There were perhaps worse moments in U.S.-Israel relations. The Suez Canal controversy comes to mind. But the spats were isolated. Never before have we had two and a half years of jousting in private and in public between the two allies. Never have we seen, as Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu did before the cameras, an Israeli leader dress down the president. Never before has the Israeli electorate rated an American president so poorly. (Come to think of it, never has a Palestinian leader so publicly vilified an American president.)
The usually decisive Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler finds it impossible, however, to score the validity of some rather commonplace criticisms of President Obama by pro-Israel critics of the president. (Mitt Romney, for example: “He’s treating Israel the same way so many European countries have: with suspicion, distrust and an assumption that Israel is at fault.”)
Perhaps if we recalled that this president “condemned” settlement-building in Jerusalem, refused to confirm the 2004 Bush-Sharon letters and told American Jews to go “self-reflect” on their attitudes toward the Jewish state, it might be easier simply to come out and say: They’ve got a point. In fact, Kessler seems to confirm just that when he recounts:
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. . . .
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.
Kessler also writes that Obama didn’t call for Israel to return to the 1967 borders, just to start negotiations from that point. The State Department confirmed to me that the formulation meant the parties should go back to 1967 lines and negotiate from there. But wait. If the Palestinians don’t agree to more “swaps,” then Israel is out of luck, and without, for example, the Western Wall, right? No other president has demanded such a thing, let alone while the PA is in league with the terrorist group Hamas, which has refused to adopt the Quartet principles.
The most Kessler will allow is that the administration’s “diplomacy has been stalled and sometimes poorly executed” and that Obama has allowed the “impression” to form that he is antagonistic toward the Jewish state. Umm, sounds like the critics are pretty much on the mark.
But let’s see where we are today. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me while we await the results of the Quartet meeting today: “The Quartet, after meeting today, will likely release a statement urging both the Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table, in a bid to avert potential conflict over the planned Palestinian unilateral statehood initiative at the UN in September.” However, he explains, this isn’t necessarily a good thing for Israel: “Reports indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears the Quartet will issue a statement affirming US President Barack Obama’s controversial formulation of peace based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. Netanyahu also fears that the Quartet may issue some ‘surprise’ guidance, without having first consulted with the Israelis.” If so, that will be a surprise sprung by Obama, again, for the U.S. is obviously part of the Quartet. (And Schanzer, who is in frequent contact with Israeli officials, says there really shouldn’t be a factual dispute about the Obama-Israel relationship: “While they won’t say it explicitly, the Israelis feel more besieged and isolated under this administration than any other in recent memory.”)
But after today, where do we go from here? Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, tells me, “The Administration continues to look for ways to avoid a confrontation in September, and that would be a good thing. But then what? ‘Avoid September’ is not a policy.” In fact, Obama has presided over the death of the “peace process.” As Abrams puts it, “The belief that negotiations, if they ever got started, would lead anywhere right now is at best a faith-based foreign policy disconnected from reality. [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas is concentrating on holding elections and retiring, not some heroic effort at the negotiating table.”