WASHINGTON — Before the emergence of the Arab Spring, there was a persistent argument that once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved, all the problems in the Middle East would go away. As the protest movements emerged in the Arab world and as the reformers began to demand democratic change, even the most critical observers admitted finally that the deep-seated demands of the Arab people needed to be addressed, independently of the clear requirement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless, last week in his State Department speech, President Obama once again sought to develop an overriding theme to United States Middle East policy and, implicitly, re-link Arab demands for democratic reforms with solving the Arab-Israeli crisis. As a result, the president appears to have permitted the force and moral power of United States foreign policy to probably derail any true influence that the United States will able to have in changing the constellation of forces for positive change in the region.
At the same time, by consciously articulating publicly for the first time what had been “understood” as U.S. policy in the region for at least 30 years — that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians ought to begin from the 1967 borders, with land swaps — the president dramatically agitated the Israeli government. In turn, he energized significant segments of the American-Jewish community, many of whom were already questioning the strength of the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel.
The president then went directly to the opening plenary session here at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington and tried to massage the message he had delivered on Thursday. His two speeches bracketed the first face-to-face meeting in months between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and preceded Bibi’s own address to AIPAC and his scheduled address to Congress.
The president clearly calculated the need to deliver his first address before a neutral audience at the State Department rather than before AIPAC. He sought to minimize the negative fallout in the Jewish community, and to let Netanyahu know that while private White House talks are one thing, going over his head and appearing before Congress during a time of sensitive discussions was a political game that two could play.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s plan to present his proposed new peace strategy to Congress — while the president was abroad— was also a political maneuver guaranteed to annoy the White House.
So what are the takeaways?
Regardless of efforts on both sides to paper over their differences, U.S. efforts to get the Israeli government to take what it believes to be a very low-level risk in reopening negotiations are not receiving a positive response from the Israelis. Similarly, Israeli requests that the U.S. demand concrete statements and gestures from the Palestinians largely have been ignored.
Whatever the chemistry is between Netanyahu and Obama, it is clearly not getting any warmer. The Netanyahu government has no compunctions about playing political games on the president’s stage, even when meeting with the head of state of Israel’s only reliable friend in the world.
Taking their leads from the Israelis’ reaction and encouraged by critical media coverage of the president’s “1967” speech, pro-Israel activists aren’t holding back in their criticism of the Obama administration.
Obama’s ability to fund-raise within the pro-Israel community is likely to be negatively affected by the events of the last week. Based on informal, random sampling of AIPAC attendees as well as in observing general reactions to speakers and their remarks, the elites and activists in attendance are tending overwhelmingly toward a Republican alternative to Obama. This predisposition —should it hold — will affect engagement, involvement, and financial support for congressional and senatorial races as well.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, came into the AIPAC dinner as the lion tamer, having stood his ground against the president’s perceived slight of Israel’s negotiating posture. In this context he can now, after the fact, make public gestures to accommodate moderate Arab forces. Having had for months, at least, plenty of opportunities to take steps and make moves toward the Palestinian Authority with virtually no security cost and with enormous upside public relations potential, Bibi, after having unnecessarily almost caused a rupture in relations between the U.S. and Israel, moves himself and his nation into the spotlight, and not the Arab reform movement.
U.S. support for Israel remains strong, especially in Congress, despite this week’s contretemps. For close friends in the international arena, however, it certainly seems like a strange way to behave.