Robert Satloff observes that Obama’s fetish about Israel’s settlements resulted in a “diplomatic train-wreck.” He explains:
In June, after Obama and Clinton publicly demanded a freeze–but before the Americans reached a deal with the Israelis–the president flew to Riyadh to ask Saudi King Abdullah to ante up in terms of incremental normalization with Israel. The king reportedly sent the president packing. . . . Washington’s fixation on stopping settlement activity did have a powerful echo in at least one Middle East country: Israel. America’s freeze-mania managed to transform Israel’s deep national ambivalence about the wisdom of expanding West Bank settlements into patriotic support for the right of Jews to live in their ancient capital. By giving off vibes that it wanted a freeze even more than the Arabs themselves, and that it wanted to halt building even in Israel’s capital, the administration succeeded in making Netanyahu more popular than when he came to office in March. Obama’s own approval ratings among Israeli voters fell to single digits–and this is before he had shown whether he had the mettle to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the region’s real strategic threat. Getting into a fight with Israel without having anything to show for it from the Arabs was not what the president bargained for.
So now we are back to where things stood at the end of the Bush administration, Satloff argues. But are we? The Israelis have lost confidence in the American president and discovered they can say no. The Palestinians have learned that “unacceptable” for Obama (as in “the settlement activity is unacceptable”) doesn’t mean anything. So we’re not exactly back to square one. Both sides have little reason to alter their positions or to listen to American negotiators. (For those who see the entire “peace process” as a charade divorced from the real world–where there is no Palestinian commitment to abate terrorism or recognize the Jewish state–this all comes as no surprise.)
Meanwhile, the Israelis have come to see that the American president is not to be relied upon and does not regard the U.S.-Israel relationship in quite the same way as the past few presidents. Friendship has been replaced by legalisms, trust has been superseded by public acts of defiance. That will have ramifications not merely for the moribund “peace process” but also for the immediate and overriding issue that Israel and its neighbors must confront–the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The lesson the Israelis have learned is that they rely on Obama at their own risk. That’s not likely to be forgotten any time soon.