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Obama's fractured Israel policy
Obama has pro-Israel credibility among Arabs, where it does him no good. But he lacks it where he most needs it, leaving him powerless to enforce his demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements.
 
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Israel revealed, the Obama administration’s half-hearted policy on settlements in the occupied territories is a bust.

Anxious to placate hawkish critics at home and in Israel, Clinton declared Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement slowdown an "unprecedented" gesture. In reality, it was a calculated show of defiance against Washington’s call
for a settlement freeze. Clinton’s retreat provoked harsh reactions from Arab governments throughout the region, prompting a hasty retreat in which she stressed that Israel’s slowdown of settlement construction was not enough. But the damage was done. The episode undermined White House credibility and displayed the enormous constraints on emocratic opposition to Israeli policies.

Even if the settlements were legal under international law,
which they are not, they would be a major obstacle to any political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. Aside from being a constant source of resentment among Palestinians, the settlements have exacerbated the inequities and discrimination that are the inevitable residue of colonization. Yet settlements are not only yesterday’s affront; they represent a continuing effort to change the political reality on the ground -- to the detriment of Palestinians. The Obama administration seems to understand that, which is why it called for a freeze. It’s just not willing to force the issue because the political risks are too great.

Obama has earned harsh criticism for his opposition to settlement building, even though this stand has been formal American policy for decades. (Obama is simply the first president since George H.W. Bush to take it somewhat seriously.) Throughout the presidential campaign and the past year, the president has struggled against the impression that he is unduly sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations and somehow hostile to Israel. He is perceived as "unreliable" and "untrustworthy" by Israelis and a majority of Israelis reportedly believe Obama is "pro-Palestinian." Given Obama's full support of Israel’s excessive military operation in Gaza earlier this year, that seems ludicrous. But such suspicions have hamstrung the administration, making it difficult to criticize Israeli policy and virtually impossible to compel Israeli concessions.

Perversely, Obama has pro-Israel bona fides among Muslim states, where his overtures to Muslim audiences, including his Cairo speech, are discounted as a result. He gets scant credit for making an effort to engage Muslims. Likewise, there is no political gain for Obama if he makes a more strenuous effort to pressure Israel. Few domestic allies would assist him and those who might -- including the new pro-Israel lobbying organization, J Street -- have little to offer.

Indeed, J Street shares the White House’s debilitating posture -- a public opposition to Israeli occupation policies tempered by an abject unwillingness to use U.S. influence to change Israeli behavior. Progressive critics of Israeli policy must walk a fine line to avoid giving the appearance of indifference to Israeli security concerns. In an interview last month, J Street director Jeremy Ben Ami ruled out even threatening to reduce American aid to Israel, which is the main source of U.S. leverage. By such logic, progressives effectively surrender any chance of  ersuading Israel to change its course.

J Streeters and their allies know that if they push too hard, they will be accused of ‘selling out’ Israel to its enemies, a politically devastating charge. Consequently, the only people who are truly interested in a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians resort to a defensive crouch, tolerating mild imitations of hawkish policies that they believe serve no one’s interests. If the nation¹s leading "pro-peace, pro-Israel" lobby is unwilling to advance its preferred policies, why would an administration already struggling to defend its pro-Israel reputation take a risk? The answer, as Clinton’s last visit reminds us, is evident in the Obama administration’s confused policy of half-measures. These have done  nothing to allay Israeli mistrust. But they have gone far to disillusion the
rest of the world.

 

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