Reading the Obama interview

Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama on the eve of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is highly significant, verging on a turning point in US-Israeli relations.

Several points emerge from the interview. First is the implied threat that if current peace negotiations with the Palestinians fail, the US will be unable – read unwilling – to defend Israel. Moreover, it is up to the Palestinians to judge: “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

Declaring “our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited” is not accidental; indeed, Obama repeats it twice. Obama’s statement that “What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally” is not simply a prediction but a prescription. Similar statements by Secretary of State John Kerry in recent months have given European governments and industry the license to begin quietly exploring ways to boycott Israeli industries and corporations, arguably as part of an American strategy to pressure Israel during negotiations. A statement by the US president will be paradigmatic. This alone is a momentous policy shift.

Part of the rationale for pressuring Israel is spelled out, pursuit of a “potential realignment of interests in the region,” the nature of which is unclear, perhaps given that half the Arab states are engaged in civil war. But the key obstacle is: “The only reason that that potential realignment is not, and potential cooperation is not, more explicit is because of the Palestinian issue.” That is to say, Israel.

But the goals behind the interview, published during the annual AIPAC convention in Washington, are also significant and provide additional clarity regarding the administration’s, and the president’s, attitudes towards Israel and much more. Superficially the president’s carefully chosen words appear intended to influence Netanyahu himself. But the mix of praise and condescension (Netanyahu is “smart,” “tough”, and a “great communicator” but “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”) seems more likely to simply humiliate Netanyahu, to degrade him publicly. Either Obama is tone deaf or simply does not care. Both may be the case.

The interview may also appear aimed at the Israeli public, a last ditch call to leave the West Bank and make peace before it is impossible. There is of course a strong case to be made here. But Obama shows no awareness or even interest in Israeli politics, the need or the methods to build the consensus necessary for such a dramatic move. For Netanyahu it would mean alienating the entire Israel right and constructing a new coalition out of weak components, as well as convincing the Israeli public that this is necessary and wise and not caving to an American diktat. Obama’s statement that if Netanyahu were “strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it” defies reality. It is not up to Netanyahu to “decide” then “do” but rather to lead and persuade.

This is characteristic of Obama’s larger mindset – he sees himself and his policies as wise, necessary and above politics. He has, after all, a pen and a phone. In the domestic arena Republican opposition and the normal give and take of democratic politics are depicted as betrayal and heresy. His opponents are troglodytes and wreckers who find themselves, like Netanyahu, the victim of personal vilification as well as the occasional IRS audit.

Netanyahu is obviously not a Republican, but he has been characterized in the same terms and the same breath as the president’s other political opponents. Of course, this petty mindset has now collided with that of a fully professional dictator, Vladimir Putin, a far more obstinate foe than Netanyahu, one whom Obama cannot afford to call names.

But if Obama’s remarks are not aimed at Netanyahu himself or Israel, then who? The answer is specifically non-religious American Jews and the American Left. One clue is Obama’s use of the phrase “how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state” juxtaposed with “permanent occupation of the West Bank.” This is the paramount concern to non-religious American Jews. For the American Left the concern is “U.S. involvement” which, regarding Syria, “would have had the third, or, if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.”

Stoking resentments and calling out enemies are this administration’s stock and trade. Netanyahu’s humiliations at the hands of this administration are unique – left alone while the president goes to dinner with his family, denied photo opportunities, and subjected to a stream of hostile comments and leaks, including the compromise of a key cyberwarfare program aimed at Iran, Stuxnet. So too is his vilification by the captive American press and the network of party organizations (such as the New American Foundation, J Street and others), which have characterized him as a “settler,” an opponent of a Palestinian state, and a warmonger on Iran. One need not be an ally of Netanyahu to recognize these as misrepresentations.

On the one hand these are designed to separate American Jews from their traditional organizations, above all AIPAC. By continually characterizing AIPAC as a right wing, Republican organization rather than a centrist, non-partisan one, and by loudly calling opposition to the administration’s opening to Iran as right-wing war-mongering (above all Netanyahu’s), the goal has been to isolate Jewish support from anything except the new party line and its approved organs. As Lee Smith points out in Tablet, AIPAC was played and then humiliated by the administration for the purpose of demonstrating the organization’s weakness. Confused by this strategy of politicizing support for Israel and subjugating it to a domestic agenda, AIPAC fell into the trap.

More sinisterly, this holds out the threat of labeling Israel and any of its supporters as right-wing war-mongerers. This was the view of the Democratic Party’s left wing before and during the Iraq War. Demonizing anything besides the Obama line on Israel may be an effective way of keeping Jewish opposition in line.

The corollary goal is to break American Jewish power, real and perceived, and to harness what remains to the Democratic Party and the administration. The operative theory appears to be the inverse of James Baker’s legendary remark, “fuck the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.” American Jews will vote Democrat regardless, but Israel’s position has always been exceptional in American politics. This is to be ended.

Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine have shown that the international scene erupts quickly to disrupt domestic agendas. But it is a reasonable prediction that these and other fiascos will prompt Obama to redouble pressure on Israel, particularly by unleashing Europeans, not for the sake of a rare policy success – which Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has repeatedly assured will not be forthcoming. It will be to punish a vassal state and a domestic minority that refuse to comply fully and cheerfully.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.
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