Does Obama understand Israeli politics?


In an article criticizing the Israeli left for not putting public pressure on the Israeli government to agree to a settlement freeze, Aluf Benn in Haaretz writes that President Obama and his administration made mistakes, too:

First, Obama did not try to communicate with the Israeli public and convince them that freezing settlements will be an important and positive step to contribute to peace and a better future. Obama addressed the Arabs and Muslims, but not the Israelis. His neglect increased concerns among Israelis that they do not have a friend in the White House.

When the president is "Hussein," he is perceived as being pro-Arab and picking on Netanyahu. The administration’s pathetic attempt to deny the existence of understandings with Israel on construction in the settlements only bolstered this impression. It was possible to blame Israel for violating its promises, or to say that the policy had changed and to explain why, but not to lie. …

Third, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Israel strategist, adjusted the administration’s policy to the situation in Congress in an effort to twist the Jewish lobby’s arm. He knew there are no major supporters on the hill for "natural growth" in the settlements, and that it would be easy to pressure Netanyahu with the demand for a freeze, which would leave the prime minister without allies in Washington. But Emanuel ignored the Israeli political scene, and it appears that the administration lacks "eyes and ears" in Jerusalem. The recent appointment of Dennis Ross at the White House will put an expert on Israeli politics near Obama. Will he listen to his advice?

The Jerusalem Post’s Shmuel Rosner notes the Benn article and suggests that "we have to assume one of two things":

1. The Obama administration doesn’t understand Israeli politics, and doesn’t recognize that its public policies – while possibly helpful with the Arab world – can hardly make Israelis feel secure and ready to cooperate with the President, no matter how often he says that his commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.

2. The Obama administration doesn’t care about Israeli politics and Israeli public opinion, and is ready to sacrifice the good will of Israelis in exchange for (presumed) better relations with the Arab world.

In either case – as I’ve demonstrated a couple of days ago – the administration should take into account that it doesn’t have any track record with which to calm Israelis. It’s true that the Israeli public wasn’t happy with PM Netanyahu’s tendency to quarrel with the Clinton administration in the mid 1990’s. But this was a different situation: by the time Netanyahu was elected, Clinton was already a "great friend", and most Israeli recognized that his intentions (even when they didn’t like some of his actions) were good. Another difference: In the Nineties a significant number of Israelis still believed that peace with Palestinians was possible. They could see why some American pressure might be helpful in the long run.

For Obama, life with Israelis is more complicated. He started pushing immediately, without gaining the confidence of Israelis first. And he is pushing even though it is clear to the vast majority of Israelis that freezing the settlements will not bring about peace or security.

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