Obama is setting a precedent for Israel

By Jonathan Tobin, April 1, 2010
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Obama: Wants to weaken Netanyahu to prevent an attack on Iran

Obama: Wants to weaken Netanyahu to prevent an attack on Iran

President Obama's foreign policy team came into office in 2009 determined to distance themselves from Israel. This was due in part to their inclination to change everything that the Bush administration did as well as their belief that a more "even handed" approach really could jump start the peace process.

This determination to cool things down with Israel was strengthened once Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition won in the elections held only a month after Mr Obama's inauguration.

In the following months, a ginned-up dispute about settlement construction gave Mr Obama the opportunity to set a different tone, a perception that was strengthened by his Cairo speech to the Muslim world. Indeed, it soon became clear that one of Mr Obama's goals was to undermine PM Netanyahu.

His reasoning was that Mr Netanyahu must either bend to his will or lose office as the Israeli public demanded that the Americans be obeyed.

But Mr Obama's decision to try to force the Israelis to stop building not only in the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well was a mistake. Mr Netanyahu's defiance of the ban on construction in his country's capital was popular. Rather than being chased out of office, his government gained strength.

Mr Obama also soon learned that his optimism about the peace process was based on ignorance of the realities of Palestinian politics. Having already rejected a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem in 2008 when it was offered by Ehud Olmert, there was no reason to believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's calculation that signing such a deal was any less suicidal in 2009 than it was then.

With Hamas still in control of Gaza, the chances of success in the peace process were - and are - less than nil, no matter what concessions were forced upon the Israelis by Mr Obama.

While Mr Obama may now be more realistic about the Palestinians, he is still eager to clip Mr Netanyahu's wings and to lessen the pressure on Washington to take action on the real threat to the Middle East: Iran's nuclear programme. Thus the disproportionate reaction to a badly timed announcement of new Jewish housing construction in east Jerusalem is not so much a question of anger over the perceived insult to Vice President Joe Biden as it is an opportunity to have another go at Mr Netanyahu.

The political consequences of this choice for both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama have yet to be determined. But there can be no doubt that Israel's alliance with the United States has been badly shaken by Mr Obama's strategy.

This is bad for Israel but it is worse news for the region. That is because if Israel is now perceived as being isolated it may lead the Jewish state's foes in Ramallah, Gaza and Tehran to think the time is right for another round of bloodshed.

Jonathan S Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine

    Last updated: 12:39pm, April 1 2010