Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Argument About Nothing

Yesterday Benjamin Netanyahu’s camp leaked a request for the Obama administration to back off on calling for a complete halt to construction over the green line. It didn’t take long for the Americans to respond.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was quoted as saying of the president’s stand, “He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.” Talking to reporters after a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, she said: “That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”

While she is not the first U.S. Secretary of State to make demands of Israel about settlements — Condoleezza Rice did the same thing in the last years of the Bush administration — the comments by the formerly down-the-line pro-Israel Clinton escalated the dispute brewing between the two countries. The question remains, at what point will the same words publicly pass the lips of the president himself, something that never happened during the Bush administration. If it happens during Obama’s speech to the Arab world from Cairo next week, it will undoubtedly be interpreted as a signal of a major rift in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

If so, then Obama must be convinced he will pay no significant political price for slamming Israel, something leftist Jews have been saying all year. It might also mean that he is trying to break the Netanyahu government and hopes for it to be replaced by one more to his liking.

A lot of the commentary about this possibility, both here and in Israel, seems to take it for granted that Netanyahu will have no choice but to buckle and if he doesn’t, he’s doomed. One should never try to predict what is going to happen in Israeli coalition politics but if that is Obama’s goal, I think he’s being a trifle optimistic. In the Knesset that was just elected the math doesn’t really add up for a left-wing coalition. And as much as Netanyahu knows that maintaining close ties with the United States is a paramount concern for any Israeli government, it simply isn’t true that he must swallow everything Washington sends his way. There will be a price to pay for saying no, but he can do it, especially when it is about something so unreasonable as a demand that no houses be built in places Israel has no intention of giving up.

Moreover, it must be reiterated that all of this sturm und drang over settlement growth is still an argument about nothing. Obama may say he wants peace talks re-started — a point Netanyahu has been willing to concede — but there is still absolutely no reason to hope for success in such talks. So long as Israel’s proposed peace partner is a toothless and feckless Palestinian Authority, unable to sign any sort of peace with Israel even if it wanted to, or the Islamists of Hamas, there will be no peace deal. For Obama to attempt to scuttle the U.S.-Israel alliance for such meager prospects is a curious strategic decision. But it would not be as curious as a failure on the part of the pro-Israel community — a group including Democrats as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives — to let such a thing happen without major protest.