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Monday, June 29, 2009

Obama's exercise in futility

Writing in Sunday's Washington Post, David Ignatius - not a huge supporter of Israel by any stretch - points out the flaw in the Obama administration's pressure on Israel for a 'settlement freeze':
The White House believes that if it comes to a showdown, Netanyahu will compromise. His coalition government, the administration reasons, is too weak to sustain an open break with its key ally, the United States. If Netanyahu defies the United States, his coalition will splinter. The administration is already talking with Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and defense minister, who might form a new government if Netanyahu falls.

It's a hardheaded strategy, but it has one big flaw: The Obama team is assuming that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations -- which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions. But that hope appears to be misplaced.

"What will I do in exchange for a settlements freeze? Nothing," says a senior Arab diplomat. "We're not interested in confidence-building, or a step-by-step approach," he continues. Instead, the Arabs would like Obama to spell out the details of a final agreement, now. "Unless we define the endgame, this will be a road map to nowhere," the Arab diplomat argues.

A settlements halt would produce some limited Arab response. Trade or diplomatic contacts might be revived by countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and others. But Saudi Arabia, the Arab kingpin, probably wouldn't offer major concessions until the negotiating process was further along.
Ignatius is correct about the Arabs doing nothing. But he's way off about two other points in this column, one of which appears in the quote above.

If the Obama administration believes that Ehud Barak is capable of forming a government, they've really misread the situation here. Labor got 12 seats in the Knesset. Half the MK's aren't really part of the coalition. Barak may be thrown out as party chief when they next have primaries - they are required by their constitution to hold them within 14 months after losing an election. He can't even control his own party, let alone form a government. Netanyahu wanted Barak personally as defense minister because that's what the coutry wanted, and because it placed Netanyahu at the center of his own coalition. But we've been down the road of Ehud Barak as Prime Minister from 1999-2001 and it was a disaster. Especially in the current environment in Israel, there is no way Barak is going to be Prime Minister in the foreseeable future even if the US cuts relations with us altogether. Tzipi Livni will be Prime Minister before Barak will - if she still has a party to lead into a coalition.

The other point on which Ignatius is way off - as is most of the American media - is the perception that Rahm Emmanuel somehow has extra credibility here because his father was in the Irgun - Zev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin's militia from which the Likud party was largely spawned. As Ignatius and many others in the American media put it:
An influential hawk on the issue is Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a former member of the House Democratic leadership. Emanuel has special credibility as a strong defender of Israel's security. His father was born in Jerusalem and was a member of the militant underground organization known as the Irgun.
Emmanuel may be very valuable to Obama as someone who 'understands' Israelis, but Israelis have no special regard for him. He has lived in the US for more than thirty years but visited family here in the summers when he was younger. That gives him no special credibility.

As to the repeated claims that Emmanuel is 'special' because he came here to volunteer during Gulf War I, hundreds of Americans did the same thing (I remember planeloads leaving from New York that were chartered by Yeshiva University) and over the years, thousands of Americans have come here to volunteer back in the days when Israel was what mattered most to American Jews.

Emmanuel is not Bibi Netanyahu who returned to Israel and served in the most elite combat unit after growing up in America. Emmanuel is a cheap imitation who packed doggie bags for a couple of weeks during the Gulf War. No one gives Emmanuel any special credibility here. Even his own father has criticized him for the Obama administration's positions on Israel.


Reader Danny A expands on my quip comparing Rahm Emmanuel with Bibi Netanyahu:
I would suggest that it should be obvious by now that we're seeing an instance of "the personal as political" writ large: Rahm Emanuel envies Binyamin Netanyahu, and is thus driven to mount an attack on Bibi to assuage his own feelings of comparative shortcoming.

It must drive Rahm to distraction to run through in his mind the contrasts between Bibi and himself--to realize that he, Rahm, could never be elected as the leader of his country, could never achieve a popular mandate to unite and protect his people, and indeed achieve this via an improbable comeback from US-imposed (indeed, Rahm-imposed) political purgatory.

The best Rahm could do electorally for himself was a bloody street-fight for the dubious prize of Rod Blagojevich's old Congressional district. Thereafter, he reverted to type as an inside-guy strategist for the national Democratic Congressional Campaign machine, gaining adulation from fellow pols, not the public at large. More of the same ensues now in his Obama White House role.

And of course throw in the other contrasts in background: ballet versus Sayeret Matkal; Sarah Lawrence versus MIT; father as Etzel rank-and-file versus father as secretary to Jabo himself; a brother known as the repugnant real-life basis for the Hollywood agent TV show "Entourage" versus a brother known as an eternal national hero who died so others may live. If he lets himself think about these points, Rahm must really start to grind his teeth. And scheme about how he can bring Bibi down.
I agree with Danny A.

There are more pertinent comments here.


At 1:17 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The Americans have assumed the relentless pressure they've placed upon Netanyahu will lead him to fold and to the break-up of his coalition. What they didn't count on is the prospect of Kadima joining his government which at one stroke, would effectively deprive the Obama Administration of leverage over Israel. The only people in Israel who would support it are Meretz and the Arab parties and they have between them 10 seats. 7 if you count the Labor rebels and that means Netanyahu would have 103 seats in the Knesset.

Obama may be sawing off the limb of the tree he's sitting on with Israel and only 6% of Jewish Israelis support him. Thus, even if he prevails over the settlements, he's not likely to have the political capital to force Israel to proceed with any further steps.



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