Why was the meeting this time between President Barack H. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a success? The answer is simple though not all the reasons are publicly known. So I’ll tell you about them.
The president couldn’t have been more effusive. They had an “excellent” discussion, Netanyahu’s statement was “wonderful,” and the U.S.-Israel relationship is “extraordinary.” Hard to believe this is the Obama we’ve seen before.
Obama wants to improve relations with Israel for several reasons. Obviously, he doesn’t want to be bashing Israel in the period leading up to the November elections. Polls show that for Americans his administration’s relative hostility toward Israel is its least popular policy. But there is more to this trend than just that point.
What Obama wants is to be able to claim a diplomatic success in advancing the Israel-Palestinian “peace process,” perhaps the only international issue he can so spin. Keeping indirect talks going and, even better, moving them up to direct talks is his goal. So he wants Netanyahu’s cooperation for that.
The same point holds regarding the Gaza Strip, where Obama wants to claim he has defused a crisis he has called “unsustainable.”
(I hate that word. When you hear something is “unsustainable” immediately become suspicious. This has everything to do with perceptions and little to do with realities where quite a lot of things are quite sustainable. Pretty much every single Middle East problem has been sustained for decades.)
And he also wants to keep the Israel-Arab front calm while he deals with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, seeking above all to avoid crises and confrontations and to keep up his (bogus) bargain of trading flattery for popularity.
So here’s the deal. Give Israel some U.S. support in exchange for modest steps that the administration hopes accomplishes its goals. Israel will give some things that don’t appreciably hurt its interests in order to maintain good relations with the United States.
First, Israel has revised the list of goods it permits to go into the Gaza Strip. The details were all agreed beforehand with the United States. The Obama Administration will support Israel over Gaza generally, including endorsing its independent investigation of the flotilla issue.
As the Israeli government explained it, the new list “is limited to weapons, war materiel, and dual-use items.” Such military items include–aside from the obvious–a long list of chemicals, fertilizers, knives, optical equipment, light control equipment, missile-related computer technologies, and so on.
Israel is defining dual-use items by an international agreement, the “Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies,” and thus this should be acceptable to Western governments.
Construction material will be carefully monitored and allowed in only for specified projects. Israel will keep out dual-use goods including construction materials (concrete and pipes, for example) that can be used by Hamas to build bunkers and rockets.
At present, there are 45 such projects approved by Israel. The Palestinian Authority must also approve each one (thus, in theory, the buildings created would strengthen its popularity and influence though this is probably wishful thinking). These include school and medical buildings, water and sewage systems, and housing. If Israel determines through its multiple intelligence-collecting sources, that the material is being misused to benefit Hamas or its military strength, the supplies would be stopped.
The United States will proclaim that the alleged humanitarian crisis is over and the people of Gaza are doing just fine, ignoring their being subject to a terribly repressive dictatorship. Hamas will denounce the concessions as insufficient and continue efforts to smuggle in weapons, consolidate its rule, and turn Gaza’s little children into terrorists. This is the contemporary Western idea of a diplomatic success.
(Here’s a riddle for you. What’s the difference between the Islamist and Western views of peace? The Islamists never lose a war because no matter how badly they are defeated they deem it a victory to survive and continue the battle. The West never loses a war because it defines the end of any war as victory no matter what the result.)
But Israel’s policy decision makes sense. As I’ve pointed out before, once Israel concluded that there will be no Western commitment for overthrowing the Hamas regime it might as well go to a containment strategy. This Western policy is terrible but Israel is merely recognizing the real situation and making the best of it.
What a terrible strategy, though. Obama said:
“And we believe that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically, while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs in not allowing missiles and weapons to get to Hamas.”
Really? How the hell are you going to do that? Read the latest speech by Hamas’s leader and wonder what possible conception of Hamas Obama might have. Doesn’t he realize that if Gaza prospers Hamas is strongly entrenched in power and has plenty of assets to pursue war with Israel, which then destroys any prosperity.
Oh, I’m just being coy. I know what Obama thinks: The people prosper, the middle class gets stronger, the masses demand moderation and Hamas’s downfall. This is a view of revolutionary Islamism and the workings of dictatorships that boggles the mind. It is the mindless idea that prosperity brings peace and moderation, and that a regime ready to torture, murder, and indoctrinate people will be easily removed.
There is the possibility of the U.S. government and other Western countries subverting Israel’s position by engaging Hamas (as Russia did lately) but that line can probably be held for the next few years at least. Various Western media and activist groups can try to keep up the notion that the Gaza Strip is a hell on earth (because of Israel) and people are starving. There will be no truth to this, of course, but there was no truth to it before and that didn’t stop them. But their task will be harder.
Obama praised Netanyahu just as much on the “peace process.” The president said: “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.” Remember that quote when Obama turns on Netanyahu again after the November elections. As for risks, we’ve had enough of those, thank you very much.
But Netanyahu’s goal was to make Obama happy with the minimum of risk. Israel will extend its building freeze on the West Bank and east Jerusalem in exchange for an Obama Administration commitment to endorse its predecessor’s acceptance of Israel retaining “settlement blocs” as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In other words, if a diplomatic settlement were ever to be reached then borders would be shifted to allow Israel to annex some relatively small areas with a large number of settlers. This would not only improve Israel’s security situation in the event of a peace agreement (don’t hold your breath for that to happen) but also greatly increase support for a flexible policy within Israel. If there isn’t going to be a peace treaty (due to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas) Israel isn’t giving up anything.
Continuing to freeze construction on settlements will give Netanyahu a domestic problem but he can hold his coalition together, if necessary by adjusting it. Parties are constrained from walking out of the government because if elections were to be held Netanyahu would win in a landslide partly at their expense.
Another thing Netanyahu wants is for Obama to escalate pressure on Iran regarding that country’s nuclear weapons’ drive. The new sanctions, thanks to Congress, are going to hurt Iran and undermine support for the regime there. Not enough, of course, to stop the program. Still, when Iran does get nuclear weapons, Israel will need the United States to take a strong stand in containing Tehran.
Does Israel’s government trust Obama? Of course not. Israel’s government and Israelis in general are under no illusions about Obama’s view of their country, his willingness to battle revolutionary Islamists, or his general reliability and toughness.
For example, last October the Obama Administration, through the State Department, did endorse the “settlement bloc” commitment, but then appeared to have forgotten about it. The U.S. government also broke its promises over the settlement freeze (accepting Jerusalem’s exclusion and then howling about it a few months later) and regarding the nonproliferation conference (pledging to oppose any reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons and then going back on that point).
There is also clarity about the possibility of Obama turning to a much tougher stance on Israel after the congressional elections are over. Yet with a plummeting popularity at home and lots of domestic problems, perhaps Obama will have more on his mind than playing Middle East peacemaker.
The Palestinian Authority is so uneager for a peace agreement that anything said by Israel on the subject is most unlikely ever to be implemented. And it seems that the Obama Administration has at least some sense that it isn’t going to get an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement so it doesn’t want to look foolish in making this a high priority and then failing.
Thus, Israel’s strategy is as follows: try very hard to get along with the administration, seek to keep it happy, and avoid confrontation without making any major irreversible concessions or taking serious risks. Have no illusions, but keep the U.S. government focused on Iran as much as possible.
The next Congress will be more likely to constrain the president and who knows what will happen in future. A building freeze might be ended on strong grounds the next time. It is quite possible that Iran, Syria, and other radical forces will so assault the United States and trample on its interests that Obama will be forced to alter course. And there’s always the 2012 presidential election.
This, then, is the best policy for Israel to follow in comparison to more unattractive options. And for the foreseeable future, Obama will play along. It isn’t neat but it is real world international politics.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East; and The Truth About Syria. To see and subscribe to his blog go here; for GLORIA Center publications go here.