After running into a dead-end in its efforts to jump-start Middle East peace talks, the Obama administration has signaled that it has evaluated the situation and understands that all is not well. But instead of a course correction, senior administration officials have decided what they need to do is deploy their most effective weapon – the rhetorical brilliance of the president himself – on a recalcitrant state of Israel.
They say that in the next few weeks the White House will begin a public relations program in Israel and Arab countries to better explain the president’s intention to broker a comprehensive peace agreement. The highlight would be interviews with Obama on Israeli television as well as appearances broadcast in Arab countries.
In particular, the officials say they hope to convince the majority of Israelis who have been shown in polls to view Obama and his policies with distrust to support his stand on freezing building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as in Jerusalem, rather than the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, their own prime minister.
The idea here seems to be that if the Israeli people are sufficiently exposed to the charms of the American president, they will force Netanyahu to do as he has been told by Washington.
The administration clearly misunderstands the nature of its problem. The Israeli people already understand Obama very well. His problem is that they don’t buy what he’s selling. Indeed, this decision to launch a PR campaign reminds one of stereotypically “ugly American” tourists who believe the proper response to foreigners who don’t understand English is to merely speak English louder. What the administration needs in order to win the trust of Israelis isn’t a bigger megaphone but more realistic policies.
The reason many Israelis think they have been singled out for rough treatment by Obama is not because they don’t understand that his intentions are good and that his motives are pure; it’s because he has unfairly singled them out.
The dispute about settlements between the two governments was a calculated decision on the part of Washington to pick a fight with its smaller ally and raise the stakes until Netanyahu gave in. That would have handed Obama an easy triumph and a way to show the Arab world that friends of Israel no longer have a decisive say in American foreign policy.
But that’s not what happened and the administration appears to be baffled by the reaction inside Israel to the ginned-up settlements squabble. Instead of behaving as most liberal American Jews have done and blindly backing Obama’s pressure because of partisan loyalties and support for the administration’s domestic agenda, ordinary Israelis are supporting their prime minister and viewing Obama with suspicion.
Why? It’s true that part of the problem lies has to do with perceptions. Obama’s Cairo speech in June was offensive because of the way he equated the Holocaust with the predicament of Palestinian refugees and the fact that he pointedly snubbed the Jewish state by avoiding it during his Middle East tour. But the problem is bigger than either the president’s penchant for false moral equivalences or his travel schedule.
Obama’s policy seems to be based on the notion that Israel’s refusal to make new concessions on security and land is the primary obstacle to a breakthrough on peace. Though most Israelis would actually be willing to give up most settlements, they know that neither the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or the Hamas mini-state in Gaza are interested in a peace that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where the borders were drawn.
The failure of the Oslo Accords, the July 2000 Camp David summit, the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and last year’s desperate effort by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to hand the PA a state on a silver platter all illustrate the Palestinians’ lack of interest in signing such a deal.
In the clear absence of a credible peace partner, what point is there, Israelis are entitled to ask, in bullying their government to make concessions? Nor has anyone been impressed by the administration’s half-hearted attempt to get the Saudis and other Arab states to act as if they mean it when they claim to want peace.