Yesterday, the N.Y. Times published one of those tea leaf articles about presidential politics which can either be suggestive or frustrating depending on whether you believe there’s any substance to the speculations. Pres. Obama has made two rather astonishing statements regarding Israel in the past few days which, depending on how you look at them, may indicate a new-found resolve to get tough on Israel and its prime minister Bibi Netanyahu; or it may be more high-minded bloviating along the lines of the Cairo speech, which sounded good and seemed to signify nothing.
It was just a phrase at the end of President Obama’s news conference on Tuesday, but it was a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement.
When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” he was highlighting a change that has resulted from a lengthy debate among his top officials over how best to balance support for Israel against other American interests.
This shift, described by administration officials who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing internal discussions, is driving the White House’s urgency to help broker a Middle East peace deal. It increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state.
Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
There are two strains that I read in Barack Obama’s political approach: one is playing for time, which is mostly what he seems to have done regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict until now; and then there is keeping your eye on the prize and seeking historic change. If Pres. Obama got frustrated enough that he proposed his own settlement parameters and he got the Quartet and EU on board, along with the Arab League, he would have a winner, regardless of Israeli government intransigence. In fact, I believe that faced with such a wall of support an Israeli government would either acquiesce or be replaced in elections.
When I first read Steve Walt’s portrayal of General Petraeus’ Congressional testimony in which he advanced the ideas in the last paragraph of the quotation above, I knew Obama had a winner. There is no argument stronger than a national security argument and what was so powerful and persuasive about this one was that it took the ground away from the Israel lobby. If American boys are facing down the wrath of Islamic militants at least partially because of the latters’ frustration at the injustice of the Occupation and suffering of the Palestinian people–this is an idea that will resonate with the American people even more than the idea that Israel and the U.S. have “shared values” or Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Body bags trump “common values” every time.
The second titillating statement concerned the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the president urged Israel to sign it:
“Whether we’re talking about Israel or any other country, we think that becoming part of the NPT is important…”
While he hastened to add that this has been U.S. policy for decades, the truth is that no president in my lifetime (as far as I recall) has ever made mention of this issue. The fact that Israel is a non-signatory is a major factor in Iran’s concern about its lack of a nuclear weapon. It realizes that Israel could strike at Iran at any time using its own nukes and Iran would have little recourse. This is a big destabilizing factor not just for Iran, but all of Israel’s neighbors who are without such weapons. Obama’s sensitivity to this issue is a very good sign, even if there’s not much he can do about it right now.
It is, of course, no accident that Bibi Netanyahu was a no-show at the conference attended by forty-seven other countries. He knew that Obama would likely make such a remark and couldn’t bear the idea of it. The fact of the matter is that if Israel wishes to make a stink out of Iran’s supposed thirst for nuclear weapons, the former doesn’t exactly have the cleanest act itself.
Being someone who’s interested in “inside basball” regarding this subject, I found this sentence fascinating and I wonder who the guests referred to were:
Last week, National Security Council officials met with outside Middle East experts to discuss the Arab Israeli conflict.
My money is on Daniel Levy as a sure thing. Not sure about Rob Malley or Dan Kurtzer but they were distinct possibilities along with Aaron David Miller. If you know the answer, let me know.
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- Ron Lauder Doesn’t Speak for the Jews (peacenow.org)