The Washington Post this weekend ran a lengthy tick tock account by Scott Wilson of how President Obama ultimately failed during his first term to accomplish anything on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, and while there isn’t much new information in there that wasn’t already widely known, it does illuminate some important points. The first is the way in which the way one presents a policy is nearly as important as the actual policy itself. There are numerous instances in the Post story of the president and his team being surprised that some policy did not go over well with the Israelis, and oftentimes it was an issue of presentation or coordination. For instance, there was an uproar following Obama’s speech at the State Department in which he referred to a deal based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, with Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders outraged that the president implied that the starting point would be the Green Line. In fact, the president used the exact same formulation and language in that speech in May 2011 that Netanyahu himself used in a joint statement he issued with Hillary Clinton through the Israeli Foreign Ministry five months earlier, but as the Post points out and as was reported at the time, Netanyahu was upset because he felt blindsided and hadn’t known what the president was planning on saying. Obama made this same point earlier this morning in an interview with Charlie Rose, in which he said that one of the lessons he has learned on domestic policy is that getting the policy right is only half the battle, since it then also has to be effectively communicated to the American people. The same applies (but to a different audience) when it comes to Israel policy. I have written before that I think the accusation that Obama is anti-Israel is a silly one, but much of it stems from a terrible failure of communication and choice of words.
For instance, the fact that Obama has still not visited Israel has, quite frankly, passed over into the realm of the absurd. Yes, I know that President Bush did not visit Israel as president until 2008, and no, I do not think that presidents must visit Israel as a rite of passage. The difference here is that Obama is asking more of the Israelis than Bush did and so it would be enormously helpful for him to do it in person. It also does not escape Israeli notice that Obama gave speeches in Istanbul, Cairo, and visited Saudi Arabia, all of which brought him directly to the neighborhood, and the fact that he couldn’t make a one day stopover in Jerusalem leaves many Israelis feeling jilted, as if this is somehow a purposeful snub. I don’t think that it is, but if it isn’t worth Obama’s time to talk to Israelis directly in their own country, then it is understandable that many do not view Obama’s priorities as being worth their time or sacrifice.
The bigger lesson that jumps out though from the Post piece is that Obama and his team completely failed to take into account the way the second intifada changed the dynamic in Israel. Think about the Israeli mindset for a minute – following the Oslo process and the devolution of parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority and then the pullout from the security zone in Lebanon, Israel was met by a Hamas suicide bombing campaign and ultimately the second intifada. This rightly made Israelis nervous and largely killed the peace camp, and in order for Israel to keep the process going, it wanted to feel reassured that the U.S. understood its concerns. In short, it did not want a blank check to do as it pleased, but just a bit of empathy from the president. Obama and his advisers, however, missed this crucial point. The president is quoted as saying to American Jewish leaders in July 2009, “Look at the past eight years. During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.” This was the wrong lesson to be learned from the Bush years. It wasn’t that Israel felt that a close embrace from the U.S. gave it the green light to sit on the sidelines. It was that the Bush administration did not ask Israel to make any concessions. Had Bush pushed the Israelis on settlements or easing up on Mahmoud Abbas, the Israelis may very well have done so, but there was never a concerted effort from the Bush administration to extract many concessions from Israel. Israelis are extremely disenchanted with the peace process, and if the U.S. wants real movement, it needs to understand how scarring the second intifada was to the Israeli psyche and take that into account.
Similarly, the Post article recounts how Rahm Emmanuel thought that Netanyahu could be pressured into making concessions as he had during the 1990s, but then Wilson writes that “Netanyahu had changed since the 1990s, and so had the Israeli public. From his experience with Clinton, Netanyahu learned that he could not afford to lose his base. For him, a fight with a U.S. president pressuring Israel was a safer political bet than it once had been.” This is certainly correct, but it leaves out the most important variable. The Israeli public changed because of the second intifada, and this has led to Netanyahu being able stand up to the president in a more forceful and domestically cost-free way because there is a widespread belief in Israel that Obama does not really understand Israel’s security situation. This needs to change, and the very end of the article indicates that there is a growing understanding in the White House that Israel’s security concerns need to be assuaged. Does this mean that Israel should get to do whatever it wants at all times? Of course not. I think that the U.S. should keep up the pressure on settlements and convince Israel to prop up the PA and grant it a larger degree of autonomy in the West Bank (converting Area B to the same status as Area A would be a good start). The fact is that a close Israel-U.S. relationship does not necessarily impede progress on a peace deal; it just depends on what the administration decides to ask for. A greater appreciation for how Israel has changed and what assurances Israelis feel they need will only lead to more progress, not less.