Been There, Done That
Let's hold the applause. Obama's trip to Israel was nothing new.
Forgive me if I don’t join the parade currently marching down Constitution Avenue.
Barack Obama’s recent trip to Israel was indeed a brilliant success. Low — or perhaps more precisely, no — expectations helped. Had it occurred earlier, we might have avoided the soap opera that has passed for U.S.-Israeli relations during the president’s first term.
Powered by terrific speeches and wonderful visuals, Obama succeeded in recasting his image in Israel — and America too — as a genuinely pro-Israeli leader. He even managed to convert his press availability with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a more relaxed event, which could have convinced the casual observer that these two men actually like one another.
But before we get sucked down the rabbit hole into some wondrous Middle Eastern fantasy world, let’s take a collective deep breath. Until we have a lot more information, it might be better to see the president’s inaugural visit to Israel as more about managing old business and checking boxes than as a determined leap into the wonderful world of two-state diplomacy.
A woman I met at the Baker Institute in Houston last Friday got it right. "That Obama isn’t gonna waste a lot of chits on the Palestinian issue," she said, in smart and direct Texas style. Maybe he won’t. But if he does try, he’s going to need a much better sense from Israelis and Palestinians that he has a chance to succeed.
Obama’s no fool. He’s a busy guy with a full domestic agenda. He didn’t make up with Bibi only to go to war with him again over the peace process — unless there’s a real chance to get something big done.
For now, the president’s trip to Israel still has the ring of a "been there, done that" exercise. And here’s why.
Politics: Check the old box
As he began his second term, Obama had a problem he needed to fix. His own naive effort to get Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth had collided with the will of the tough-minded Israeli prime minister. Obama’s detached, emotionless style and Bibi’s previously existing suspicions only exacerbated tensions. These factors combined to produce one of the most dysfunctional pairs in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
That broken personal relationship was both unnecessary and politically harmful. It gave Republicans a hammer to hit the president, made Democrats nervous, and just wasn’t good for business all around — particularly if Democrats wanted a chance to take back the House in 2014. And so, even though presidential visits by sitting presidents are rare –only four of 11 have visited Israel since 1948 — going to Israel early in his term was smart and necessary.
Policy: Manage the new challenges
The trip was smart policy too. Right now the Middle East is as complex, angry, dysfunctional, broken, and impervious to American influence as I’ve ever seen it. Americans are sick of the region and don’t care much about it now, but things can get much worse.
The president needed to get an oar deeper in the water, to manage things as best he can. After all, it’s not 2009 anymore. The clock’s ticking down on Obama’s presidency — before you know it, the reality of lame-duck status will undermine his effectiveness.
As it stands now, in addition to Syria, Obama could be the president on whose watch two catastrophes befall the region. First, Iran could get the bomb, or he could go to war to stop it. Second, the window for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue could slam shut. Whether Obama can actually fix either of these problems isn’t the point. If he’s to have any chance of dealing with them effectively, he needs to develop a much more functional tie with Netanyahu, who will play a central role in each.
That effort began last week, and by all appearances was largely successful. The president clearly bought time and space from Bibi for U.S. diplomacy with Iran, and in not pushing the settlements issue, may have built up some credibility to press the prime minister later on the bigger issues. Orchestrating the call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a nice touch to boot.
Whether Obama’s reset and his newfound popularity in Israel can help convert Bibi to the president’s view of the world — that it’s necessary to use diplomacy with the mullahs and launch negotiations with the Palestinians to promote peace — is an arguable proposition. After all, this isn’t one hand clapping. Israel is only one actor — no matter how vital. There are these other people called Palestinians and Iranians too with their own politics, agendas, and needs.
The affable, even semi-affectionate tone in the Bibi-Obama press conference, as well as the warmth with which the president was received in public, masks some inconvenient truths with regard to the leaders’ policy differences. For instance, if Obama tries to sells the Israelis on a deal with the mullahs on uranium enrichment, he’ll likely find real skepticism.
If he pushes too hard on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, he may well run into open opposition and hostility. No matter how well this visit went, there are fundamental differences between Bibi and Obama on the core peace-process issues — particularly on territory and Jerusalem, where Obama is much closer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover unlike Iran, progress on the peace process could fracture Netanyahu’s own party, bring down his government, and set up another test of wills with the United States.
Obama knows the score, and has seen the movie. The glow in the aftermath of this reset will vanish quickly the harder he pushes Israel on the Palestinian issue. The real issue is this: Is the reset functional? Can Obama work toward a process that brings Netanyahu along without triggering a crisis, and still keep the Palestinians on board?
Right now, it seems like a circle that’s very hard to square. The gaps on the core issues don’t seem bridgeable, at least between Bibi and Abbas. And an Obama maneuver for regime change — using his newfound popularity in Israel to undermine Bibi in hopes of getting a better government — seems pretty fanciful. Is it plausible that Obama made nice to Bibi only to be in a position to push him harder?
And exactly how much is Obama prepared to pile on? If there is a deal with the mullahs on the nuclear issue, the president will need every ounce of persuasiveness to sell it to Netanyahu. And if the United States attacks Iran, he and Bibi will become even more closely aligned if Iran or its proxies retaliate. We’re nowhere near any of this now. But it’s clear that Obama isn’t looking for a fight with Bibi so soon after trying to patch things up. It’s really hard to see Obama getting tough with Israel the way Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush did, particularly after that lovefest in Jerusalem.
The Kerry canary in the coal mine
I’ve said repeatedly that Obama is the most controlling foreign-policy president since Nixon — and he won’t change easily, particularly when he’s convinced his foreign policy has been pretty successful.
But he must, in at least one regard. Specifically, he should let John Kerry actually be in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian brief. The brief should come with two presidential caveats — don’t undo my fledgling reset with Bibi (yet), and don’t demand a lot of time from me (now). The president should tell his secretary of state that he will gladly be available for the guts-and-glory phase of the peace process end game, but Kerry (and his team, which he must be allowed to build) have to set it up.
Give Kerry the mandate. It’s perfect. Let him shuttle. That’s what secretaries of state are for. Indeed, it’s going to take months of conversations, hundreds of hours of meetings, and thousands of miles of travel to even test the proposition that some kind of agreement can b
e reached. And at this stage, it’s no loss for the president so long as Kerry doesn’t undo the reset. If it works, the president will be viewed as a managerial genius. And if it doesn’t, well … it’s John Kerry’s peace process, right?
Success, not domestic politics
People have it wrong. The real reasons presidents get involved in tough issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just because they’re important, but because they think they can actually succeed. It’s not the absence of second-term political constraints, it’s the presence of real opportunity that drives presidential involvement.
The potential for progress is what’s currently missing. Right now, the administration has no strategy — or at least not one that holds a lot of promise. The current approach seems to be pressing for negotiations that lead to a provisional Palestinian state, based on a tradeoff between security for Israel and sovereignty for the Palestinians. Borders first, so to speak — and then negotiation of a more general character on the identity issues, Jerusalem, and refugees.
I’m not critical of this approach, because frankly there doesn’t seem to be a much better one right now. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think it can work quickly, or perhaps at all. It’s a very pro-Israeli approach, in that it calls for direct talks without preconditions, says nothing on settlements, and doesn’t include a timeline to resolve the final status issues. And it really does presume an enormous amount of trust between Netanyahu and Abbas, which currently doesn’t exist.
The answers to all these uncertainties will come in the weeks and months ahead. But one thing is clear: This president isn’t going to repeat the mistakes of his first term — setting goals he can’t deliver, pursuing a settlements freeze, and having pointless fights with Netanyahu over issues that won’t make him an historic peacemaker. Hopefully he won’t be fooled into thinking that successful telephone diplomacy between Bibi and Erdogan means he’s got a career as a Middle East negotiator.
Obama doesn’t want to be the American president on whose watch the two-state solution expires. But he won’t rush to be its midwife either, without a much greater sense that he can succeed.
So, Israelis and Palestinians, take notice. You want the president to help produce a two- state solution? Give him a reason to believe you have a real stake in one too. Otherwise, stop whining: Barack Obama has more important things to do.