Analysis: Is Barack Obama finally learning to be nice to Israel?

By Jonathan Tobin, July 8, 2010

Both President Barak Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled out the stops to show the world that all is well between them this week.

But however much they protested that the US-Israel alliance is as strong as ever, Mr Obama is still convinced that his predecessor's closeness to the Jewish state was a mistake that harmed the prospects for peace.

In response to Washington's cold shoulder, Mr Netanyahu has wisely made concessions, accepting a two-state solution and even a limited settlement freeze.

But this spring, Mr Obama inflated a minor flap over an announcement concerning new housing starts in Jerusalem into a major confrontation with Mr Netanyahu. The Israeli leader was given a public scolding and rude treatment during his visit to the United States in March.

Though it is never in the interests of any Israeli leader to have a public dispute with his country's sole ally, it was Mr Obama who was the loser in this exchange.

Faced with a difficult midterm election this fall, he soon found that the impression that he was not a friend to Israel harmed the Democratic Party's prospects, especially in terms of fundraising.

Moreover, by pitching a fit over Israeli building in an existing Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem, he had effectively painted the Palestinian Authority into a corner. It could not afford to be seen as less demanding of Israel than the Americans.

The sole result of Mr Obama's tantrum was that the "proximity" talks between Israel and the PA were effectively spiked.

Since then, the administration has been at pains to walk away from this debacle and has done much to try to erase the impression that Mr Obama is hostile to Israel. When the rest of the world was abusing Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident, Mr Obama kept quiet. And when Mr Netanyahu arrived for a visit this week, a "charm offensive" directed at American Jews reached its culmination with the love fest at the White House.

But it is unlikely that Israel's troubles with Mr Obama are over.

However much Mr Netanyahu may wish to avoid a confrontation -
specifically by privately agreeing to extend the settlement freeze - nothing he does will ever convince PA President Mahmoud Abbas that it is worth risking his life by signing a peace agreement.

Once the next round of peace talks fails - and it almost certainly will because of the threat to Mr Abbas from a strong Hamas regime in Gaza, as well as the lack of support for peace within his own Fatah faction - the United States and Israel may find themselves squabbling again.

Mr Obama must realise that the obstacle to peace is the inability of the Palestinian leadership to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where the borders are drawn.

Until then, his frustration with Israel will continue to simmer.

The question is whether the President has finally learned that although Israel's enemies long for him to quarrel with Mr Netanyahu, doing so does not bring peace closer - and harms his political prospects at home.

Jonathan S Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine

Last updated: 1:39pm, July 8 2010