international analysis and commentary

Obama’s dilemma in the peace process

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a trap for many a US president, but never more so than for Barack Obama. A president who, otherwise, is widely considered to have a respectable track record on matters of foreign policy (the highlight of his tenure being, without question, the Navy Seal raid in May that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden), Obama has largely failed to get a handle on the intractable Mideast peace process.

And it’s not like he hasn’t tried. Especially at the beginning of his administration, Obama put as big an effort as any president before him into restarting the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He chose a far-reaching approach to breaking the stalemate, encouraging the two parties to agree on a path that would rapidly lead to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. He often pushed back the Israeli leadership on the settlement issue, employing a more assertive rhetoric than had been tried in the past. However, the combination of a rapidly changing political landscape in the region – namely the pro-democratic movements of the Arab Spring – and the White House’s inability, or unwillingness, to set aside domestic pressure and electoral considerations, has undermined Obama’s strategy for the peace process, making him one of the least effective US presidents ever on this issue. In a time of growing tensions and uncertainty, and with the 2012 US presidential elections looming large on the President’s calendar, Washington has abandoned the bold attempts of the past and reverted back to its default position on the issue: nearly unconditional support for Israel.

The most glaring example of the extremely weak hand the administration is playing with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict came from the long-expected showdown at the United Nations. Proving to have little, if any, leverage left, Washington was unable to prevent Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from going ahead with the statehood bid at the Security Council (President Obama has pledged to veto the move). The US failed to persuade its Israeli allies to loosen up their rather inflexible position, convince a fully mistrustful Palestinian public of the usefulness of the peace process and bring the Palestinian leadership back to the negotiating table.

The failures of the Obama administration can be explained, in large part, with the political vulnerability of the President at home. With his approval ratings driven down by voters’ concerns about the persisting economic crisis, Obama has little capital left to act boldly in other domains, including foreign policy. And because a powerful and well-organized pro-Israel lobby exists in the US, it is almost impossible to find any voices today, across the entire political spectrum, in favor of supporting the Palestinian statehood bid.

A poll by the Brookings Institution from December of last year found that while a large portion of the electorate (as many as two thirds of American voters) would like US diplomacy to lean “toward neither side” in mediating the conflict, another 25% would want the US to lean toward Israel and only 2% wished Washington would lean toward the Palestinians. Similarly, a recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that, with 40% of voters undecided, only 26% of Americans believe it would be right for the UN to recognize Palestine as a new nation, while 34% think this would hurt the peace talks. These figures are strikingly more negative for the Palestinians than just even two years ago. Another Rasmussen Reports poll from June 2009 found that 57% of US voters thought Israel should be required to recognize a new Palestinian state as part of any peace agreement. Only 20% disagreed. 

In short, although a large swath of the electorate appears to be uncommitted, given the higher number of Americans siding with the Israelis than the Palestinians, for President Obama there is little to gain politically at home by taking up the latter cause.

Signs that the “Jewish vote”, traditionally a safe turf for the Democrats, might be up for grabs are everywhere. In a special election held in mid-September in the 9th Congressional District of New York (which includes Queens and parts of Brooklyn), voters, who had to select the successor to former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner (who resigned in June after a sex scandal), elected a Republican for the first time in eight decades. No doubt the result was due in part to people’s frustration with the state of the economy. But, in what is a heavily Orthodox Jewish district, voters’ disappointment with what they perceive to be President Obama’s unnecessarily cool relationship with Israel certainly played a role.

With next year’s elections fast approaching and the President’s re-election chances slipping, domestic politics is a factor that weighs much more heavily on him than any other. At the end of the day, rarely are national elections won on the basis of foreign policy.

The Republican leadership in Congress, and the crop of GOP presidential hopefuls have been quick to seize this opportunity and have relentlessly been hammering Obama on the issue. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana RosLehtinen, a Republican from Florida, recently sponsored a bill that would defund all UN agencies that deliver aid to the Palestinians as well as cut all US aid to the West Bank if Abbas’s bid at the UN were to succeed. In a foreign policy speech in New York recently, Texas governor Rick Perry accused Obama of “appeasement” in his dealings with the PA. His rival Mitt Romney argued that the current stalemate “is the culmination of President Obama’s repeated efforts over three years to throw Israel under the bus.”

The fact that a review of the President’s actual record on Israel provides a rather different picture doesn’t seem to help him. In deeds, if not in words, Obama has consistently cultivated the US-Israel bilateral relationship. A forthcoming Newsweek exclusive shows that, since 2009, he has “secretly authorized significant new aid to the Israeli military that includes the sale of 55 deep-penetrating bombs known as bunker busters.” The sale of these devices had been put on hold by the previous Republican administration of President George W. Bush.

Regardless, for Republicans this is an attack line that cannot be passed on, and not just because it is working tremendously well with Jewish voters, who, at the end of the day, represent only a small 2% of the electorate, if a well-organized and well -funded one. Over the last several decades, the evangelical Christian movement, a much more powerful constituency in the GOP nominating process, has enthusiastically embraced the cause of Israel as well.

The combination of these factors has led President Obama to reassess his difficult relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, in his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, take on the Israeli position that there can’t be a Palestinian state before a negotiated settlement and before peace. But this is a weakened Obama, merely a shadow of the man he used to be just two years ago. Threatened by the economic and, more importantly, political crisis at home, the White House is being deprived of the little credibility on the peace process it still had, creating a dangerous vacuum of power that nobody else seems able or willing to fill.