Thursday, November 11, 2010

Israel after the congressional elections


Unless Obama has a miraculous last-minute change of heart and adjusts his policy, we must gird ourselves for a long, tough struggle.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will face pressure to renew the settlement freeze when he meets Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans.

His meeting will take place following one of the greatest electoral defeats the Democratic Party has ever suffered. But the election was an expression of “no confidence” in the Obama administration rather than an endorsement of Republican policies. From what I have learned over the past few days in meetings with American Jewish leaders, far more Jews than anticipated had defected from the Democratic camp. I encountered numerous Jewish activists expressing remorse for ever having supported Obama in the presidential election, some sadly informing me that this was the first time in their lives that they had voted against the Democratic Party. Needless to say, unless they opposed Obama’s economic policies, the majority of Jews not engaged in Jewish activities, and for whom the fate of Israel is of little consequence, continued voting disproportionately Democrat.

But Democratic politicians are fully aware that it is the committed Jews who assume the central role in the political landscape. A large proportion of major Jewish Democratic donors are strong supporters of Israel, and many, for the first time, suspended or even severed a life-long political affiliation.

However, the euphoria over the elections shared by supporters of Israel may be somewhat premature.

Of course, a strongly pro-Israel Congress is a major asset. But it is the domestic economic arena in which Congress controls the purse strings and occupies a crucial role. In contrast, foreign policy derives primarily from the White House, and Congress has a more limited capacity to modify or influence this area. Indeed, some predict that instead of confronting Congress on economic issues, Obama may even be tempted to intensify his involvement in foreign affairs and try to make his imprint in this area.

Ultimately, Obama’s policy toward Israel will be determined by whether he is motivated by ideological or pragmatic considerations.

Hitherto, a strong case could be made to suggest that he behaves like a chameleon. He repudiated undertakings about Israel he had made before he was elected. He displayed contempt for and publicly humiliated Netanyahu, but in response to pressure and anger from within his own ranks, reversed his approach and a few months later rolled out the red carpet for him.

THE QUESTION is whether Obama will now be willing to meaningfully adjust his policies, or will he continue to exercise one-sided pressure against Israel, even if in a somewhat more sophisticated manner than previously.

Until now, he has provided no indication to suggest that he intends diverting in any meaningful manner from a policy based on the premise that in order to build bridges with the Arab world, the US must distance itself from Israel and if necessary, even be willing to compromise the Jewish state’s long-term security interests on the altar of appeasement.

The formative elements which influenced Obama’s approach to Middle East issues undoubtedly have a major bearing on his current attitude. Setting aside his anti-Semitic pastor who railed continuously against Israel and Jews, a principal source seems to have been Rashid Khalidi, the intellectual leader of the PLO in the US. This impressive Palestinian academic had an intimate relationship with Obama during his early and formative political years and without doubt had a major influence in influencing his overall approach to the Middle East.

Khalidi helped launch Obama in the political arena by raising seed money when he entered politics, and in addition, the Obama and Khalidi families maintained a close social interaction over a long period.

This relationship, combined with Obama’s unquestioned left-wing and Third World orientation, probably had a major impact in developing his problematic attitude toward Israel and his effective absorption of the Arab narrative.

THERE ARE therefore grounds for concern that Israel will continue to face difficult times with this administration.

The only question is how much Obama’s desire to be reelected may mitigate his ideological inclinations.

In this context, it is likely that Biden and Clinton will exert extraordinary pressure to coerce Netanyahu into imposing another settlement freeze. In turn, while seeking to retain a problematic and crumbling coalition, Netanyahu will attempt to reinstate the arrangement which prevailed with the Bush administration, limiting construction only outside major settlement blocs.

Whether this will lead to direct negotiations with the Palestinians is questionable. The administration’s outrageous condemnation of construction in exclusively Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem (Ramot and Gilo) only days prior to the congressional elections make it difficult for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations – even in the highly unlikely event that this was his desire.

Understandably, he would prefer the Americans to bully Israel into further unilateral concessions without the Palestinians making any reciprocal gestures. Besides, by avoiding negotiations, his unwillingness or inability to make any compromise is never publicly exposed.

But short of a miracle, with or without negotiations, talks between Israel and the Palestinians will almost certainly fail. Especially with Abbas demanding that the opening benchmark for talks be the offers made to him by former prime minister Ehud Olmert (which he had spurned), despite the fact that they would never have been endorsed or approved by the people of Israel.

When a breakdown does occur, Obama may still seek to impose a solution by calling for a return to the 1949 armistice lines with minor swaps for those areas which are now entirely populated by Jews. He could also stand by passively or even give a wink to the Quartet to endorse a Palestinian request to the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state within these borders. Aside from the chaos this would engender, compromising on defensible borders could have existential implications, which no Israeli government could accept.

If Obama persists and continues to attempt to ruthlessly bend Israel to his will or unleashes the Security Council against us, the government and the principal opposition party, Kadima, should suspend short-term political in-fighting and act in the national interest by attempting to identify red lines behind which they would unite.

Cynics may dismiss this as inconceivable, but the existential threat posed by the extreme measures contemplated by some sections of the global community is so palpable that our very future is at risk. If our politicians feel even a modicum of responsibility, they must get their act together.

We also need to present a united front to ward off the concerted global efforts to demonize, delegitimize and boycott us.

The most positive element in our difficult situation is the innate decency of the American people who, as indicated by recent surveys, continue to support Israel. However, we must not take this support for granted, and should intensify our efforts to present our case to the people, knowing that unless Obama has a miraculous lastminute change of heart and adjusts his policy, we must gird ourselves for a long, tough struggle.

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