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Obama and Israel: stalled diplomacy or ‘suspicion and distrust’?

at 06:00 AM ET, 07/11/2011


(Associated Press)
“He seems firmly and clearly determined to undermine our longtime friend and ally.  He’s treating Israel the same way so many European countries have: with suspicion, distrust and an assumption that Israel is at fault.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, June 2, 2011

***

 “Nowhere has President Obama’s lack of judgment been more stunning than in his dealings with Israel.  It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally.  …  Today the president doesn’t really have a policy toward the peace process.  He has an attitude.  And let’s be frank about what that attitude is:  he thinks Israel is the problem.  And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.”

— Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, June 27, 2011

***

   “I never will do what the president of the United States did to our ally in May. I will never say to Israel you must pull back your boundaries to the 1967 indefensible lines. I will not do that because I am here to declare today in Des Moines, Iowa, that I stand with Israel.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), July 2, 2011

The latest Gallup poll shows that President Obama has 60 percent approval rating among Jewish Americans. Jews generally are a reliable vote for Democrats, and in the 2008 election, exit polls show Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote. That gap has sent GOP hearts aflutter, though the polling should be viewed with caution; 60 percent approval is still 14 percent higher than the president’s overall approval rating.

 Still, GOP candidates for president sense an opening. A line attacking Obama and his policies on Israel is now a standard part of their stump speeches. The question is whether these attacks are fair or accurate?

 The Fact Checker delves into this issue with some trepidation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has bedeviled presidents for decades and there are no easy answers. Both sides in the conflict have deeply held narratives about how things have come to this point.

We would be foolish to venture an opinion on each side’s collection of historical facts because, seriously, it is a no-win situation. But Obama’s treatment of Israel has become such a key part of the GOP arsenal that it is worth exploring the president’s performance.

 Obama, perhaps because of his name and his background, found his views on Israel under scrutiny even during the last election. He didn’t help matters then by making observations that antagonized some of Israel’s more loyal supporters: “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

(Ironically, once he became president, Obama ended up with a Likud prime minister with whom he has had a testy relationship.)

Indeed, key congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), recently have also been critical of Obama’s treatment of Israel. Congress is often very pro-Israel, but the comments by congressional Democrats give a bipartisan gloss to the critique.

 The Facts

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is often considered a central test of a president’s diplomatic skills. Former president George W. Bush was criticized for appearing to ignore the issue until the last months of his administration; he was reacting in part to the unsuccessful, last-gasp efforts of Bill Clinton to strike a deal. Obama decided to take on the challenge from day one, appointing a special envoy to prod the parties toward peace. 

The administration further upped the ante by immediately pressing Israel to suspend settlement construction, believing such a gesture would help bolster Arab support for the peace process. Few people appear to remember this now, but the administration’s pressure tactics initially had the support of congressional Democrats, who ambushed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with “harsh and unequivocal statements” about settlements when he visited Washington.

 But the pressure backfired. Israel eventually agreed to a partial, temporary freeze, but that was not good enough for emboldened Palestinians. Arab leaders balked at offering incentives to Israel. The administration ended up looking weak.

 The president was critical of the administration’s performance in a 2010 interview with Time magazine. “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” he said.

Obama and Netanyahu had a major breakdown in relations in early 2010 over a perceived snub of Vice President Biden while he was touring Israel. Despite a lack of agreement on the parameters of talks, late in 2010 Obama then pressed the Israelis and Palestinians into talks that lasted barely two weeks. The administration again looked ineffectual.

 The special envoy, former senator George Mitchell, recently resigned, leaving no replacement in sight.  The administration is now fighting a rear guard action to prevent Palestinian officials from pressing forward with a plan to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.

 In May, Obama again tried to jump start the peace process by saying that peace talks should begin with Israel’s 1967 borders, with swaps of land agreed by both sides. His remark created a firestorm and within days he sought to clarify his statement. In the annals of diplomacy, compared to how other presidents had discussed the issue, we thought his statement was a significant shift. One key reason is that he did not pair it with similar demands on the Palestinians or reiterate language about Israel being able to keep some settlements.

 But the statement has also been misinterpreted, particularly in light of Obama’s clarification. In fact, we gave Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) four Pinocchios for saying he “announced his support of returning Israel and Palestine to the pre-war borders of 1967.” 

That’s not true, though she keeps repeating it. However, one could argue that Obama is saying that 1967 has to be Israel’s starting negotiating position. (The administration has not been especially clear on this point.)

The difference is subtle, but Israel would prefer to give up land it seized in war in exchange for concessions from the Palestinians. But the Palestinians — who argue they have already given up much of the historic state of Palestine — want the talks to start on the 1967 lines, which could require Israel to make concessions in order to retain settlement blocks.

 The statements by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty are more difficult to check. The Pawlenty campaign, for instance, cites a New York Times article about Obama “trying to box in Mr. Netanyahu” as evidence that Obama thinks “Israel is the problem.” Well, not really: the main point of the article was that Obama was giving up a full freeze on settlement expansion in response to Israeli counterpressure.

 On the other hand, there are other news reports that feed into this notion. An JTA article on a March meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders quoted Obama as telling them to contact friends in Israel and asked them to “search their souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace. That sounds tough — though the article goes on to note that participants in the meeting disagreed vehemently over what the president actually said.

 Indeed, the interpretation was in the ear of the listener. “The people who loved Obama probably still love him, the people who had big reservations about Obama probably have more reservations than they had before,” one Jewish organizational official told JTA.  The same question of interpretation recently erupted over the administration’s stance on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

 Meanwhile, despite the diplomatic differences with the Israeli government, Obama has also greatly strengthened security and military ties with the Jewish state and defended Israel repeatedly at the United Nations.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 Even the most sympathetic observer of the administration’s efforts on the Israel-Palestinian issue would have to concede the diplomacy has been stalled and sometimes poorly executed.

After 2 ½ years, the administration has few, if any, achievements to brag about despite having invested significant diplomatic capital in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If anything, one could make a case that the two sides are further apart because of the administration’s actions, though, to be fair, ultimately it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, not the United States.

 The diplomatic code in the region is not easy for newcomers. Even Bachmann, who worked on a kibbutz as a teenager, mistakenly referred to “Palestine,” a nonexistent state, in a tweet.

Bachmann already received her Pinocchios but Romney’s and Pawlenty’s remarks depend much more on how one interprets Obama’s actions. We have not found any on-the-record words in which the president says Israel is the problem or that he views Israel with suspicion or distrust. But diplomacy is more than just words, but also actions. Certainly, the administration has allowed that impression to form, especially on the right.

 So, we will leave this to readers. Having read the history above, what is your conclusion? Is this a matter of good intentions and poor follow-through? Or do Republicans (and some Democrats) have a point?

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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