Saturday, September 24, 2011

Obama’s opportunism

Abraham Ben-Zvi

Ladies and gentlemen, a stunning turnaround has taken place. The U.S. president, who began his term in office with a policy that was confrontational toward Israel, is shifting direction. This is directly linked to the upcoming election season. Still, it is Obama’s elasticity that should worry us.

Two decades ago, on Sept. 12, 1991, U.S. President George H.W. Bush convened a news conference during which he broke one of the most firmly established laws in American politics. In an extraordinary display, he bitterly attacked the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Bush’s statements condemning the lobby’s narrow-minded and sectorial-driven views, which he claimed came at the expense of the wider national interests of the U.S., brought back memories of previous confrontational remarks made by aides to President Dwight Eisenhower during the rocky days of U.S.-Israel relations in the 1950s.

As a result of his verbal assault, the first President Bush’s Jewish support dropped from 35 percent (which helped him win election in 1988) to just 11% four years later, which contributed to his defeat to the Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton.

In his adoring and highly effusive speech before the U.N. General Assembly two days ago, U.S. President Barack Obama proved that the lesson of Bush’s defeat is etched deep in his psyche. There is also the possibility that the president, who routinely boasts of the deep knowledge that he has amassed regarding key moments in American history, has resurrected the “reassessment” option of American policy toward Israel, as was done by President Gerald Ford. That episode cast a pall over U.S.-Israel relations in 1975, and the fallout even contributed to Ford’s defeat at the hands of Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter some 18 months later.

After a chill lasting more than two years in the White House’s attitude toward Israel, there has certainly been an about-face in Obama’s conduct. This is due to the fact that the U.S. of 2011 is almost entirely ensconced in election season, one in which the Republicans, who hope to unseat Obama, have come out with sweeping statements of support for Israel while at the same time voicing strident criticism of the president’s policy on the peace process.

The fact that both houses of Congress have initiated legislation against the Palestinian Authority and U.N. institutions over the attempt to attain unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state; and the fact that these actions have garnered bipartisan support contributed mightily to the dramatic turnaround exhibited by the president in his attitude toward the special relationship.

Although a pragmatic course of action that is adjusted according to new political and strategic circumstances often speaks to a willingness to embrace new thought processes and an admirable ability to disengage from the errors of the past, the case before us is starkly one of clear-cut opportunism.

Let us consider that just four months ago, an entirely different set of winds was blowing in from Washington. In a span of three days, Obama redefined his concept of “the 1967 borders” after the blunt, confrontational speech that he gave at the State Department on May 19.

Still, Obama’s decision to exclude any specific mention of this formula in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly brings him back to the days of the election campaign in 2008, when his strong statements of support for Israel smelled strongly of politicking.

From this standpoint, despite the heartwarming gesture and the warm meeting of the leaders in New York, this presidential opportunism should be quite disconcerting to Israel in the long term. Of course, that is contingent on whether Obama will regain the faith of the American public and win another four-year term.

Indeed, a president who is so sensitive to pressures from home could just as easily flip-flop in the other direction when the circumstances change and a window of opportunity opens up, allowing him to make diplomatic moves at Israel’s expense.

Given that Obama’s fundamental worldview is not an outgrowth of the special relationship and does not dovetail with the American narrative, which posits that Washington’s ties with Israel are based on shared moral, religious, cultural and historic values, it would be a mistake to develop far-reaching expectations of this White House despite the warm, affectionate words uttered by the president at the U.N.

Obama is not cut from the same cloth as Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat who completely identified with the Israeli ethos; or George W. Bush, who possessed a deep, unshakeable understanding of Israel’s security needs and dilemmas.

In contrast with these two gentlemen, whose basic policy toward Jerusalem was anchored in affection, an acknowledgment of Israel's strategic utility, and an ideological, social and cultural symmetry that connects the two peoples, Obama’s conduct toward Israel is based solely on cold, calculated analyses of cost-benefit that is devoid of sentiment.

As such, just as he began his term in office by applying pressure on Israel in the initial belief that concessions (particularly the freezing of settlement construction) would give him the leverage he needed to build a strategic and diplomatic coalition of Sunni states, Obama could just as easily return to that forceful, aggressive and adversarial path if he feels that the domestic and international circumstances allow him room to maneuver.

In summary, there is no place for complacency or euphoria despite the warm words of friendship that have been heard lately from the White House. In addition, the base of support that Israel enjoys among American public opinion and Congress continues to be extensive and rock-solid, so much so that it grants Jerusalem a security net. Still, one cannot come to the conclusion that the administration has changed its attitude entirely. Thus, one should prepare for any scenario from this president, and do so in a sober-minded manner that is devoid of illusions.

After all, this is a marriage of convenience from Obama’s standpoint, and not the start of a long-term special relationship.

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