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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Obama's miscalculations

As you might imagine, I am not particularly happy about the upcoming 'settlement freeze,' but it is clear that the 'freeze' is far less than what the Obama administration tried to impose on us back in May. How did that happen? How did Binyamin Netanyahu come out the winner and Barack Obama the loser (even assuming that the 'Palestinians' come back to the table on the basis of what's being offered)? JPost's Herb Keinon explains.
First of all, the initial US demand was completely impractical. It was impractical not only from a political point of view, since Netanyahu, in his government constellation, could not agree to such a demand, but also practically impossible - there is no way that real needs would not be provided for the nearly 300,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line.

Furthermore, the administration misread the Israeli public, thinking that the settlements were enormously unpopular, and that the public would back the US president. The administration confused headlines and certain columns in Haaretz with Israeli public opinion, a public that saw the US demand as unreasonable and rallied around Netanyahu.

Secondly, it became clear with time that there had indeed been agreements with the Bush administration on where and how Israel could continue to build in the settlements, and that the Obama administration was simply tossing those out the window.

This in turn led to criticism and some push-back, not only in Israel, but also in the US, with some asking how the Obama administration could call on Israel to fulfill its commitments, when it itself was not doing the same.

Thirdly, it became clear as time went on that the US was a prisoner to its own demand. Netanyahu said he would not agree to a complete freeze, and that talk about stopping construction in east Jerusalem was completely out of the question, even as the Palestinians - taking their cue from the US's initial statement - threw in a condition that they never had when they were negotiating with Ehud Olmert: they would not start talks until there was a total settlement freeze everywhere.

But with Israel standing firm that it would not freeze everything, the US had to decide whether it wanted to launch a process or not, and if it did, then it would have to agree to some construction.

The fourth element that has led to a change in the US position was Saudi intransigence. Even as Washington was trying to get Israel to agree to a freeze, the Obama administration also tried to get the Arab world - especially Saudi Arabia - to ante up some significant confidence-building measures.
So what's the takeaway here? For Binyamin Netanyahu, it's to stake out a position that will get most Israelis behind him and not to back down against pressure by Barack Obama. Yes, Bibi backed down more than he had to, so perhaps he didn't learn the lesson entirely. But the American people and Congress understand that Israel is a democracy and that if Israelis support Netanyahu, all the Americans can do is to try to persuade.

For Barack Obama, the lesson is never to underestimate an adversary. That's a lesson Obama has had plenty of opportunities to learn in office. Obama thought that either he could walk all over a Netanyahu who would be scared of failing because of the way the Clinton administration got rid of him ten years ago, or Obama thought that he could portray Netanyahu as an extremist and force him to accept Tzipi Livni as a coalition partner (or worse). Obama was wrong on both counts. Some may attribute Obama's inability to force Netanyahu to accept his terms to the fact that Obama has been weakened by the health care controversy in the US, but there's more to it than that. The people who believe that Obama ought to address Israelis directly were right - six months ago. Now, most of us don't want to hear him anymore.

For the 'Palestinians' the takeaway is that if they wait for President Obama to deliver Israel on a silver platter, as Abu Mazen says that he plans to do, he will still be waiting when Obama leaves office. Israelis aren't fools and we are sick and tired of being kicked around by our putative allies. No one is going to deliver us to Abu Mazen or anyone else on any kind of platter.

For the Arab states, the message is that if they want the 'Palestinians' to be accommodated, they have to pay a price. Is the 'Arab street' really seething over the 'Palestinians'? I doubt it. The Arab states may yet decide that the price of a 'Palestinian state' - allowing their populations to be freely exposed to Jewish achievements - is a price they don't want to pay.

In the picture at the top, Obama is looking for a penny he lost on Russian President Putin's carpet. He's also looking for the position of strength on the Middle East that he's squandered in the past eight months.



At 9:52 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Obama overplayed his hand - with his declining popularity in the US, the odds are slim to none he will be able to extract any additional concessions from Israel in the future. And will the Palestinians reciprocate even a partial freeze? Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.


At 10:41 AM, Blogger Findalis said...

Obama underestimated big time. Whoever is advising him is feeding him the wrong information.

1. If you push Netanyahu he will either cave in (like Olmert) or his government will fail (they are expecting it to do so this month). Both wrong. Netanyahu will give in only so much, but Obama demanded the impossible (The Old City to the PA & the US [Read Obama] to have control of the Kotel.). Netanyahu gave a small concession (a 6 month freeze). In return he knows he will get nothing from the Arabs. But to the American people & Congress (who actually control the purse stings), it will look differently.

2. Obama & his advisers are pro-Arab, but the US citizens are pro-Israeli. No matter what Obama does (short of attacking Israel & killing every Jew in the land) his speeches have no real effect on the Muslim world. They serve only to show the weakness of the US & anger the voters back home.

Obama's foreign policy is a joke. It is the exact policy that Carter did, with disastrous results. To the world the US is weak, and appeasing.

If Obama fails to bring peace in the Middle East and/or Iran finally goes nuclear, Obama will go down as a failure.


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