Does Obama mean what he says about Israel and the two-state solution?

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Is the Barack Obama administration planning a serious push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that could produce some real pressure on Israel, not just the usual wrist-slapping on issues such as settlements?  And could that ignite genuine conflict with the new right-of-center government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
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That’s what more and more Jewish leaders are quietly asking as the new administration  displays a boldness on multiple fronts few predicted.

The conventional view among pro-Israel leaders  – that while administrations may talk a good game about issues like freezing settlement expansion it’s mostly talk, and no president  wants to do battle with the pro-Israel establishment  – is looking shakier by the day.

Last month Obama said “the status quo is unsustainable,” and he sounded like he  meant it. For many pro-Israel leaders the status quo is just fine because it means there is no need to confront politically explosive issues such as Jerusalem – issues that divide the American Jewish community as well as the Israeli public.

This week George Mitchell, the tough, persistent special Mideast envoy, was in the region sounding out the parties and meeting with a new Israeli government led by a prime minister who can’t get himself to utter the phrase “two state solution.”  You could almost hear the stirrings of anxiety from Jewish leaders who may support that goal in theory but who fret a lot about pressure on Israel and worry that pressure could come before the Palestinians get their political house in order and become the ideal negotiating partner that many now believe they must be before Israel starts talking seriously.

This week Israel Policy Forum Washington director MJ Rosenberg reported that President Obama is determined to help create a Palestinian state during his first term.

Some of that may be wishful thinking for Rosenberg, an outspoken supporter of aggressive U.S. action to press for an agreement, but it reflects a growing sense among many Jewish leaders that this administration may really mean what it says about a two-state solution – unlike the Bush administration, which said it was a priority but never acted like it was.

A lot of that angst comes from a growing sense this administration seems unusually willing to take chances and buck Washington’s conventional wisdom – on Cuba, on Iran,  on a broad domestic agenda.

Might that also extend to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate?  More and more, this is looking like an administration determined to take full and quick advantage of President Obama’s unusually strong popularity, and it’s not unreasonable to think that extends to the Middle East conflict.

There’s another factor: this administration, more than any previous one, is listening to voices in the Jewish community that say the major pro-Israel groups, which can be expected to do battle against  anything perceived as pressure on the Israeli government, are not representative of the broader Jewish community, which, some polls show, favors  stronger U.S. action in the region and may not be averse to pressure on the Jerusalem government to achieve a settlement.  (Today’s Washington Post has a story on J Street, the new pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, that reads like it could have been written by the group’s own flacks)

Does this mean the administration is set on a policy and is ready to move forward aggressively? I don’t think so, not yet.

But it means it is looking at a wider range of possibilities than most analysts predicted, and that it may be much more willing to defy some longstanding political assumptions and take risks to accomplish its goals.

It may mean administration officials are looking beyond what have become givens in pro-Israel activism  – like the “given” that Israel lacks a viable negotiating partner, especially since the Palestinian leadership remains divided.

It also means they may be looking at a different playbook when it comes to the possible response of the American Jewish community to any bold moves on their part.

Will the American Jewish community, and not just AIPAC and other major pro-Israel groups, rise up in protest if the administration decides to push Netanyahu hard?  J Street and other dovish groups say no; major Jewish leaders say yes. It will be interesting to see who’s right.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.