American foreign policy American Jews Arab-Israeli conflict Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Dan Fleshler Israel Israeli occupation Israeli settlements J Street Palestinians Transforming America's Israel Lobby

What else Netanyahu needs to know about Obama

The following op-ed just went on-line and will be in Friday’s Haaretz. I’ve been waiting about 25 years to be able write something like this and actually believe it.

Something else Netanyahu should know

By Dan Flesher

Even before President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech last week, there were reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers were surprised by the president’s insistence that Israel stop all settlement construction. Now, as Netanyahu prepares his own speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he should be careful not to misjudge the situation yet again by misreading what stands behind Obama’s Middle East policies. The American president’s approach to the region is based on more than the lofty ideals and calculations of U.S. strategic interests that have been attributed to him by international media; it is also the product of shrewd political judgment.

Obama might sound like a thoughtful university professor, but he and his closest aides are pragmatists who were schooled in the hard-knuckled politics of Chicago. They have obviously decided that the president’s quest for a new relationship with the Muslim world, along with his harsh criticism of Israeli settlement activity, offers potential political rewards that exceed the risks by a large margin.

As he plans his policy speech, Netanyahu would do well to also consider American voters, not just their president. According to a recent poll by Zogby International, 50 percent of those voters think that, given previous American calls for a halt to Israeli settlement construction, the U.S. should “get tough” with Israel. More importantly, 71 percent of Americans who voted for Obama feel that way and 89 percent of them say the conflict negatively affects U.S. interests. Obama’s political base is losing patience with the settlement enterprise and thinks it harms the United States.

Those voters include most American Jews, and that is another reason why Obama’s stance is politically astute. Netanyahu should not have been surprised by a survey published in March showing that six out of 10 American Jews were opposed to settlement expansion, or that most supported U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even if it meant publicly disagreeing with or pressuring both sides. Those responses were consistent with many earlier surveys. But there was a fascinating new statistic buried in the results of that March poll, which was sponsored by J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby group: Seventy-two percent of U.S. Jews who are active political donors oppose Israeli settlement construction. So, if Obama remains steadfast on the settlements, he is unlikely to lose many contributors and will in fact please quite a few.

The Obama team’s calculations also include an accurate reading of Jewish organizational tea leaves. They understand that the president is unlikely to encounter massive American Jewish opposition if he keeps pressing hard for the settlement enterprise to stop, as long as he is clearly committed to meeting Israel’s core security requirements and pushes the Palestinians to halt violence and incitement.

The most important group in the conventional pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is terrified of a confrontation with a wildly popular Democratic president whose party controls Congress. AIPAC’s leaders only pick the fights they think they can win; they know they would lose if they found themselves trying to justify new apartment buildings in occupied territory.

It is unclear whether Netanyahu’s Israeli advisors understood all this when he took office. What is clear is that he got good advice from American Jewish leaders and he ignored it. “Pro-Israel American Jews have been telling Netanyahu that he has to do something about the settlements, and that if he came out for a two-state solution, relations would be easier,” Ron Kampeas, the well-connected Washington reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency told me. Another source familiar with Netanyahu said, “His record shows that he believes he is the master of America-Israel relations and no one knows America better than he does.”

If he does know America, he will realize that the days when Likud prime ministers could use American Jewish groups, Christian Zionists and Congress to subvert the wishes of U.S. presidents are long gone. As are the days when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed like a distant feud with little impact on the American people. Now, progress toward resolving it is clearly a national security imperative, and Obama’s voters – and, indeed, most Americans – know it.

When describing Obama, the media adhere to the Great Man Theory of History, which gives individual leaders primary credit for transforming the world. They treat him like a rock star, or the herald of a new age. But Netanyahu should not rely on that theory as he tries to figure out how to respond to the American president. Obama is a charismatic leader, but he is also expressing popular will. He is both the cause and the result of a widespread American yearning for peace and stability in the Middle East.

That is why Netanyahu should know that if he makes empty promises and tries to wriggle out of a profound disagreement with the U.S. over the settlements, he will risk insulting and angering not only the American president but also a large swath of the American people. It is hard to believe most Israelis – or American Jews – would want him to take that risk for the sake of unimpeded growth, “natural” or otherwise, in the West Bank.

Dan Fleshler, a New York media and public-affairs consultant, is the author of “Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change,” published last month by Potomac Books.

Comments are closed.