some “generous offer” by Netanyahu. Once more they will be accused of missing their best opportunities. Camp David 2000, all over again.
Nothing is certain, of course. The administration might have gotten some backroom promises from Nettanyahu regarding the upcoming talks. The Israeli Right can try to oppose the new moratorium. In the longer run, the Palestinians could always shut down the PA and put Israel in an impossible position (many people think this could be their best move). But in all these developments, the administration will depend on others. Unless team Obama has a diplomatic plan it wants to impose on both sides, it seems that the White House has played its hand – and lost.
Obama lost, Israel won, declares a headline on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site
The original post was updated.
President Barack Obama is not popular in Israel, to say the least. Israelis knew John McCain as their supporters; Obama was a mystery. Early in 2009, the new president’s attempts to approach the Arab world defined him as a pro-Palestinian, at least in the eyes of many Israelis. Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) expressed the common view in the government when she declared that “we fell into the hands of a horrible administration” (other politicians were blunter, simply calling Obama “a new Pharaoh“). Rightwing comments on the internet often refers to him just as “Hussein”.
First impressions are very hard to change, and recent efforts by the administration to improve the president’s image with the Israeli public and were unsuccessful (at the same time, they destroyed the administration’s credibility with the Palestinian public). Even today, the relations between Jerusalem and the White House are often framed by the media with confrontational terms, emphasizing the lack of trust between the two sides and overplaying misunderstandings and arguments. When Washington tried to show a more welcoming face to Jerusalem – as it did during Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington – its actions were portrayed as a staged effort, designed for internal purposes. Altogether, it seems that the White House was probably better off sticking to its original line.
It’s clear that nobody in the PM office would shed tears over the blow the Democrats suffered in the midterm elections. Having said that, I guess Netanyahu is smart enough to know that a conservative House can’t prevent a determined Democratic president from trying to push the diplomatic process forward. As many pundits estimate, the administration might even become more active on foreign policy, as the new balance of power in Washington would make it hard to peruse domestic reforms.
For Israelis, the elections are interesting for what they tell about the president’s image and support – they got more media coverage than midterms usually get – but their political implications are far from being clear. I believe that the power struggle between Dennis Ross and George Mitchell in the White House – in which Ross seems to have the upper hand – would turn up to be much more important than the landslide victory the GOP won today. Those Israeli officials that enjoyed seeing president Obama humiliated probably know that too.
One final thought from an Israeli perspective: many people have noticed that Israel is heading towards becoming a partisan issue in Washington. The Obama-Netanyahu confrontation is speeding up this process, but it’s not the whole story. It seems that the liberal camp in the US is distancing itself form Israel, Much in the way the European Left has done in the past. Questions on the pros and cons of the “special relations” that were once raised only in back rooms are now openly discussed by the US media. The moral appeal of Israel seems to be weakening, at least in the eyes of Democrats.
The midterms could speed up this process, especially if the Republicans adopt Israel as a an vessel for attacks on the White House, and a generational change occur in the Democratic party, bringing a new set of candidates that would distance themselves from Jerusalem and AIPAC. The current success of the “pro-Israeli” camp in Washington might turn to be a double-edged sword.
UPDATE: the Israeli newspapers were going down to print as the first exit polls were published in the US, so the size of the democratic defeat wasn’t known to the reporters and the papers’ tones remained somewhat reserved. Only Yisrael Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu free tabloid, didn’t hesitate to frame the elections as a blow to the president. The paper’s analysis article, written by Prof. Avraham Ben-Zvi, predicted that from now on, the president won’t be able to pursue an ambitious foreign policy and would focus on co-operating with the Republicans on the home front. The White House’s Middle East policy, wrote Prof. Ben Zvi, would be limited to crisis solving.
On Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site, an op-ed by Yoram Etinger declares that “Obama lost, Israel won“. Etinger calls for the Israeli government to increase its effort to win support on the Hill, claiming that the pro-Israeli congress can counter-weight the White House and the State Department’s policy.
“The Israeli reader should understand: America didn’t vote against Obama because the way he treated Netanyahu’s government, nor because of his Middle East policy, Iraq or Afghanistan. These elections were determined on one reason only: the economy… [The elections' results] might hurt the administration’s ability to apply pressure on Israel. On the other hand, a Republican control over the House would prevent Obama from gaining major achievements that involves legislation. What are we left with? Foreign policy.
Where will Jerusalem and Washington go from here? Netanayhu wasn’t ready make significant decisions in the peace process when Obama was at the height of his powers, and my guess is that after the midterms, feeling he has more leverage over the White House, his positions will be even tougher. Right now, I think Netanyahu is more concerned about the future of his coalition than over relations with America. If Labor quits his government – a move that seems more likely recently – his slide towards new elections will begin. From this fate, even Eric Cantor couldn’t save the Israeli PM.