A year ago, I wrote a post for Comment is Free expressing my hopes and dreams for an Obama presidency. Most of my comments revolved around the then upcoming Israeli elections. The editors asked the same authors to follow up a year later with an appraisal of Obama’s first year in office. What follows are excerpts of my post from a year ago followed by my one-year appraisal published a few days ago:
…Though Obama campaigned as somewhat of a hardliner on issues like Iran and Jerusalem to ensure support from the Jewish community, I do not believe he will govern or implement policy as a hawk. Nor will he be the anti-Israel pushover imagined by McCain and Jewish Republicans. He will not govern from ideology or even primarily from a sense of altruism. He will be a hard-headed realist trying to hold fast to a set of overarching principles.
…If Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud opposition and until recently the frontrunner in the polls, wins, then it will be a cold day in hell before peace agreements are signed with either the Syrians or Palestinians. In addition, we can expect continuing bellicosity toward Iran (and vice-versa). Certainly an Israeli attack against Iran is in the cards, along with escalating violence toward the Palestinians. One should expect Hamas to forgo its six-month-long truce and return to Qassam and terror attacks.
No matter how deft Obama’s policy is, I don’t see any way he can make progress with the rejectionist Likud in power. No one should make any mistake that Netanyahu is capable to doing a Sharon and becoming a pragmatic moderate when faced with governing (as opposed to campaigning, which always brings out the worst in Israeli politicians). Netanyahu is no Sharon. He is an opportunist and ideologue at the same time, but he is not pragmatic in the way that Sharon was.
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Obama Israeli-Arab Scorecard: A for Vision, C for Execution
Barack Obama earns a grade of A for vision and C for execution on his performance in his first year in office regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. He earns top marks for vision based largely on his magnificent Cairo speech, which was easily the most remarkable public statement any U.S. president has ever made on the subject. But he earns a C for execution because hardly anything voiced in that speech has been translated into concrete accomplishment.
The major element of Obama administration efforts over the past few months has been a settlement freeze, which Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has successfully resisted. The U.S. also made the foolhardy decision to lean on PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to scuttle the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war, for which Abbas took a drubbing in the Palestinian street.
It is beginning to dawn on U.S. policymakers that they may have to jettison the settlement freeze and move directly to final status negotiations. But neither side seems willing to do so.
Israeli leaders are expert in the art of obfuscation and delay—which has been a hallmark of Israeli policy since 1967 (not that the Palestinians don’t deserve their share of blame as well). The current Israeli government is both unwilling and unable to provide any positive leadership toward that end. It seems interested in maintaining the status quo at all costs.
Reluctantly, tough love seems the only answer. The path to an agreement will be massive, coordinated pressure on both sides by the U.S. and its European allies (including Russia). This could involve withholding U.S. economic and military aid to Israel and other forms of temporary sanctions. It could involve a peace agreement imposed on both sides and enforced by international peacekeepers. The reason why such a solution could work is that both sides essentially know the outlines of a final agreement, which has been formulated both in the Clinton talks and the Geneva Accord. Despite knowing, neither side seems able to get to Yes, which may be why the international community has to intercede.
Such an eventuality will make Israel’s supporters howl in protest and, as a supporter of Israel, I don’t relish the prospect either. But nothing has worked thus far, neither moral suasion nor step-by-step negotiation. If I believed Israel had a possible political alternative in the form of a more liberal governing coalition that could come to power and move the process forward, I might say hold off. But given that Ehud Olmert’s last government was a centrist coalition that made no progress on these matters, I can’t say that waiting for Tzipi Livni to take the reins at some future date will lead to better results.
That is why if Barack Obama really wants a peace agreement he will have to be much tougher than he has till now. Instead of the visionary Obama, we need Obama the doer. Results are far more critical than glowing words.