December 13, 2012

The Void Between Israeli Settlements and Obama's "Bravery"

In the days following Israel's latest settlement announcement at East Jerusalem's controversial E-1 plan, more than a few media sources on the liberal side of America's Jewish base unleashed a cautiously firm critique of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision-making process. Among them: The Atlantic, New York Times and Economist. Besides the shared frustration with Israel's hawkish premier, their editorials were bound by another common thread of advice on the U.S. front. All would express the need for President Barack Obama to speak louder against Netanyahu and do more to resurrect a peace process that too many have declared dead.

"A braver Mr Obama would this time tell Israel some home truths," The Economist concluded.

Given that Obama's administration has reacted with deceptively tepid concern from lower officials - not a personal and public response - is the President himself acting on strategy or cowardliness? An administration that pulled in an estimated 75% of Jewish-American voters in two elections naturally defends its policy as active and balanced, punching back against all contrary observations, and surface ripples are liable to create this impression. Several administration officials expressed the White House's concern in public, augmenting the scripted answers fed to a hungry press corp.

"I can just tell you," spokesman Jay Carney told inquiring reporters, "that I don't have any specific information about those communications between the Israeli government and this administration. I don't think we could be clearer about our position that we oppose unilateral actions that make the return to bilateral negotiations harder. We oppose Israeli settlement activity and the construction in East Jerusalem. And we're obviously communicating that."

Except the obviousness of what Washington is communicating, and who is doing the communicating, remains blurred. According to Palestinian sources, Jordanian King Abdullah II "conveyed U.S. assurances" to de facto President Mahmoud Abbas that the Obama administration would block the E1 settlement plans from moving forward. This pressure, if real, still comes with a cost - "not starting the Palestinian efforts to join UN agencies" - that has been inserted under Washington's opposition to unilateral actions. The eventual pressure may skimp on the Israeli side as the Obama administration attempts to block Palestinian advances in the United Nations.

The administration has also constructed a second defense that avoids an appeal to morality, and instead focuses on strategy to highlight Obama's policy in the region. According to The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart, a noted White House insider, the administration is testing out a new plan to isolate Netanyahu and thus alter his behavior towards the Palestinians. This plan isn't as "clear" as Carney's description, since the bulk of it has been leaked by anonymous officials nearly two weeks after Israel's announcement.

"And even though the Israelis alerted the White House mere hours before they announced the decision," Beinart reports, "the Obama administration’s response was pro forma and bland. Publicly, Obama himself said nothing. It was the first sign of what senior administration officials predict may be a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Obama’s second term: benign neglect."

In this scenario, the administration hopes that international isolation will force Netanyahu to "shift course and embrace the kind of Palestinian state supported by his predecessor." This policy would theoretically contract European allies to do Washington's dirty work and cut down the individual friction with Netanyahu. Furthermore, Beinart claims that the administration will not appoint a "big name" envoy or initiate another formal round of peace negotiations, believing that Netanyahu would attempt to stall the talks and prevent isolation. Beinart, for good reason, expresses skepticism towards this plan. Fundamentally, the entire process hinges on the assumption that Netanyahu will respond to international pressure, when his past behavior forecasts a stubborn defiance.

He may, as Beinart predicts, simply politicize the issue ahead of an election that his right-wing alliance is currently favored to win.

Obama's passivity stands a higher chance of backfiring than altering the conflict's status quo. Expecting any significant change in Netanyahu's negotiating position or regional perspective, whether pressured by the world or not, is unrealistic. The administration's decision to sit back from a peace initiative also runs contrary to its repeated calls for "direct negotiations," which the White House intends to mediate. This policy will reinforce the status quo by allowing Netanyahu to continue acting as he sees fit, and by allowing the conflict to drift further into a vicious cycle of hostilities without any corresponding movement in negotiations.

Although Netanyahu may relish the opportunity to challenge Obama personally, earnestly standing up to him could disrupt a status quo that shows no current sign of breaking. Failure to confront has reinforced a personal weakness and lack of urgency on Obama's part, giving Netanyahu the continual impression that he can act without real consequence from Washington. The notion of "isolation" is similarly flawed; in the heat of battle, when everything counts most, Obama stood beside Netanyahu as he bombarded Gaza and took a "principled stand" against the Palestinians' observer status in the UN.

The administration is now covering its tracks with media mirages, but cowardliness attributed to politicking and self-interests won't revive the peace process of an entrenched long war.

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