Changing Winds at the White House

A small group of American Jewish leaders met with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on July 14th as Obama tried to shore up their support for his Middle East policies.  Most of those invited were groups that had been snubbed by the previous Bush Administration.  Liberal organizations like Peace Now and J Street were happy to be included in the Obama meeting. Reportedly, one of the few conservative groups to be invited was the Orthodox Union.

Rather than show unified support for Obama's policies, several of the leaders present expressed uneasiness about his administration's pressure on Israel, especially concerning his insistence on a settlement freeze. These leaders came away from the meeting with greater uncertainty as to where the Obama Administration is headed in its plans for Middle East peace.

Foreign policy analysts in Israel claim that Obama has adopted the Palestinian narrative, which has resulted in uncompromising opposition on the part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas towards any attempts by Israel in jumpstarting peace negotiations.

Obama may have hoped that by being tough on Israel, he could garner Palestinian and Arab support for his foreign policy agenda.  Perhaps, he thought he could still maintain strong support within the American Jewish community. But, after Tuesday's meeting, Obama may have come to the conclusion that he has overplayed his hand, driven by an overeager staff that has wanted to sideline Israel.

Jewish Israelis have already expressed their mistrust in Obama, questioning his pressure on Israel for continued concessions towards the Palestinians. A majority of Israeli citizens do not approve a total settlement freeze that would include "natural growth".  For them, Jewish life must continue in the major block of settlements where families have the right to build new schools and new homes for their children and grandchildren.  Most of Israel's political parties have also been unified on this issue.

A recent poll in Israel indicates that only 6% of Jewish Israelis believe that the Obama Administration's views are pro-Israel. And, 50% believe that his administration's policies are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli.

Obama has blamed the media for reports overemphasizing his insistence that Israel conform to U.S. policy, especially regarding the settlement issue. He explained to American Jewish leaders that the media is not reporting what he expects from Palestinian and Arab leaders in return for Israeli concessions. He alluded to the fact that he will emphasize his expectations in the near future.

Obama's pressure on Israel has led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing, publicly, to a de-militarized Palestinian state in the region, living side by side Israel. He declared this in his June 14, 2009 address at Bar-Ilan University. A few days later, Netanyahu followed-up with a statement in an Israeli cabinet meeting, declaring "two states for two peoples." This was what the Obama Administration wanted, and this is what they got from Netanyahu.

Still, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Netanyahu claiming that the Palestinians first want to see Israel freeze all settlement construction. Abbas has also claimed he will not recognize Israel as the Jewish state in the Middle East.  Netanyahu, and his spokesperson, Mark Regev, have made it clear that there are no pre-conditions in meeting with Abbas. But, it has been Abbas who has used these two issues as his pre-conditions for not meeting with Netanyahu.

In recent days, Netanyahu's government has taken steps to improve the quality of life in the West Bank for Palestinians, including the removal of major checkpoints; taking down road blocks; and easing the flow of traffic between West Bank cities. Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has approved these measures knowing there is now a greater risk of terrorist infiltration into Israel.  

Israeli defense officials have also allowed military equipment and weapons into the West Bank. Barak has approved U.S. General Keith Dayton's plans to continue training Palestinian armed forces to gradually take control over West Bank cities. This, despite the fact, that a future de-militarized state would not allow the Palestinians to maintain a unified army, but only allow them to have a limited police and security force.  Israel is taking this risk knowing that trained Palestinians could eventually use their weapons against Israel's defense forces in a future confrontation.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, head of the IDF's International Media and Communications Branch, recently spelled out Israel's new steps for security and peace. She said that one of the reasons Israel is taking these measures is because of the relative calm in the territories. "Security in the West Bank has stabilized in an impressive manner over the last few years."

But, she also admitted, "In the West Bank, we still see terror attempts. Hamas is still alive and kicking. Nablus is one of the biggest hubs of terror in the West Bank."

While Israeli officials admit that allowing the Palestinians to have military control over West Bank cities and towns is a security liability for the Jewish State, Netanyahu has offered these gestures hoping to start peace talks again.  He has looked for ways to improve the quality of life for Palestinians, including efforts at jumpstarting their economy with financial incentives.

In a recent Israeli cabinet meeting held in Beersheva to celebrate his first 100 days in office, Netanyahu, once again, appealed to the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table without pre-conditions. He expressed their right to live in security and prosperity. He mentioned the advancement of a series of projects in order to promote their economy and in an effort to advance peace.

Then, appealing to their leadership, he declared, "I would like to make it clear that all of these efforts are unilateral on Israel's part.  All these efforts can only go so far, and the results will multiply many times if only there is cooperation from the other side.  Therefore, I call again on the Palestinian leadership in Judea and Samaria, to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, let us meet.  Let us make peace, diplomatic peace and economic peace.  Let us cooperate on these projects.  We can attract many interested investors who are waiting for the steps we have already started to take. Therefore, there is no reason not to meet." Netanyahu called on Abbas to dialogue with him anywhere in the country.

Perhaps knowing that more will be expected of him by the Obama Administration in the coming days, Abbas has reportedly announced that the Palestinian Authority still supports dialogue with Israel. That may be all that is needed to appease Obama at this time. But, Israeli leaders will be looking for more.

C Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East and the international community.