Obama will have his way

Softer voices don't mean US policy on Israel has changed.

To the long list of those who were disappointed by President Obama's crushing win in the battle over healthcare reform can be added the name of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, those of his advisers who persuaded him to take cover until the storm from Washington blew over, and the large number of people, on both sides of the Green Line, that believe Obama is like an East wind: oppressive today, gone tomorrow. Obama's sweet victory is their bitter defeat. If defeat would have turned the US president into a lame duck for the next three years, with minimal ability to shift anything at home or abroad, victory turned him overnight into a horned ram ready to butt anyone who stands in his way until 2016.

The policy of the present government in Jerusalem towards the Palestinians is an easy target, one that will be butted again and again, and the gestures of the US administration towards Israel in recent days, pleasing as they may be for some Israelis, cannot sweeten this reality.

In the "New York Times" last week, Thomas Friedman wrote on Obama's transformation, "In politics and diplomacy, success breeds authority and authority breeds more success. No one said it ever better than Osama Bin Laden: 'When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse'".

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not name Israel in an interview quoted in the column, but it was obvious to whom he was referring: "When others see the president as a winner or as somebody who has real authority in his own house, it absolutely makes a difference. All you have to do is look at how many minority or week coalition governments there are around the world who can't deliver something big in their own country, but basically just teeter on the edge, because they just can't put together the votes to do anything consequential, because of the divided electorate." President Obama had had "a divided electorate and was still able to muscle the thing through".

The immediate significance of this is that Netanyahu can no longer come to the White House and say he is shackled by his fragile coalition. As far as Obama is concerned, Netanyahu's coalition problem, whether and how to swap Avigdor Liberman for Tzipi Livni, is Netanyahu's problem. For the US president, who has just signed an agreement with Russia on cutting nuclear weapons, there is no reason to stop pushing Israel towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians, one of the pillars of his foreign policy. On the contrary.

But in certain circles, in Israel and in the US, there are those who argue that Netanyahu needn't get ruffled. First of all, they say, mid-term Congressional elections in November will clip Obama's wings because, on the basis of historical precedent, the Democrats can be expected to lose votes, and may even lose their majorities in both Houses of Congress. Secondly, Netanyahu's tough/evasive stance has actually proved itself. Look, they say, Washington seems to be capitulating. The administration's mud-slinging has stopped. If until recently senior administration officials were hinting that Israel had become a burden on the US, now no less a figure than White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones tells us that security relations with Israel are important to the US and that the US Army benefits from Israeli technology and from intelligence cooperation with Israel.

And only the other day, Obama dropped in to Jones' office in the White House where Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak happened to be sitting. These "drop-ins", planned well in advance, are gestures designed to strengthen those whom the White House favors. What is more, Barak was received at the Pentagon with a guard of honor, with every mark of courtesy, even though he met the Defense Secretary twice in March, in Washington, without honors of any kind. There you are, the calming voices say, Obama has learned who he is dealing with. Now he's getting off his high horse. We survived this storm as well.

These are false all-clears. Those who say these things ignore the rapid economic recovery in the US, which will minimize the number of seats the Democrats will lose. More importantly, the change in the administration's attitude to Israel is in the tone, not the substance. It is tactical, not strategic. Obama received and understood the signals from the Jewish establishment, from the Democratic establishment, and from opinion polls in the US and Israel, indicating that he won't achieve his goal by waving the big stick. With soothing gestures, smiles, and a public relations campaign, his chances of success are much higher. Obama looked at Bill Clinton, learned from his ways, and grew wise.

So expect more big gestures by the administration towards Israel in the not too distant future, sources familiar with the new thinking in the White House say. A presidential visit to Israel will be on the agenda, the highlight of which will be an historic speech in the Knesset, that will be a prologue to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Obama will have his way, if not by force, then by charm.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 29, 2010

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010

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