Waiting for Democratic pushback

March 22, 2015 – 11:30 P.M.

Suddenly, March 2015 is feeling a lot like March 2010.

US Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel in March 2010, and during that visit plans were announced to build housing units in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, beyond the Green Line.

The Obama administration, which a few months before ambushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with its demand for a full settlement freeze, went ballistic. The Netanyahu government apologized up and down, but nothing helped.

Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton upbraided Netanyahu on the phone for 45 minutes, and a few weeks later President Barack Obama kept the prime minister waiting in the White House for an hour to draft a response to US demands, while he went to eat dinner with his wife and girls. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US at the time, reportedly said US-Israel ties were facing their worst crisis in 35 years.

And then, in April, the mood shifted, in large part because leading Democrats signaled to Obama that he was pushing too hard. The key came when New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer got on a local Jewish radio program and called the White House stance “counterproductive,” and said it “has to stop.”

Following the White House and State Department threats since Netanyahu’s reelection on Tuesday to “reassess” its Mideast diplomatic policy, making it clear that it is considering dropping its opposition to UN Security Council resolutions that may try to impose a solution on Israel, one question is: How long will it take for Democratic pushback to emerge from the likes of senators like Schumer, or ardently pro-Israel Democratic congressmen like New York Rep. Eliot Engel?

Republican pushback already began, with Arizona Sen. John McCain essentially telling Obama Sunday during a CNN interview that the authority to change US Mideast policy that dates back to 1967 with UN Security Council resolution 242 calling for a negotiated solution based on secure and recognized boundaries does not rest entirely in his hands.

Were the US to back a new Security Council resolution trying to impose a Palestinian state, he warned, Congress would “examine” its funding of the United Nations.

If up until now it was sanctions over Iran that was the battleground into which Israel was thrust between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president, the events of the last few days may open up a second front between the Congress and the president – over the diplomatic process.

On the one hand, Israel can take solace in that there are senators like McCain making it clear to the president that he cannot at will, and because he is piqued at the prime minister, reverse long-standing US foreign policy. On the other hand the specter of Israel being drawn yet again into the middle of a fight between Congress and Obama is troubling.

Were Netanyahu able to un-make the statements he made against a two-state solution on Monday, and about urging his voters to the polls by warning that Arab voters were going en masse, chances are he would do so. He did not win resoundingly on Tuesday because of those two remarks.

But what those comment did do is give Obama leverage that he has now shown he will exploit as long as he is able.

Obama, no political novice, knows very well that a man should not be judged by comments he makes in the heat of an election campaign. In 2008, while he was running for president, he said Jerusalem should remain “undivided” as Israel’s capital. A few days later, after taking heat for those comments from the Palestinians, he backtracked and said, “Obviously, it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.”

Likewise, Obama knows that Israel’s democracy is in no danger, just as Hillary Clinton knew it in 2011 when she reportedly expressed grave concern about the state of Israeli democracy because of cases of gender segregation on buses and opposition to women singing in the IDF. She said with much hyperbole that such phenomena reminded her of Iran.

If Obama would look closely at Netanyahu’s comment about the Arab voters – as unfortunate and unelegant as it was – there was no hint at intimating that Arabs should not be allowed to vote. He was firing up his supporters to vote by saying that the Arabs vote for his opponents, the Arabs were going to the polls en masse, and therefore his supporters must go as well to counterbalance them. More politics than racism.

But Obama is not interested in looking for or providing the context, because he now has leverage, a card, to be used against Netanyahu. The president views Netanyahu as a force disrupting what he sees as a chance for a lasting legacy – a deal to remove Iran’s nuclear threat. Forcing Netanyahu to squirm now may be a way of trying to get him to back off his criticism of an Iranian deal and his attempts to derail it.

One of the interesting elements of the White House and Obama’s talk about a “reassessment” is their emphasizing that the US-Israeli security and intelligence cooperation will continue untouched.

“We’re going to make sure, regardless of disagreements we have on policy, that our military and intelligence cooperation to keep the Israeli people safe continues and that cooperation also helps the American people stay safe,” Obama stressed in his interview published Saturday in the Huffington Post.

In other words, the US is reassessing its diplomatic posture but not its commitment to Israel’s security.

The problem with that, however, is that Israel’s security, though it stems largely from its military and intelligence capabilities, also flows from the diplomatic cover it gets from the US.

As former US Middle East hand Dennis Ross wrote in his 2004 book The Missing Peace, “Would the Arab world even believe it had to accommodate itself to Israel’s existence, if it had reason to question the staying power of the US commitment to Israel?”

And despite Obama’s assurances that the security commitment will always be there, if the Arab world sees the US publicly turn its back on Israel in the international arena, then it will have reason to question America’s long-term commitment to the Jewish state.

As, by the way, will many Israelis, American Jews and other supporters of Israel – including those in the Democratic party. And when they begin to tell Obama he is going “a bridge too far,” then the president – as he did in 2010 – may back down. Until then, expect him to exploit Netanyahu’s statements to the hilt.

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