Obama's Charm Isn't Enough to Convince a Skeptical Israeli Public

No matter how charmed the Israeli public is by Obama's visit, Israelis remain unconvinced that making major concessions will buy any real closure to the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially at a time when a hollowed-out American military can't ride to the rescue if everything turns sour.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

It was encouraging that Aluf Benn's homily to Israeli leftists stated clearly that they would be best advised to convince the Israeli voter to win the debate over Israel's future borders, rather than invest their hopes in a knight errant or errant knight from the U.S. to do the job. If this advice would also translate into diminishing efforts by the left to unfairly incite world opinion against the settlement project, it could indeed usher in a new era in Israel's internal debate. Even those who oppose the Israeli peace camp would then at least take its democratic protestations more seriously. Benn's prescription is sustained by a realistic perception of Obama's current capabilities.

Barack Obama - to appropriate the term from American relations with Russia - is looking for a 'reset' in his relationship with Israeli public opinion and with Israel's political leadership. Even those, like myself, who favored Mitt Romney last November, welcome such a reset, because we want Israel to enjoy cordial relations with any and all American presidents, as well as bipartisan support in Washington. However, analysts such as Martin Indyk in his recent piece are simply dead wrong if they believe that it's enough if Obama convinces the Israeli public that he is as much of a haver as Bill Clinton. Once convinced of Obama's bona fide, continues Indyk's argument, Israeli public opinion will turn on a "recalcitrant" Israeli Prime Minister.

But we are no longer in the optimistic Clinton era that provided a tailwind for Oslo, but in much more pessimistic times. If the president expects, pace Indyk, that once he has convinced us of his sympathies then he can pick straight up from where Clinton left off in Camp David, he is in for a fall. Obama will be constrained by both American and Israeli domestic opinion.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than by this week's Washington Post/ABC poll that showed that American public strongly supports a policy of downsizing U.S. military commitments abroad, as well as the 'leading from behind' policy that the Obama administration has itself fostered. A massive 69% of the poll's respondents, when asked about the peace process, favored letting the regional players - Israel and the Palestinians - take the lead. That strategy, by the way, proved itself as a formula for success in the historic negotiations with Egypt, and in the early phase of the Oslo process, but this is beside the point, because it's not because of these precedents that public opinion is against greater intervention.  Americans simply do not want to take the lead on regional peacemaking because their good deeds in the Muslim world have never gone unpunished. For example, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel lands in Afghanistan and is upbraided by President Hamid Karzai for conniving with the Taliban, this does not precisely encourage interventionism. Americans are also astute enough to realize that peacemaking, like military intervention, carries a price tag.

The yawning gaps in the negotiating positions of Israel and the Arab parties have traditionally been bridged by American sweeteners and guarantees to Israel.  American public opinion, even if preponderantly sympathetic to Israel, recoils from further military involvements and increasingly questions the need for foreign assistance. Charles Krauthammer once could famously reassure Israelis that, "This time the Roman Empire is on your side".  America, unfortunately, is no longer capable or willing to impose a Pax Americana, any more than fifth-century Rome was capable of imposing a Pax Romana.  

Hopefully, unlike the precedents of Rome or Great Britain, the American decline is reversible. However, the idea that military guarantees and military and financial assistance can compensate Israel for taking strategic risks is rendered more questionable than previously, because it bucks the current trend in American policy. For example if American defense spending on procurement declines drastically, how can the U.S. provide Israel with a qualitative edge via weapons sales? Similarly can a hollowed-out American military ride to the rescue if everything turns sour?

The notion that a friendly Obama can revive the Israeli peace camp is merely a variant of the very argument that Benn cautions against. Israeli public opinion did not reject a return to the 1967 ceasefire lines during Obama's first term because Obama appeared hostile and forbidding, but because they believed he was wrong. As long as the Israeli public remains unconvinced that, through major concessions, Israel can 'purchase' closure to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the friendly disposition of the American president remains a secondary factor.

To appreciate what it is up against, the Obama Administration would be advised to drop its preoccupation with Benjamin Netanyahu or even Naftali Bennett. The man who personifies the tidal change in Israeli public opinion is the new defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon.  A product of Israel's Labor Movement subculture, Ya'alon - who prioritized peace and security over territory - originally backed Oslo. He turned against the Accords once he became convinced that it was merely a stepping stone in Arafat's staged strategy to liquidate Israel. If circumstances changed, Ya'alon would give peace another chance - although the Arabs should not expect the same generous territorial settlement that was on offer decades earlier.

This means, however, that we need a reformatting rather than a reset. Instead of looking in Israel for vanished peace opportunities under the proverbial lamppost, Obama must steel himself to prodding the Arab side.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport. Credit: GPO

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