U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Sept. 1, 2010Photo by Reuters
Who says President Barack Obama lacks foreign policy toughness? Just take a look at this astonishing in-depth interview he gave Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg on the future of Israel. The lead paragraph sums up the conversation well:
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House tomorrow, President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. And the president will make the case that Netanyahu, alone among Israelis, has the strength and political credibility to lead his people away from the precipice.
So, in other words, the entire case for Israel’s signing on to a framework agreement is predicated on two bizarre myths:
Jewish democracy is on precipice of disaster
In the interview, Obama warns, like John Kerry before him, that the United States will be unable (though, it sure sounds like he’s intimating the United States should be unwilling) to shield Israel from the harsh repercussions and boycotts that would emerge once it fails to come to an agreement. Because the international community hasn’t been applying pressure for the past 50-plus years? Because there aren’t 131 UN resolutions condemning Israel on the books since 1967? Because Israel isn’t censured as a colonial power by governments across Western Europe every time it builds as much as a cottage in East Jerusalem?
What Obama might not realize is that any backlash Israel faces today is far less threatening and consequential than what it faced in the past. As William A. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection points out:
That pressure was worse in the past than it likely ever will be again. The threats from the international union of thugs, tin pot dictators, and anti-Semites, also known as the U.N. General Assembly, even went so far in 1975 to declare Zionism is Racism, a resolution later rescinded. … The U.S. has the ability to hold off the international mob more so now than in 1975, if it has the willingness. By making such statements, Obama — as John Kerry before him — calls into question U.S. willingness and thereby encourages the Palestinians not to miss another opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.
Here in the United States we aren’t about to start sticking little yellow stars on Israeli-made home carbonation machines. Actually, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, Americans’ sympathies lean toward the Israelis over the Palestinians by a sizable 64 percent to 12 percent margin –- the highest backing for Israel since Gallup began measuring the question in 1988. Administrations and prime ministers come and go, but the natural relationship between the countries does seem pretty unshakable.
As far as European economic sanctions go, those threats typically amount to a lot more haranguing than action. In any event, Israel is more economically resilient today than it was in decades past: less isolated and less reliant on European markets. It’s recently begun trading with China, India, Russia, and Mexico. It’s experienced a booming economy –- even through the worst of the worldwide downturn. Israel has become one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations with deep intellectual capital — plus a capable military to protect it all. There’s no reason to believe that Israel won’t continue to be a liberal democracy, with or without coming to an agreement on the status of the West Bank in the next few years.
Obama can sleep well.
Naturally, peace would be wonderful. But even if Obama had his way, moving forward on a framework wouldn’t save Israel from this impending demographic disaster, either. Israeli Arabs will be no less antagonistic towards their government because the Jews have capitulated on East Jerusalem. And a Judenfrei West Bank, the main goal here, would not make the Muslim world any more eager to embrace Israel’s legitimacy or Iran any less inclined to become a nuclear power.
Israel is standing in the way of a peace agreement
The president’s antagonistic posture is also confusing when we consider that nearly all reports indicate it is Mahmoud Abbas’ stubbornness that’s slowed down the process toward a deal.
A few days ago, Haaretz reported that the Americans, “[a]fter reaching certain understandings with Netanyahu…found they were still far from what Abbas is prepared to accept.” The Israel Times reported that Abbas “exploded with rage” at Kerry over “insane” framework proposals. According to the Jerusalem Post, Abbas objects to language that even recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians believe any concession on the matter undermines the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants — a complete non-starter for self-explanatory reasons, the most obvious being that it would obliterate a Jewish democracy for real. Maybe he’s changed his mind since January.
Judging from history, it’s more than likely Abbas can’t agree to a reasonable framework — much less a final agreement. They always walk away. Israel not only offered to return the West Bank to the Arabs for recognition after the Six Day War, but it has subsequently made numerous attempts to hand back territory for peace. It was Yasser Arafat who famously abandoned the Clinton-Barak agreement that gave him nearly everything, only to choose a bloody Intifada instead. Less known is that Arafat’s disciple, Abbas, a man Obama claims is the most reasonable Palestinian leader Israel may ever see, also walked away from an offer by Ehud Olmert, which would have reportedly given Palestinians control of nearly all the West Bank and would have seen Israel surrender sovereignty of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The truth is that Abbas barely speaks for Palestinians in the West Bank much less all Palestinians. If he did, there would be no negotiations. If he agrees to a deal he’s probably finished.
Yet, Obama says:
That for all that we’ve seen over the last several decades, all the mistrust that’s been built up, the Palestinians would still prefer peace. They would still prefer a country of their own that allows them to find a job, send their kids to school, travel overseas, go back and forth to work without feeling as if they are restricted or constrained as a people.
This statement, as John Podhoretz points out, doesn’t mesh with reality. Palestinians, who live in a society where anti-Semitic conspiracy theories explain all of their societal problems, do not support viable peace agreements. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 53 percent of Palestinians oppose a permanent-status agreement based on either the 2000 Clinton parameters or the 2003 Geneva initiative. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians (76 percent) oppose a permanent solution that includes any transitional period where Israel can defend the Jordan Valley, which is crucial to any agreement. The opposition to these agreements is even higher in the West Bank (82 percent) than in the Gaza Strip (65 percent) where the democratically elected and semi-autonomous government run by Hamas is in a perpetual state of war with Israel.
Want to talk about the precipice? Does anyone believe that Gaza-like rocket fire from the neighboring West Bank would be less consequential to the average Israeli citizen than a boycott of the American Studies Association? What responsible nation would hand over their security to a corrupt, impotent, and brittle Fatah-like government without major guarantees of long-term security? Which citizenry would fault its leader for turning away from such a deal? And what kind of ally would pressure anyone to accept it?
I understand a Mideast deal would bolster Obama’s legacy. I understand every president takes a stab at this. And perhaps this time will be different. But Obama has placed nearly the entire onus of peace on Israel. He acts as if history begins and ends with his presidency — and only this presidency, evidently, can save Israel from itself. “If not now, when?” he asks, echoing Rabbi Hillel in a little bit of pandering. “And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” Well, who knows? Maybe the next prime minister. Maybe no one. What Obama omits is the first part of Hillel’s maxim: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”