Obama Is Changing the Rules of Mideast Pressure

Like a spoiled child, Israel is in no rush to willingly surrender real estate it has held for decades.

It is not hard to imagine what a tumult it would stir in Jerusalem if the United States decided to temporarily ease the pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear program. Or if President Barack Obama ordered a freeze, for the time being, on the sanctions against Syria. God help the U.S. administration if it even considers lifting the boycott on the Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip before the Palestinian group agrees to a two-state solution within the 1967 borders. And how nice that Congress is delaying the emergency assistance package to the Palestinian Authority until a new government is formed in Ramallah, in order to ensure that it's one we like.

International pressure on neighbors has always been a welcome and even essential tool. Without pressure from the outside why would Iran give up, voluntarily, its nuclear capability? If the United States does not pressure Syria to disengage from terrorist groups, what reason does Damascus have to clash with Hamas and Hezbollah? Were it not for the pressure applied by the Reagan administration on the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian National Council would not have declared a cessation of the armed struggle against Israel and would not have adopted UN Resolution 242. Presumably Benjamin Netanyahu will not complain about pressure that the Obama administration might apply against the Palestinians; for example, to push them to recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people.

However, the legitimacy of international pressure comes to an end when it has to do with Israeli interests, or more precisely, with what the politician at the wheel perceives as Israeli interests. Why should the European Union pressure Netanyahu to resume the negotiations on a permanent settlement? Where did this audacity come from, to condition upgrading ties with Israel on the commitment of its government to abide by a two-state solution? What are they thinking? Are we Arabs? When Israel promises the U.S. president to evacuate outposts and freeze settlement activity, it does not need any pressure to keep its promises. In our case, our word counts for something.

Like a spoiled child, Israel is in no rush to willingly surrender real estate it holds and has settled for decades. (A survey by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal and Dr. Eran Halperin found that 53 percent of Israelis consider the West Bank liberated territory and only a minority sees it as occupied territory?.) Even though the threat of Israel becoming a binational or apartheid state increases annually, such pressure is insufficient to make it pull out of the territories. Israeli decision makers have decided to give up the territories only if the price of the status quo, in foreign currency, is much higher than the price they will have to pay in local currency for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of settlers and the division of Jerusalem.

Obama had already announced during the campaign for the presidency that a "friend of Israel" is not, in his opinion, synonymous with being a Likud member. In his first days at the White House he has made clear that whether a two-state solution is acceptable to a Likud government or not, that is the only formula up for negotiation. Moreover, according to Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the establishment of a Palestinian state is considered a U.S. national interest in Obama's eyes. This means that pressure on Israel to end the conflict with the Arabs will certainly not disrupt efforts to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program, and may even contribute to it.

President George W. Bush enjoyed the title "friend of Israel" because he made do with paying lip service to pressure on Israel and passed around documents that lacked teeth. He taught the Israelis that it is possible to behave contemptuously and make a laughingstock of the road map, all the while preserving a most important strategic asset - special ties with the United States. Obama has already managed to alter the rules of the game of the U.S. in the Middle East; everyone, with no exception, is welcome to choose between understandings and sanctions, between carrots and sticks.

The question is not whether Obama will pressure Israel; the pressure is already there. There were times when an invitation to an Arab leader to Washington before an invitation to an Israeli prime minister was considered a serious offense. Once a visit by an American president to a neighboring Arab state, without a promise to also come to Israel, was interpreted as serious pressure.

The repertoire of pressure available to the president of the United States is extensive and multifaceted. It looks like we will have to learn about it the hard way.