What’s Keeping Obama Up At Night

Friday, December 12th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Speaking during a recent JCPA conference call about the new administration’s foreign policy team, I was struck by this gap between perception and reality: while so many Israel-focused Jews seem to believe a major element of Barack Obama’s transition is figuring out how to change U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians, the reality is that the issue is probably far down on the team’s long list of immediate priorities

Israel’s supporters tend to see politics through a lens that hugely magnifies that issue and shrinks others to the margins. But on January 21, Obama is going to pad down to the Oval Office in his bedroom slippers and get smacked in the face with an economy that is in the greatest peril since the Great Depression, two wars – one looking like it’s going worse by the day  – and huge international dangers like Pakistan and an expanding worldwide terror network.

Yes, there are plenty of people who have the president-elect’s ear who believe that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should be an early priority, and during the campaign Obama himself promised to make it one.
But that was then; now looks very different. More and more, Israel and the Palestinians are a second or third tier issue because of the incredible confluence of crises facing the new administration, and because even peace process optimists can’t figure out how major progress can be made while Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah sort of controls the West Bank.

Pro-Israel Jews are hoping the new administration makes Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons a priority, but there, too, other issues are conspiring to push the issue down on its must-do list.

Israel is legitimately concerned about an Iran that is trying to build its first atom bomb, and which has threatened to annihilate the Jewish state; Washington is a little more worried right now about Pakistan’s 60-plus bombs, its North Korean missiles and a weak central government that has lost control of major parts of the  country.

Columnist and former AIPAC lobbyist Doug Bloomfield recently wrote that  “Washington has reportedly spent more than $100 million to help secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, although it does not even know its size or location.”

How long before the government loses control of those bombs? Could they end up in the hands of Islamic terrorists, including those bent on destroying Israel? Israel is rightly worried the not-yet-developed Iranian bomb could be given to terrorists, but the Pakistani threat could be far greater and much more  immediate. Pro-Israel groups that have made the Iran fight a top priority in recent years don’t want to hear that, but it’s the reality that’s likely to emerge after January 20.

That doesn’t mean the Obama administration will ignore those issues.  On Israel and the Palestinians, the new president is likely to appoint a special envoy to the region, and possibly make a major speech laying out his longterm goals.

But the game now isn’t to push for a comprehensive agreement anytime soon. Instead, the new administration is likely to work to keep the pot from boiling over, encourage modest improvements on the ground in areas like Palestinian security, economic development and easing conditions for Palestinians on the West Bank. Maybe they’ll quietly probe for ways to deal with the Hamas-Fatah split.  They’ll certainly keep their eyes open for changes on the Israeli-Syrian front.

No doubt a Mideast peace team will start working at the State Department and the White House, planning for some future U.S. peace push – but the issue is not going to be a top priority for  Obama himself , and probably not for his secretary of state,  Hillary Clinton.

On Iran, there will be quiet efforts to open up lines of communication with the Teheran and to figure out how that dialog might contribute to the cause of preventing their acquisition of nuclear weapons; at the same time, there will be a continuation of efforts to tighten sanctions.

But it’s unlikely to rival the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the worsening South Asian crisis when it comes to top-level attention.

With big trouble at home and abroad,  this presidential transition is really about triage – figuring out the most immediate and dangerous in a long list of crises, and focusing top-level administration attention on trying to unravel problems that threaten the nation not next month or next year, but today.

Pro-Israel Jews tend to think it’s all about Israel and the Middle East. But as 2009 and a new administration dawn, that’s not what’s keeping president-to-be up at night.

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.