Friday, July 03, 2009

Why Obama Is Pressing Bibi On The Settlements--And Why It Won't Work (Updated)

Steve Rosen, formerly of AIPAC, examines what he considers Obama's 'bizarre' insistence over making an issue out of Israel's settlements. He considers what might be motivating Obama--the same "Yes We Can" attitude that has convinced voters that Obama can achieve what has eluded previous leaders, an attitude that even has some in Israel convinced that Netanyahu will not be able to stand up to the US. Part of this thinking is pragmatic, noting that the issue of Israeli settlements does not have the support of the US Congress nor the undivided support of the American Jewish community itself.

Then there is the model for pressuring Israel--former President George H.W. Bush, who pressured then Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir about those same settlements back in 1991. As a result of that pressure, Shamir was voted out by the Israeli voters, Yitzchak Rabin was voted in and the path to Oslo was begun.

That sounds all well and good, but Rosen explains why Obama's calculations--and those who think he has all the cards--are off:

But this comparison is misleading. Obama's confrontation is taking place mere weeks after the formation of a new Israeli government, not months before an Israeli prime minister has to face his voters again. What's more, Israeli voters have elected the most conservative Knesset in Israel's history. The parties of the left -- Labor and Meretz -- had 56 seats in 1992, but they have shrunk to 16 seats today. The real pressure on Netanyahu in today's Israel is from the right. If Obama hopes to invigorate the country's moribund left, he's in for a rude shock: the gains it would need to force either new elections or a different coalition more compliant to U.S. demands are daunting.

Moreover, the hawks have many ways to constrain and compel the prime minister. In fact, Netanyahu is in the opposite position of Shamir. Succumbing to U.S. pressure is the one thing that might bring Bibi down, but keeping the conservatives in his coalition offers him every prospect of serving a full term until the next scheduled Israeli election in 2013. Netanyahu can, and will, say "no" if his only choice is the one the Obama team is now offering: total capitulation.

Netanyahu does have the political strength to reaffirm previous compromises made by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to limit natural growth. This includes the "construction line" principle that would restrict development to infill construction within already built-up areas while preventing further geographic expansion beyond the outer line of existing structures. But the Israeli prime minister does not have the legal authority, let alone the necessary political foundation, to impose an absolute and complete freeze on all construction in all settlements. Few in Israel are prepared to freeze construction in the "blocs," today primarily those on the Israeli side of the security fence, that the Clinton administration anticipated would be annexed to Israel as part of a land swap creating a Palestinian state. Nor does Netanyahu have either the legal authority or the support of the public to ban Jewish housing inside the juridical boundaries of Jerusalem, on land that might have been outside Israel's borders before 1967 but was formally annexed to Israel a quarter century ago by the Jerusalem law of 1980.

The Obama administration would be smarter to play a more nuanced game and make the distinctions it is avoiding. Only a minority of Israelis support construction of housing in outlying settlements beyond Israel's security fence, but construction in the blocs and especially in Jewish communities in Jerusalem is supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public and all the major political parties. Absolutist demands for a total freeze may win applause in the United States even from some in the U.S. Jewish community, but they go much too far to succeed in the real world.

Read the whole thing.

Of course, after putting pressure on Israel so forcefully, Obama can hardly back off without losing face with the Arab world--so soon after the Cairo speech.

Then again, we have seen that for Obama, flip-flopping on important issues does not exactly go against the grain--nor for Netanyahu, for that matter.

At some point, someone is going to have to blink.

UPDATE: Former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Zalman Shoval says there are signs of a slight change in the Obama administration’s approach to the issue:

“I have just returned from a series of important and interesting talks with leaders in Washington,” Shoval told Arutz-7’s Hebrew newsmagazine, “including heads of the previous administration, such as former National Security Council head Stephen Hadley and Elliott Abrams. They all confirmed what was publicized this week, that there were understandings between the Bush Administration and Ariel Sharon [that Israel could continue settlement construction after the Disengagement from Gush Katif – ed]. They even drew the maps for me, and I am certain that the Obama administration knows these facts too.”

Shoval said that there is a willingness in Washington “to find solutions for the mini-crisis that has arisen on the matter of settlements. The Americans realize that this dispute has grown out of proportion, and that there are more important things than the settlements – for instance, the recent events in Iran.”

Of course, compromises will still require concessions from Israel--and even in the case of temporary concessions, their temporary nature can easily become forgotten. Considering the memory of the Obama administration, that is a real possibility.

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