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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bad time for a fight for Obama

Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk lists three reasons why - in his view - Prime Minister Netanyahu may have felt that he could get away with 'humiliating' Vice President Biden by announcing the construction of 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo while Biden was here.
First, Obama lost the Israeli public by convincing them—through his Cairo speech and customary cool—that he wanted to distance the United States from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arab World. For the first time, Netanyahu found himself in the unusual position of being more popular at home than the U.S. president (Clinton and Bush enjoyed 70-80 percent public approval ratings in Israel).

Second, the Republicans have started making a comeback in Washington, raising the possibility of using Congress to constrain the president. That was something Netanyahu deployed to considerable advantage once Clinton lost control of the House to the Israelis' close friend Newt Gingrich. He probably savors the opportunity to do it again.

Third, Obama purposely delinked the peace process from Iran, making clear to Netanyahu that, despite their deep differences over settlement activity, they would be completely coordinated on the strategic issue of curbing Iran's nuclear program.
While I'm not sure that Netanyahu actually set out to 'humiliate' Biden, the first two claims that Indyk makes are unquestionably true and are Obama's own doing. In other words, if they led Netanyahu to humiliate Biden, that's Obama paying for his own mistakes. The third point is something that the American people likely would have forced any President to do if he hadn't done it on his own. Linking progress with the 'peace process' to helping to protect Israel from Iran is blatantly wrong from an American domestic perspective no matter how you slice it.

But Indyk could have added a fourth reason why Netanyahu felt he could get away with 'humiliating' Biden. As Indyk's fellow peace processor Aaron David Miller points out, Obama can't really afford to respond. He's got much bigger fish to fry.
But don’t bet on America hammering the Israelis. The last thing this president needs now is a fight with Israel.

Obama has no Middle East policy without the Israelis. As frustrated as the president and vice president may be with Israel, any chance Washington has of moving negotiations forward requires Israeli cooperation. And the administration does not want to lose its influence with Israel when it comes to Iran — particularly now, with sanctions in the works.

But most important, for this very busy president, the Arab-Israeli issue now has little to do with his stock at home. Frankly, it isn’t even the most important priority in the region.

Obama is presiding over two costly and unpopular wars and a jobless recovery and is on the verge of the endgame on health care. He doesn’t need additional diversions and distractions.

Moreover, Obama now knows the settlements issue is a dog’s lunch. He can’t win — particularly when it involves Jerusalem.

No, the smart money is on Obama’s keeping his powder dry, for now. Odds are that he will focus, instead, on getting the indirect talks launched, while he thinks about how to bridge the gaps on the core issues, including borders, security, refugees and, yes, Jerusalem.


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