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Pivot or Feint?

The Washington Post editors think Obama is pivoting on his Middle East policy. After pummeling Israel in public, demanding unilateral concessions, and raising Palestinians’ hopes, Obama, they say, is trying something new:

With U.S. midterm elections looming, Mr. Obama tried a different tack Tuesday, showering Mr. Netanyahu with public praise and encouragement during a White House visit. The president said he believes that the Israeli leader “wants peace,” praised his “restraint” on settlements and joined with him in calling on Palestinians to begin direct peace negotiations by September, when the settlement freeze expires. This switch may look craven to some of Israel’s critics — but in fact it is smart. By reaffirming U.S. support for Israel and pressing for direct talks, Mr. Obama has created an opportunity to put both Palestinian leaders and Mr. Netanyahu to the test and to discover who is serious and who is not about a two-state settlement.

This raises a number of issues, starting with a basic question: is this a domestic political gambit brought about by the “looming” midterm election? One can imagine how dismal the fundraising numbers must have been and how frightened the White House was to bring about even an atmospheric change this dramatic. What we don’t know is whether it signals a substantive reversal and whether Obama is going to, for example, cease doing the Palestinians’ negotiating for them.

You can’t blame all the parties for being confused about Obama’s intentions and position at this point. Is he the president who spoon-fed the world the Palestinian-victim narrative at Cairo and who is going to refrain from vetoing a UN resolution should housing projects continue in Jerusalem? Or is he the Obama of the 2008 campaign, who was embracing, not distancing himself, from the Jewish state? It’s hard to know, and his wild swings in tone and rhetoric are not likely to improve our standing as a trusted interlocutor with either side. As Israel’s enemies and moderate Arab states observe all this, they must be more convinced than ever that Obama is flaky and undependable.

And then there are the Israel-bashers. The J Street gang must be melting down. They’ve been counseling the president to turn the screws on Israel and bully Bibi. Not only has this not worked, but now the president has undercut them and the rest of the anti-Israel left (I repeat myself), at least rhetorically. They were delighted by his condemnations of Israel, thrilled at the prospect of an imposed peace deal, gratified by the NPT statement singling out Israel, and emboldened by Obama’s reluctance to defend Israel over the flotilla incident. And now all that may be inoperative. If so, what is J Street to do — continue their Obama cheerleading, or go after him for abandoning their “tough love” (which was tough but never loving) stance?

All this is really a sideshow. The central issue for Israel, its neighbors, and the West is the Iranian nuclear threat. What we didn’t get from the Bibi visit was any indication that Obama is contemplating a similar pivot on his Iran policy. If he begins a full-court press to isolate Iran diplomatically, to support the Green movement, and to put a military option back on the table (and cut out all the talk that this is unacceptably “destabilizing”), then we’ll really be getting somewhere. With Obama in retreat, at least atmospherically, it would seem that this is where Jewish groups and pro-Israel lawmakers should apply pressure. After all, once midterm elections are no longer “looming,” the old Obama Middle East policy may be back.


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