Isaac Inkeles, Guest Columnist
In his recent Middle East policy address, Obama made a mistake in statecraft and diplomacy which will prove to be humiliating and counterproductive, not only for him, but for American power as well: President Obama has pressured an American ally to do something that it cannot do. When faced with the choice of committing what it considers to be national suicide or upsetting the United States, vital self-interest will prevail and Obama’s demands will be rejected. In response to this the United States, under Obama’s wobbly hand, will quietly whine, shrug its shoulders, and settle for being rejected.
The result of this: America will look weak and foolish. It will seem as if we cannot even exert influence over nations that rely on our aid, both material and diplomatic. It will be seen as another overreach by the United States in a world of waning American influence.
What I am of course referring to is Obama’s call for a return to the 1967 borders as a base for future peace negotiations. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has already indicated –and as I predicted above – Israel cannot, and thus will not, return to the 1967 borders.
Netanyahu said that the Obama plan “must leave Israel with security, and therefore Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines”. What’s important here is not whether the ’67 borders actually are indefensible, but rather that Israel thinks they are.
Israel also knows that it needs American support, but knows on top of this that we will not abandon her for refusing us on this one issue. And I’m sure that Israel remembers when, in 2009, 329 members of the Democratic controlled House signed a letter urging President Obama to reconsider what was seen as his anti-Israeli foreign policy (one of the letter’s leaders was Majority Leader Hoyer). With this knowledge, I’m sure Netanyahu felt comfortable slighting Obama, saying how he expected the president to “walk back” his remarks.
So let’s review what happened: Israel, who received well over $2 billion in foreign aid in 2008 and is largely seen as a pariah everywhere outside the US, was pressured by President Obama to use the ’67 borders as a basis for a peace settlement. Prime Minister Netanyahu not only flatly rejected this, but also went on to appear before a joint session of congress where he gave a rousing speech, interrupted 29 times by applause, in which he articulated his objections to President Obama’s proposal.
Obama set himself up. By placing Israel in an impossible situation where it had to pick between what it perceived as vital national interests and his demands, he forced Israel into a position where they had to reject him.
So now the question is why?
As mentioned above, this wasn’t a decision that President Obama could have expected a lot of political cover on. Both the Republican and Democratic caucuses have overwhelmingly supported Israel in the past. The American people also support Israel in record numbers.
President Obama, what were you thinking? You’ve just offended one of America’s biggest special interest groups a year before your reelection campaign. Not to mention that you’re isolating a plethora of voters throughout Florida. It isn’t just the bagel-eating South Florida types who stand with Israel –like my cousins- but also the church-going, barbeque-eating, football-watching evangelicals in the panhandle.
And it isn’t only voters in Florida who the President is offending. 55-12% Americans sympathize with Israel over Palestine, and 66% of Americans think that the President should be a supporter of Israel –interestingly, of those asked, only 40% saw Obama as an Israel supporter. And while 10% of Americans say that Obama’s handing of Israel will make them more likely to vote for him, 27% say that they are now less likely to vote for the President.
The effects in the Jewish community have been even more dramatic. President Obama, who won 77% of the Jewish vote in 2008, now has an approval rating of bellow 60%, for the first time, among Jewish voters.
The answer to the question obviously doesn’t lie in domestic politics –I must say I do admire the President a little for what appears to be political courage. Neither do I think it rests in the olive groves of Israel. The reason for Obama’s decision can really be found in the limousines and five-star hotels of Europe.
“Very much on the European line,” is how Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minster, described both Obama’s Israel and greater foreign policy. I think, for the first time ever, the EU foreign minister has “warmly welcomed” an American policy, “the EU has had a common position for a long time that the (peace talks) should be based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps.”
Even if Obama’s plan was not designed to satisfy European interests, it certainly has had that effect. In fact, it seems as if European diplomats were the only group who approved of Obama’s speech. Even Arabs, who one would expect to be most pleased with Obama’s call for a return to ’67 and possibly a divided Jerusalem, were left “unimpressed” with the president’s speech. It’s hard to imagine someone as politically intelligent as the President making such a colossal miscalculation. Instead, I believe that President Obama got the response he wanted from the group he wanted to impress.
To even the causal observer of politics, it will come as no shock that the President is fixated on multilateralism. More than any other president, he seems to be concerned with what Europe thinks of him.
This is not a right-wing populist attacking Obama as an elitist. Truth be told, this is an honest observation made by an admirer of bespoke British tailoring and French cinema.
The overwhelming consensus in Europe, and around the world, is that support for Palestine is both morally and politically right. Obama decided to come out and publically pressure Israel as a way to cozy up to and ingratiate himself to Europe. It was out of a desire to be “international” that Obama decided to pressure Israel. Being so focused on pleasing Europe, there was no other option.
There is a word in Yiddish “fahchnyakit” (pronounced FAHCH-NEE-YAKIT) which is used to describe a negative obsession or fixation that leaves one tunnel visioned and all consumed. President Obama is fahchnyakit with internationalism. At least in terms of foreign policy, he seems to be singularly concerned with the opinions of foreign leaders and intellectuals. And don’t get me wrong; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unless, it forces him to neglect American interests. President Obama is too concerned with how the world will see him and not concerned enough with maintaining American prestige and standing.
As much as it pains me as a Republican to say this, President Obama truly is a gifted man. He posses a sophisticated intellect and is a master orator. I believe that he has the potential to be a great leader. However, in order to be such, he must lead America and in turn have America lead. Unfortunately, as columnist J.E. Dyer put it “Obama has declined a leadership role.” True multilateralism will be achieved by the gravity and stature of the president, not his ability to be a sycophant. President Obama not only has to realize that he is, but also act like, the President of the United States, and not an academic or international activist. Until he does this, he will continue to advocate a foolish and confused foreign policy that weakens America and degenerates the bonds of trust that exist between us and our allies—just like he did with Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras—and now Israel.