Hitting the reset button

Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Watching the public love-fest between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President 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 counter-productive. 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.

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.

• Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.



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