Hit­ting the re­set but­ton

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION - Ghitis writes about global af­fairs for The Mi­ami Her­ald; fjghi­tis­g­mail.com.

Watch­ing the pub­lic love-fest be­tween Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, a re­porter asked the pres­i­dent if he had de­cided that his pre­vi­ous pol­icy of dis­tanc­ing him­self from Is­rael and giv­ing Ne­tanyahu “the cold shoul­der” had been a mis­take. Obama promptly de­nied the two men and the two coun­tries had ever had any­thing but close ties and ex­cel­lent re­la­tions. Ne­tanyahu joy­fully con­curred with the pres­i­dent. Any thought that the two of them did not love one an­other, they in­sisted, was ab­surd.

The two lead­ers are partly cor­rect, but they re­ally want us to for­get the un­pleas­ant mis­steps of the past year.

Obama has de­cided to change course in his re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael. The ques­tion, how­ever, is whether this re­la­tion­ship-re­set is a po­lit­i­cally cal­cu­lated move aimed at se­cur­ing votes in the Novem­ber elec­tion or whether it comes as recog­ni­tion of how dis­as­trous the pre­vi­ous pol­icy was. If the move was purely po­lit­i­cal, it could quickly end af­ter the midterm elec­tions.

If it’s the re­sult of thought­ful anal­y­sis, it might go a long way in im­prov­ing the chances for peace. Af­ter all, the old ap­proach of pub­lic con­fronta­tion proved com­pletely coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Ne­tanyahu, too, had much to lose at home if Is­raeli vot­ers saw him los­ing U.S. sup­port.

Those who would like to see the United States and Is­rael pulled apart made too much of the ten­sions be­tween the two al­lies. Re­porters, for ex­am­ple, cheer­ily re­peated in­cor­rect quotes from Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to the United States, Michael Oren, sup­pos­edly claim­ing a his­toric rift be­tween the al­lies. Oren never spoke of a rift, but the twisted words trav­eled around the world at e-speed while the de­nials dis­ap­peared in spam catch­ers. Is­rael and the United States con­tin­ued close and in­tense co­op­er­a­tion on mul­ti­ple fronts even as the head­lines be­la­bored their dif­fer­ences. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had too much to lose by con­tin­u­ing a con­fronta­tional re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries.

Still, there is no deny­ing — de­spite Obama’s and Ne­tanyahu’s de­nials — that Obama’s ap­proach to Is­rael dif­fered sharply from the Clin­ton and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions. And there is no deny­ing that the cooler ap­proach and the pub­lic re­crim­i­na­tions ac­com­plished noth­ing use­ful. Hence, the care­fully chore­ographed makeup ses­sion at the White House.

Obama heaped praise on Ne­tanyahu, thank­ing him for his “won­der­ful state­ment” hon­or­ing July 4th; gush­ing over the “ex­cel­lent” meet­ing they held at the Oval Of­fice, which he said “marked just one more chap­ter in the ex­tra­or­di­nary friend­ship be­tween the two coun­tries.” He re­peated that “the bond” be­tween the two is “un­break­able” and that Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to Is­rael’s se­cu­rity is “un­wa­ver­ing.”

By openly em­brac­ing the bond be­tween the two coun­tries, Obama is com­ing into line with Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion. A re­cent Gallup poll showed Amer­i­cans’ pro-Is­rael sen­ti­ment at near-record highs, with more than 63 per­cent sym­pa­thiz­ing more with Is­rael and only 15 per­cent sym­pa­thiz­ing more with Pales­tini­ans.

Only 2 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are Jewish, so sup­port for Is­rael comes over­whelm­ingly from non-Jews. With most vot­ers sup­port­ing Is­rael, the per­cep­tion that Obama is not pro-Is­rael, which was start­ing to emerge from his pub­lic fric­tion with Ne­tanyahu, could cost Democrats dur­ing the mid-term elec­tions.

But there’s prob­a­bly more to the change. Obama could not fail to see the fall­out from his cold-shoul­der pol­icy. Is­raelis were los­ing faith in the United States. If Is­raelis doubt Amer­ica has their back, they will fear tak­ing more risks for peace. This strength­ens Is­rael’s right wing. And Pales­tini­ans, watch­ing Washington pres­sure Ne­tanyahu, de­cided to let the United States do the heavy lift­ing for them, re­fus­ing to hold face-to-face talks with Is­rael. Other coun­tries feel it’s open sea­son on Is­rael when Amer­ica does not sup­port it. Arab coun­tries be­come less sup­port­ive of com­pro­mise when they think the United States no longer backs Is­rael.

Dur­ing the Oval Of­fice en­counter, vis­i­ble pol­icy changes emerged. In the past, Obama had cas­ti­gated Is­rael in pub­lic. This time, he in­di­cated that Washington’s nudg­ing will now be done in pri­vate. At the same time, the pres­i­dent ad­mon­ished Pales­tini­ans, warn­ing they should not “look for ex­cuses for in­cite­ment” or en­gage in “provoca­tive lan­guage” or go “look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to em­bar­rass Is­rael,” which are all part of a Pales­tinian pat­tern that had, un­til now, re­ceived al­most no pub­lic at­ten­tion from the United States.

It is not wrong for Washington to try to in­flu­ence Is­raeli be­hav­ior, but the old idea of im­pos­ing de­mands in pub­lic only cre­ated more Pales­tinian in­tran­si­gence and made Is­raelis feel un­safe and de­fen­sive. The new pol­icy could prove more ef­fec­tive in the pur­suit of peace — but only if it sur­vives af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tions.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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