Obama's Pressure Will Backfire / Prof.Eytan Gilboa

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Obama administration is repeating a pattern
of behavior towards Israel that, as in the past, will achieve exactly the
opposite of what was intended. The intense and exclusive pressure on Israel
will result in the hardening of Arab and Palestinian positions, and will
scuttle, rather than initiate, real negotiations.

Barack Obama has already made history by being elected as the first black
president in United States' history and by being the first to bring about a
substantial reform of the American healthcare system. He was elected on the
basis of his promises to change the world order. Obama would like to enter
history as the man who promoted and achieved a comprehensive solution to
the Arab-Israeli conflict, and who brought about reconciliation between
America and the Muslim world. In problematic fashion, he regards Netanyahu
and his government as the main element foiling his initiatives and aspirations.

March 2010 was supposed to be a month of reconciliation and overcoming
misunderstandings and deteriorations in US-Israeli relations. Vice President Joe
Biden’s visit to Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s follow-up visit
to Washington were carefully planned to achieve these objectives. Instead, the
two visits revealed profound disagreements that the two sides have had
difficulty overcoming.

Three recent incidents testify to the troubled relations between the US and
Israel: the speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu to the
annual conference of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, which highlighted the

contradictory views on the building in Jerusalem; the meeting between
Netanyahu and Biden that was described as fraught with disagreements; and
the Netanyahu-Obama meeting that was closed to media coverage and not even
photographed. The only friendly meeting was between Netanyahu and House
speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congress supports Israel, reflecting the strong backing
for Israel and its policies in US public opinion. Congress has already rebuked
Obama for his treatment of Israel in a letter signed by 71 bi-partisan senators in
August 2009.

Although the announcement of Israel’s plans to build in Ramat Shlomo during
Biden’s visit to Israel set off a crisis, the United States exacerbated it. Senior
Obama administration figures, who cannot stomach Netanyahu and do not
trust him, wanted to exploit the crisis so as to improve the conditions for
entering proximity talks, and to show that the US can pressure Israel and alter
its policy.

Upon taking office, Obama sought to renew the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
immediately. He set a timetable of two to three years for reaching a solution
and establishing an independent Palestinian state. This timetable was
determined according to the time frame of the US political system and not
according to the existing conditions in the region. Obama wants an historic
achievement exactly before beginning his re-election campaign, to improve his
chances for victory.

To resume the negotiations, Obama presented demands for concessions from
the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians, and the pro-American Arab states. The
only leader who acceded to the demands, albeit in partial and qualified fashion,
was Netanyahu. In his June 2009 speech at the BESA Center, he accepted the
principle of two states for two peoples. In November-December 2009, he
announced a freeze on construction in the West Bank. In contrast to the past,
which was characterized by winks back and forth between Jerusalem and
Washington on the settlements issue, Netanyahu in fact clarified the limits of
his undertakings and excluded Jerusalem from the freeze. For their part,
however, the leaders of the Arab states rejected all of Obama’s requests for
gestures toward Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to resume
the negotiations. Nevertheless, Netanyahu was the only one to draw harsh
criticism from the Obama administration.

The criticism continued even when, with an eye to his visit in Washington and
seeking to end the crisis, Netanyahu sent Hillary Clinton a letter in which he
again partially accepted American demands for a resumption of the
negotiations. The US demanded the cancellation of the building plan for Ramat
Shlomo, the release of Fatah prisoners, the further removal of restrictions on

movement in the West Bank, and Israeli willingness to discuss final-status
issues in the proximity talks and not only in the direct talks as Netanyahu had

Since Obama has been in the White House, the Palestinian Authority has
refused to renew negotiations with Israel and has set preconditions. Among
other things, the PA has demanded that construction throughout the West Bank
and Jerusalem be stopped and that the negotiations resume from the point
where they ended with the Olmert government. Until more than a year ago, the
building in the West Bank and Jerusalem did not prevent Mahmoud Abbas
from holding intensive negotiations with the Olmert government.

The US demand for a total construction freeze hardened the Palestinian
position. Even when Netanyahu announced a temporary freeze in the West
Bank and the United States welcomed this step, the PA persisted in its refusal to
restart the negotiations and demanded that the United States abide by its
original position. Obama’s policy achieved exactly the opposite of what it
aimed to accomplish. It hardened the Palestinian position and delayed

General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East, has
reported to Congress that the pro-American Arab states are losing their
confidence in the United States because it is unable to bring Israel to the
negotiating table with the Palestinians. The lack of negotiations and a solution
to the conflict makes it hard for the pro-American Arab states to stand beside
the US in stopping the Iranian race toward developing nuclear weapons.
Petraeus added that the lack of a solution enables the radical Islamic terrorist
organizations to recruit operatives and supporters. The inference was that
Israeli policy thereby endangers the lives of American soldiers. These
statements were quoted by Obama’s adviser, David Axelrod, and other
members of the administration. This is a grave assertion which could damage
the US public’s staunch support for Israel.

Patraeus' claims are baseless. Netanyahu criticized them in his speech to the
members of AIPAC. Netanyahu said the situation is exactly the reverse, that
Israel assists the United States in the fields of intelligence, weaponry, and
warfare, and this assistance saves the lives of American soldiers.

Indeed, in the Obama era, American credibility has eroded in the Middle East.
This loss is in no way related to Israel or to negotiations with the Palestinians. It
began, in fact, with Obama’s historic, conciliatory address in Cairo in June 2009.
Arab and Muslim states, friendly and hostile, saw it as a revelation of weakness.
Obama’s credibility was damaged even further by the widening gap between

his declarations about US determination to deny Iran nuclear weapons and the
ongoing failure to achieve that goal.

There is no connection between Islamic terrorist organizations and the state of
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Sunnis in Iraq
are fighting the United States because they view its values and culture as a
threat to Islam and because of the ongoing US military occupation of Iraq and

Petraeus’ statements and the Palestinians’ recalcitrance are among the causes
for the Obama administration’s decision to intensify the dispute with, and the
pressure on, Netanyahu. Obama wanted to achieve better conditions for
opening the proximity talks and to show the Arab states that the United States
is pressuring Israel, and that pressure is bearing fruit. Hillary Clinton made
statements in this spirit after she received Netanyahu’s letter of clarification.
This is apparently the main reason that Netanyahu has had a hard time in

Obama’s approach can succeed only in the short term. In the longer term it will
bring, as in all the previous cases, the opposite of what it seeks. The Palestinians
and the Arabs have long dreamed that the United States will “do the work” for
them; that is, to pressure Israel into accepting their terms for a settlement
without having to make hard concessions themselves. The latest crisis plays
into their hands and will harden their positions. Thus, it is likely to thwart,
rather than improve, the chances for a comprehensive peace settlement.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for
Strategic Studies and an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Permission was given by Prof.Gilboa

Post new comment

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.