Obama's Dilemma with Israel

The window of opportunity for a two-state solution to the Palestine problem is closing and may already be closed, blocking any reasonable hope for current US policy. Netanyahu cannot buck the rising tide of the extreme right wing in Israeli politics, even if he wanted to, by stopping settlement activity in the West Bank. If he tried to roll the settlements back it could lead to a civil war. Meanwhile the slicing and dicing of the West Bank continues, along with the suffocation of Gaza. Here in Washington, “policy” consists of pious hopes based on slight improvements in the Palestinian Authority’s alleged ability to enlist public cooperation despite its puppet status. The administration seems frozen like the deer in the headlights, while it stumbles along with the same old formulas that have proven ineffective for several decades.

Increasingly, independent experts believe that Israel is headed, perhaps irrevocably, toward becoming an apartheid state, retaining its Jewishness as well as control of the area from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, but at the expense of its democracy. The only hope is that strong US pressure could effect a realignment of political forces within Israel that would bring the two state solution back to life. And that hope is pretty ephemeral, considering the state of play in Washington.

In Washington the pro-Israel hawks retain both virtual control of Congress and the firm conviction that whatever Netanyahu and company do must be supported at all costs. America’s Jewish community as a whole does not agree but is only beginning to translate its discomfort at trends in Israel into effective political counteraction.

Obama has been trying to avoid grasping this nettle. It’s hard to blame him considering the other problems on his plate, and the many ricochet effects that coming up against AIPAC at this stage will create, most of them further complicating his efforts to get key domestic measures through Congress. I have long advocated a tough line with AIPAC and the current Israeli leadership, reminding them that Israel exists on our sufferance in many ways, and telling them we’ll cut their allowance unless they shape up. But that would cost too much at present, for Obama needs every Democratic vote in Congress if he is to overcome the party of “no” on key issues. So what can he realistically do, to lance this boil?

Here are a couple of suggestions, reflecting the fact that the Palestine issue is connected with just about every other major foreign policy issue we face, and most of the domestic ones:

–move toward greater internationalization of responsibility for achieving a solution. If the world looks to us as the dominant player in this drama, it is largely because we have made it so. We could start by subtly encouraging the UN and the Quartet to play more important roles. Israeli press reports suggest we may be moving in this direction.

–abstain, rather than vetoing, on measures in the UN like the resolution on the Goldstone Report, which have overwhelming support outside Israel.

–negotiate with the Taliban, which recently signaled a willingness to talk. An honorable end to the Afghan war, or even the prospect of such, plus the current evolution in Iraq, could strengthen Obama as a peace president and give him the extra clout he might need to take a more forthright stand on the Palestine issue. (I’m not suggesting that the tail wag the dog here, but only that if Obama becomes seen as a peace president, much becomes politically feasible in terms of domestic support that previously wasn’t)

–explore ways we are helping Israel in sensitive security-related areas, with a view to quietly cutting back, as a signal that Netanyahu (and most of his more politically astute Israeli supporters) would recognize.

I wish I could come up with a simple answer, but believe me, there isn’t any. Poor Obama, talk about a multi-dimensional tight rope act!

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