The first two years of the Obama presidency, it must be conceded by both friend and foe, have indeed been transformational. The huge increase in the national debt and the passage of Obamacare will affect every aspect of life in America for years, if not decades, to come. But as “great” as the first two years of presidency have been, there will be no such domestic triumphs in the two years to come: no cap-and-trade, no new major federal entitlements, none of the paybacks sought by unions for their huge manpower and financial support. The overwhelmingly Republican House ensures that.
The only frontier left for Obama’s vaulting ambition is foreign policy. And here the most obvious candidates for his attention are Iran and the Arab-Israel conflict. Nothing will so determine history’s verdict on the Obama presidency as whether Iran achieves nuclear weapons capacity. Yet, there are few indications that President Obama would ever exercise the military option to prevent that outcome. He has never fully articulated to the American people how dangerous a nuclear Iran would be for America and Europe – not just Israel. It is far from clear that he is convinced that some form of Cold War-type nuclear containment is not possible with Iran. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has spoken of the United States spreading its nuclear umbrella over its allies, as if the United States were assuming the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran. The administration was slow in putting any sanctions regime in place and failed to seize upon the widespread citizen unrest after the stolen elections in 2009 to increase pressure on the regime.
That leaves the Arab-Israel conflict as the most likely place for Obama to seek to make his mark in the international sphere. From day one, the Obama administration made the Arab-Israel conflict its number-one foreign policy priority, something it would have only done if it felt that there is a real chance of reaching a resolution. At a March 2009 meeting, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told the ADL’s Abe Foxman that Israel’s moment of truth had come. “This president is determined to make peace between Israel and the Arabs,” he said. At a July meeting of heads of 14 Jewish organizations with the President, Foxman expressed the view that only Israel was being pressured, and, according to him, the President acknowledged that was true. Later in the meeting, when one of those present argued that Israel cannot make concessions if it does not feel that it has a staunch friend in the White House, Obama disagreed: “For the past eight years, Israel had a friend in the United States and it didn’t make peace.” The implication that peace is Israel’s alone to make was ominous, for it could only be based on a clear sense that the key to peace lies in Israel’s return to the 1949 armistice lines.
That vision would be fully consistent with every aspect of the administration’s approach to the conflict to date: its refusal to reaffirm President Bush’s 2004 letter acknowledging new realities on the ground during the nearly half a century since 1967 and the likelihood that Israel would retain major population blocs beyond the 1949 armistice lines; the equation of Jewish neighborhoods of Yerushalayim built since 1967 with settlements in Yehudah and Shomron; the President’s obsession with settlements as the key to any resolution of the conflict.
Though the President has never said so, there is good reason to believe that he largely accepts the Palestinian view that Jews are usurpers of the land. The U.N. vote to create the State of Israel was, according to the Palestinians, a gesture of penance by Europe for the sins of the Nazis, but it was the Palestinians who paid the price. And President Obama fed into that narrative in his famous Cairo speech, when he spoke about Israel only as an outgrowth of the Holocaust. He has repeatedly referred to the post-1967 occupation, and thereby implicitly accepted the 1949 armistice lines as sacrosanct.
Are the Palestinians the victims of a massive historical injustice in President Obama’s view? Well, at a farewell party for former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalid, when the latter left the University of Chicago to assume the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University, Obama told his friend that if he ever attained high office, he would seek to redress American foreign policy towards the Palestinians. Ali Abunimah, the Chicago-based founder of the Electronic Intifada and a leader in the boycott and sanctions movement against Israel, has detailed Obama’s early expressions of deep aversion for Israeli policies towards Palestinians, but says that Obama later told him during his 2004 senatorial primary campaign that he would have to suppress any talk about Palestinian rights during the campaign. He assured Abunimah that when the campaign was behind him, he would be more “up front” about his true feelings.
If Obama assumes that historic justice resides with the Palestinian people, then he has a chance to make another historical mark. The Palestinians are currently threatening to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing a state of Palestine in all areas captured by Israel in 1967. In the past, such a course of action would have been futile because of the assurance of an American veto.
The question today is whether that veto can still be assumed. For the Security Council to pass such a resolution, it would not be necessary for the United States to vote in favor; it would have to do no more than abstain. The president has the power to order his U.N. representative to abstain, and Congress would have no power to reverse such a decision. Once passed, such a resolution would contribute immeasurably to the delegitimization of Israel and strengthen the hand of those seeking sanctions against Israel. In short, Obama could single-handedly reverse a massive historical “injustice.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton recently described precisely such a scenario in the Wall Street Journal, and, in the same vein, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, warned a week before the midterm elections that President Obama’s treatment of Israel, as soon as the elections were no longer hanging over his head, “will make his previous treatment look like the good old days.”
Certainly, the recent bizarre behavior of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, including floating trial balloons about leasing parts of the West Bank and Yerushalayim back from the Palestinian and, in general, refraining from saying a word about Israel’s security needs or much of anything, suggest a man who feels himself to be in the cross-hairs.
So far, the Obama administration has not publicly signaled support for the threatened Palestinian initiative and has labeled all such unilateral steps as unhelpful. But the most powerful restraint on President Obama seeking an all-out confrontation with Israel or awarding the Palestinians a state without their having made a single concession or having shown themselves willing, ready and able to live in peace with Israel is surely the potential political fall-out of doing so.
The results of the 2010 midterm elections did not doom any chance of Obama being reelected, though those states that went heavily Republican hold far more than the number of electoral votes needed for victory. At the very least, the President knows he will have a very tough re-election battle in two years. In 2008, he won over 78% of the Jewish vote and received heavy Jewish financial support. In the midterm cycle, there is evidence that Jewish contributions to Democratic candidates were way down, particularly from the financial industry, And a McCaughlin poll from April found that nearly half of Jewish voters were prepared to contemplate voting for Obama’s opponent. To win a close election, Obama cannot afford a large exodus of Jewish support. In addition, Israel remains popular among independent voters, whose shift from supporting Democrats in 2008 and Republicans in 2010 held the key to the midterms, and whom Obama must carry again if he is to win.
The greatest worry for Israel, then, is that President Obama might decide that his reelection chances are so poor that he need not be constrained by electoral politics or that he acts upon the determination to be a “great” one-term president.