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Obama and Israel: a new hope

The signs after Barack Obama’s inauguration were all in favour of the pro-Israel lobby. But the signals of the past few weeks have caught Tel Aviv off guard.

Last week, sitting in a downtown hotel bar with a representative of Americans for Peace Now and Hagit Ofran, head of the Settlement Watch project in Israel, I found myself buoyed by a strange sense of optimism.

Gatherings of US peace activists in recent years have been marked by an underlying despair about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Even at the peak of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign of hope and change, few US peace activists expected any significant shift of US policy on this front. Indeed, Obama seemed eager to separate his support for engagement with Iran and his opposition to invading Iraq from his views on Israel. He touted his ties to pro-Israeli hawks such as Dennis Ross, the adviser to Hillary Clinton and former Middle East envoy, distanced himself from critics of Israel, and offered such reassurances as “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided”. Five months into the new administration, however, this has proved an area in which change has been surprisingly decisive – surprising enough to have caught the Israeli government and its allies in the US off guard.

Change by stealth?

There was no sign of this change in the post-election transition process. Hillary Clinton, who as senator from New York had staked out extremely pro-Israel positions, was made secretary of state. Robert Gates, George W Bush’s secretary of defence, was kept in place. As these secretaries began staffing their offices, many foreign policy hands who had supported Obama began to fear that they were being frozen out. People who’d spent more than a year working to put him in the White House began complaining to me that there seemed to be room on the president’s national security team for all kinds of people except his own supporters.

It now seems that while Obama was alarming some of his fans, he was also lulling his opponents into a false sense of complacency. In the past couple of months, he has adopted a tough stance against Binyamin Netanyahu’s government and his approach has flummoxed the pro-Israel lobby.
The first major sign of change came at a meeting of the lobby’s flagship organisation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), on 5 May. The annual gathering attracts big-name politicians from across the political spectrum and this year’s session was no exception. But the message from some of the most influential Democrats did more than attempt even-handedness.

“Israel must work toward a two-state solution,” said Vice-President Joe Biden, “not build settlements, dismantle outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement, access to economic opportunity and increased security responsibilities.” Senator John Kerry went further, hailing the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as an important step and arguing that “nothing will do more to show Israel’s commitment to making peace than freezing new settlement activity”.

Under pressure

This push for a settlement freeze rapidly moved to the top of the US-Israeli agenda. Initially, peace campaigners weren’t sure what to make of the remarks. Officially, the US has long opposed settlement activity, but it has typically winked at rampant violations. The speeches were provocative, especially given the setting, but lacked a clear policy message.

It seems the Israeli government was similarly confused. Having expected that follow-up inquiries with legislators on Capitol Hill would reassure him that there was no real need to change anything, Netanyahu was surprised to learn that the administration meant what it said. Foreign Policy magazine’s Laura Rozen quoted him as complaining, “What the hell do they want from me?” in response to Clinton’s solid message of support for a settlement freeze, and congressional Democrats – including stalwarts of the pro-Israel lobby such as the New York congressman Gary Ackerman – fully backed the president.
Obama and Netanyahu are now engaged in an international staring contest to see whose political position will become untenable first. No Israeli prime minister who can’t effectively manage the relationship with Washington lasts long, but Netanyahu hopes to bring enough domestic pressure to bear on Obama to force him to back down before he himself has to.

So far, Obama is winning. Spines were stiffened on the Hill by a briefing from Settlement Watch’s Ofran, who set out the need for a loophole-free settlement freeze policy. She told me she was pleased with the response, and peace activists have found the administration’s recent appointments to mid- and low-level national security posts more sympathetic to their cause.

The new approach has yet to have much of an impact on the ground in the occupied territories, but it has pushed Netanyahu to seek to soften his image in the US with a conciliatory-sounding speech. And Obama’s administration understands that words rather than deeds are what is needed from Israel. Republicans, led by Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, are trying to use the issue against Obama, helped by leaders such as Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, an umbrella group that purports to speak for Jewish Americans. And yet, on 16 June, the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest organisation of synagogues in America, adopted a resolution backing Obama, condemning the “destructive impact of the settlements” in the occupied territories and calling on Israel to freeze settlement activity unconditionally.

With substantial elements of the Jewish community supporting Obama, the president’s position appears secure. And that means Netanyahu’s isn’t. Many hurdles stand between here and a binding peace deal, but for the first time in years America has a president willing – and able – to push Israel to make crucial concessions.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow of the Centre for American Progress