May 23rd, 2019

Reality Check

Obama's Captain Obvious Moment

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published Nov. 9, 2015

Obama's Captain Obvious Moment

Is it possible that President Obama has finally learned from some of his mistakes?

That's the question observers must be asking after reading accounts of statements from White House officials in advance of today's meeting between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The main revelation is that his advisers say the president understands that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians won't happen before he leaves office in January 2017. While cynics could chortle and say this is Obama's Captain Obvious moment since, if this is so, then he is perhaps the last person on Earth to finally acknowledge this. But the real question here is not so much why Obama has conceded the point, but whether he is still blaming Israel for this failure and what, if anything, he'll do to punish them for it.

Let's recall that President Obama came into office in January 2009 determined to change what he considered was the fundamental flaw of U.S. Middle East policy during the George W. Bush administration: a lack of "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel.

Obama believed that if he distanced the U.S. from Israel, it would encourage the Palestinians to make peace and assist his policy of outreach to the Muslim and Arab worlds that he outlined in his Cairo speech later that year. Obama achieved the daylight and then some during the last seven years of constant sniping at Israel as he broke new ground in terms of criticism especially on the status of Jerusalem.

But no matter how much he tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, they never chose to talk peace seriously. Though Netanyahu accepted a two-state solution and offered to give up almost all of the West Bank, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas refused that opening just as he and his predecessor Yasir Arafat refused even more generous offers of statehood and a share of Jerusalem from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.

Abbas blew up the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry last year by signing a peace pact with Hamas and making an end-run around the negotiations by going to the United Nations, where he sought recognition without having to first make peace. But even then Obama chose to blame Israel rather than the Palestinians. Just as ominously, the president cut off arms resupplies to the Israelis in the middle of last summer's war with Hamas and threatened to reassess America's longstanding policy of backing Israel at the United Nations.

At the same time, Obama undercut Israel's security — and that of its moderate Arab neighbors — by pushing for détente with Iran and signing a deal that legitimizes Tehran's nuclear program. The open breach with the Israelis over a pact that gives Iran a path to a bomb rather than eliminating their program as Obama pledged worsened his already shaky relations with the Jewish state.

That set up a final year in office when, with political constraints no longer operating, Obama might really put the screws to the Israelis in an effort to force them to make even more far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians in order to realize the president's ambitions.

While Obama is the sort of man who never admits a mistake, apparently he has been forced to concede that Abbas is incapable of signing a peace deal under any circumstances. Obama has refrained from criticizing the Palestinian for inciting the latest surge in terrorism with false accusations whose purpose is to whip up religious hate. But there is a limit to even his obstinacy. There may come a day when a Palestinian leader will be ready to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish state, but Abbas is not that person.

So while the Americans are saying they want Netanyahu to make gestures to ease the Palestinians' plight — something that Netanyahu had been trying to do before the current terror surge — they know that nothing either the U.S. or Israel does will convince the Palestinians to talk. Two states won't happen this next year or in any other year until the Palestinians give up their dream of eliminating Israel and, as the current violence indicates, that is something they are not yet ready to do.

The purpose of the meeting with Netanyahu is supposedly to paper over the divided between the two countries after the Iran debate. The U.S. knows that Israel needs more military aid in large part because Obama's pact with Iran and his dithering over Syria has worsened the strategic situation in the region and Obama is prepared to comply. To his credit, the president has, for the most part, left in place or strengthened the strategic alliance with Israel that he inherited from Bush.

Yet the damage done from seven years of working to create daylight can't be repaired by a meeting or military aid. No matter how generous the aid, it can't make up for the undermining of Israel's security via a U.S. policy that is indifferent to Iran's quest for regional hegemony and which has stood by while ISIS arose and Russia intervened in Syria.

There is also the possibility that Obama might continue his pointless feud with Netanyahu by abandoning Israel at the UN even though doing so would undermine U.S. interests as much as those of the Jewish state.

But the talk about giving up on two states in the next year might also be a recognition that Obama understands that any further undermining of Israel — whether at the UN or in unleashing Kerry to make another futile attempt at negotiations — would harm U.S. interests as much as that of Israel. But Given Obama's inability to acknowledge error, and his animus for Israel, it's still possible he has another ambush up his sleeve either next week or in the months to come. If so, the results will likely be as dismal as every other initiative undertaken by this administration.

Obama came into office with a theory about Middle East peace and he spent years trying to make it work. In the wake of Abbas's rejection of peace and statehood in late 2008, a wise president would have understood that pressuring Israel would only lead to years of increased violence.

Though he can blame Netanyahu all he likes, the responsibility for that failure and the increased escalation in the conflict during the last seven years belongs as much to Obama as it does to Abbas or Hamas. It is past time for him to admit his mistakes or to at least stop trying to double down on it with more pressure on Israel that will accomplish nothing. The manner of his cutting off his losses won't be gracious.

But if that's what the White House is trying to do now, the world should be grateful.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, in whose blog "Contentions" this first appeared.