After several months of insults (chickensh*!t) and threats about re-evaluating U.S. policy, the Obama administration appears to have awakened to the fact that its feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone too far. As the New York Times reports today, the White House is making a conscious effort to play down its anger at the Israeli government, primarily by making nice with American Jewish groups. But what is sounding very much like another edition of the Jewish charm offensive that characterized administration statements about Israel during the year preceding President Obama’s reelection is not going to fix what has been broken by President Obama and his foreign-policy team. The problem is an American government that is intent on creating distance between itself and Israel, not misunderstandings rooted in a personality clash between Obama and Netanyahu. Its only purpose is to disarm Jewish groups and to persuade them to stay quiet during the impending debate about the Iran nuclear deal while still threatening Israel with diplomatic isolation over the Middle East peace process.
As with the reelection year charm offensive, the administration is doing little to mend fences with an Israeli government that it has slandered and undermined. Rather, it is focused on holding the hands of Jewish groups that face the difficult choice between standing up to the president or keeping quiet in order to maintain their access to the White House.
The administration is rightly fearful that it’s public venting of anger about Netanyahu’s opposition to its push for détente with Iran and their insistence on blaming him and not the Palestinian Authority leadership for the latest collapse of the peace process is exposing the rift between much of the Democratic Party and the pro-Israel community. That doesn’t necessarily threaten the Democrats’ hold on the Jewish vote in 2016, but Obama isn’t really worried about Hillary Clinton’s fate right now. What bothers him is the prospect that a critical mass of American Jews will be sufficiently fed up with the president’s threats toward Israel and insufficiently sold on the virtues of the Iran deal that they will exert pressure on wavering Democrats to vote against the agreement if it is actually signed and then comes up for a vote sometime this summer.
That’s what’s behind the meetings with Jewish groups (though most of those invited to the tête-à-têtes at the White House have been either loyal administration cheerleaders like J Street and other left-wing groups or mainstream organizations that can usually be counted on not to make trouble for the powers that be) and, just as important, leaks from administration sources that lead to articles like today’s New York Times feature intended to calm the nerves of the paper’s liberal Jewish readership.
Despite the talk of recognition that, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Israel and veteran peace processor Daniel Kurtzer, “anger was replacing policy,” the division between the two countries had little to do with pique on either side of the alliance. The White House temper tantrums about Netanyahu’s prickly personality, his acceptance of an invitation to address Congress without bespeaking Obama’s permission first, or even some of the things he said in the days before his election victory certainly added to the tensions that have been building for six years. But the real source of the problem lies in policy prescriptions not inadequate personal relations.
The president entered office convinced that the U.S. must distance itself from Israel and engage Iran and after years of effort, he finally seems to have accomplished both objectives. To that end, the president has consistently sought to pressure Israel to make concessions and blamed the Jewish state when these efforts failed, as they always have, to entice the Palestinians to make peace. Consistent Palestinian rejections of peace offers have convinced most Israelis that peace is impossible in the foreseeable future and to reelect Netanyahu, but the administration has reacted to the same facts by seeking more distance between Washington and Jerusalem and overtly threatening to abandon Israel at the United Nations.
Even more ominously, the White House has embraced a new bizarrely Iran-centric policy in the Middle East that has alienated both Israel and moderate Arab nations while negotiating an agreement that, at the very least, establishes Tehran as a threshold nuclear power and gives it two paths to a bomb, one by cheating and the other by waiting until the deal expires.
Neither of these problems can be papered over by mere meetings or statements. President Obama’s disingenuous efforts to convince the country that, despite everything that has happened during his time in office that would convince any objective observer to the contrary, he is true friend of Israel ring false even for many Democrats.
But Obama doesn’t need, as he did in 2012, to convince most supporters of Israel that he is one of them. After all that has happened in the last year, let alone the five that preceded it, that isn’t going to work despite his avowals of friendship. All he needs is to neutralize the mainstream groups that could make a lot of trouble for him if they decided to go all out to try and defeat an Iran deal that poses a potential mortal threat to the security of the West, regional security, as well as Israel’s existence. Such an effort on their part might be enough to tip many ostensibly pro-Israel Democrats to oppose the deal even though the president has tried to make support for the deal a test of partisan loyalty.
That’s why Obama says he won’t meet Netanyahu until after the Iran deal is finalized and approved even if he has to get that approval by stopping Congress from overriding his veto.
Supporters of Israel in both the Democratic and Republican parties need to recognize that what is needed are not feel-good meetings but a presidential promise that the final Iran deal will insist on the inspections and other points the Iranians currently refuse to countenance. They should also get guarantees that the president won’t stop backing the Jewish state in the United Nations when the Palestinians and their supporters seek recognition for their state without first being required to make peace.
Anything less than that is a diversionary tactic, not an effort to heal a breach the president has worked so hard to create.