I’d like to believe that President Barack Obama’s re-election means nothing significant for U.S.-Israel relations, since “all Democratic and Republican presidents over the past four decades have been solidly pro-Israel” – as Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom argued on Israel Radio this morning. But Shalom is putting a pretty face on a forbidding situation.
Obama’s re-election means that Ehud Olmert is going to run against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Jan. 2013 Israeli election. It means that Obama is going to intervene aggressively in our election to boost Olmert. It means that a push for immediate Palestinian statehood is back on the international agenda. Most worrisome of all, it means that an American “grand bargain” with the Iranians, possibly at our expense, is on the table.
With good reason, Olmert and Tzipi Livni seem to think they can count on Obama’s strong support in the race against Netanyahu. There are a myriad of ways in which Obama and his emissaries can make it clear to the Israeli voter that U.S.-Israel relations will suffer if Netanyahu is re-elected. They know that Israeli voters fear U.S.-Israel conflict.
Obama’s anti-Netanyahu campaign will be the flip side to the campaign we’ve seen in recent weeks seeking to convince American Jews and Israeli Americans that Obama “has Israel’s back.” Just as the Jewish and Israeli press was swamped with pro-Obama testimonials from Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz, Jack Lew, General Dempsey and others, now we’ll get hints and warnings that the “unprecedented” gains in U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing and weapons development approved by Obama will wither if Netanyahu is re-elected. White House backing for Israel in the Security Council will be conditional upon Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and so on.
It won’t be the first time that an American administration has blatantly intervened to sway Israeli public opinion. Former President George H.W. Bush campaigned against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, among others, by refusing to approve U.S. loan guarantees for Soviet immigrant absorption because of Shamir’s settlement policies. Shamir lost that election after serving two previous terms. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned vigorously for Shimon Peres and against Netanyahu in 1996. That effort backfired.
In his second term, Obama will be seeking to fashion a long-term legacy. With Congress still at a deadlock, he will have difficulty aggressively advancing his domestic agenda. That leaves foreign affairs and defense policy, where he has a freer hand.
On matters that directly affect Israel, remember that Obama is deeply committed to three things: global nuclear disarmament, rapprochement with the Islamic world, and Palestinian statehood. I believe that he will forcefully act to progress on all three fronts, and this could bring him into conflict with Israel.
In a briefing that he is scheduled to give in Washington later today, Dr. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will assert that Obama intends to offer Iran a “grand deal” to test whether diplomacy can stop its nuclear program. In fact, according to one press report, Obama’s close personal friend and White House adviser, the Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett, has for months been secretly negotiating in Bahrain with a representative of Tehran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A U.S.-Iran agreement could involve tacit recognition of Iranian hegemony in the Gulf region and acceptance of its nuclear status, in exchange for a long-term freeze in Iran’s enrichment of uranium to high levels. This would leave Ahmadinejad’s nuclear development facilities, including the Fordow underground center, intact, instead of dismantling them. This would allow the Iranians to continue refining their nuclear skills. Even at low levels of enrichment this provides a framework with which Tehran can bypass Western restrictions and hoodwink Western inspectors.
Every Israeli knows that Iran has clandestinely crossed every “red line” set by the West over the past 20 years – putting nuclear plants online, building heavy water facilities, refining uranium, working on explosive triggers and warheads, and generally breaching all its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – and has gotten away with it. So any deal that scales back sanctions and allows Iran to keep operating its advanced nuclear development facilities, even at a low-level, is a fatal bargain.
The deal could also involve a commitment to “tackle” Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Israel’s nuclear status has been supported and criticized by different American presidents over the decades, but has never been significantly threatened. In July 2010, Obama pledged support for Israel’s right to defend itself by any means possible – by implication, even with nuclear weapons.
However, Washington seems to have backtracked on its clear support, and is now supporting a U.N. conference on a nuclear-free Middle East scheduled for December in Finland which could very well focus on Israel. This issue holds the potential for acute friction between the two countries. Prof. Uzi Arad, who was National Security adviser to Netanyahu and who negotiated the July 2010 understandings, says that America had indeed undertaken to ensure that there would only be “discussions” at the Finland conference, with no move to enforce nuclear restrictions on Israel. We’ll see…
There is a theory which postulates that Obama’s re-election brings the required showdown with Iran closer than a Romney win would have, because Obama is already so invested in the issue and so clearly on record as rejecting the mere containment of Iran. But I don’t buy it. Obama’s paramount commitment to rapprochement with the Islamic world, I suspect, will overtake his declarations of opposition to Iran. He never was going to, and never will, confront Iran militarily.
Which brings us to Palestinian statehood, which was one of Obama’s earliest and most earnest commitments. Mahmoud Abbas’ obstinacy hasn’t made it easy for Obama to back Palestinian aspirations, but Abbas is forcing the issue with his push for unilateral recognition of Palestinian quasi-statehood at the U.N. later this month. Israel expects Washington to punish the PA for this, but I wonder. And when Israel announces new settlement construction, adoption of the Levy Report, and other penalties to Abbas in response to the U.N. decision, I doubt that we’ll get much support from Obama.
So start filling your sandbags. We’re in for a rough ride.