Peace processor Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy says let’s call the whole thing off. The peace process is now a false religion. The United States is too weak, and the parties too intransigent, for any of the great things that the peace process produced in the past to happen today… (I’m chuckling). He has some sharp thoughts on Obama’s weakness, visavis the lobby, sorry, domestic political considerations, and on the problem he identified so long ago, being Israel’s lawyer.
The pro-Israel community in the United States has a powerful voice, primarily in influencing congressional sentiment and initiatives (assistance to Israel in particular), but it does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy. Lobbies lobby; that’s the American way, for better or worse. Presidents are supposed to lead. And when they do, with a real strategy that’s in America’s national interests, they trump domestic politics. Still, domestic politics constrain, particularly when a president is perceived to be weak or otherwise occupied. This president has been battered of late, and his party is likely to face significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. Should there be a serious chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, he’ll go for it. But is it smart to risk trying to manufacture one? The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure…
America is Israel’s best friend and must continue to be. Shared values are at the core of the relationship, and our intimacy with Israel gives us leverage and credibility in peacemaking when we use it correctly. But this special relationship with the Israelis, which can serve U.S. interests, has become an exclusive one that does not. We’ve lost the capacity to be independent of Israel, to be honest with it when it does things we don’t like, to impose accountability, and to adopt positions in a negotiation that might depart from Israel’s. It’s tough to be a credible mediator with such handicaps.
Fighting with Israel is an occupational reality. It’s part of the mediator’s job description. Every U.S. president or secretary of state who succeeded (and some who didn’t) had dust-ups, some serious, with Israel. (Remember how Bush 41 and Baker used housing loan guarantees? In 1991, the United States denied Israel billions in credit to borrow at reduced interest rates because of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s determination to build settlements.) But the fight must produce something of value — like the Madrid conference — that not only makes the United States look good but significantly advances the negotiations. In short, we need a strategy that stands a chance of working. Otherwise, why would any U.S. president want to hammer a close ally with a strong domestic constituency?
And this was the problem with Obama’s tough talk to Israel on settlements. Not only was the goal he laid out — a settlements freeze including natural growth — unattainable, but it wasn’t part of a broader strategy whose dividends would have made the fight worthwhile. Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won’t work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough. That a tough-talking Obama ended up backing down last year when Netanyahu said no to a comprehensive freeze tells you why.
And that remains the president’s challenge after the Biden brouhaha over housing units in East Jerusalem. In the spring of 2010 we’re nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we’re in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again. And even if the president manages to extract something on Jerusalem, the chances that Netanyahu will be able to make a far greater move on a core issue, such as borders, will be much reduced.