President Barack Obama has been quoted as saying that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are."
This report about the President's sentiments did not come directly from the President, but has been filtered through a journalist reporting what the President said to him, or what he heard from other people who spoke with the President. The journalist paraphrased the President's remarks, and added his own explanations.
"With each new settlement announcement . . . Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation. . . .On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise."
"(Obama) suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart."
"And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah -- one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend -- it won't survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel's survival; Israel's own behavior poses a long-term one."
"Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Obama's nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is said to be eager to re-energize the Middle East peace process, but Obama -- who already has a Nobel Peace Prize -- is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn't be a wise use of his time."
"Obama isn't making unreasonable demands. Israeli concerns about the turmoil in Syria and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood are legitimate in the American view, and Obama knows that broad territorial compromise by Israel in such an unstable environment is unlikely."
"But what Obama wants is recognition by Netanyahu that Israel's settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution, and he wants Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy. Obama wants, in other words, for Netanyahu to act in Israel's best interests."
The White House is not denying the report, and the sentiments could be expected from the rocky relationship between Bibi and Barack. Speculation is that the timing of the article, a week before Israel's election, is the revenge of the President (and/or the jounalist) for Bibi's barely disguised endorsement of Mitt Romney.
If Obama views Mahmoud Abbas as weak, a lot of Israelis view him as impotent, and shying away from anything close to what any Israeli government could offer by way of territorial compromise. Moreover, the radicalism that appears in the opposition to the Syrian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its close relatives in Hamas also get in the way of any Israeli initiative at this time. If Obama himself is wary of making yet another effort at bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis together, why should Israelis make the issue prominent in their politics?
Whatever can be said about the timing of these presidential thoughts and comments, they are at odds with what the Israeli electorate is about to do. Two of the three parties likely to be among the biggest in the Knesset are dominated by candidates who would push Israel even further away from the President's preference. Netanyahu's record suggests he is the most cautious MK of Likud our Home on the issue of settlements. Several members of that party's delegation, and even more so those of Jewish Home are outspoken in behalf of further settlement activity.
Netanyahu says that he supports settlement, but his record is more modest than his comments. He tried a freeze even in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, he has said that construction in E 1 is not imminent, and he continues to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state. To be sure, he buffers that endorsement with the need of the Palestinians to be more forthcoming than they have ever been. However, his failure to actually abandon the two-state mantra distinguishes him from other MKs of Likud our Home and Jewish Home.
Almost as clear as the loud voices from the right wing of Likud our Home and from Jewish Home is the silence of other parties and candidates on the issue of negotiating with the Palestinians. It is prominent only in the campaign of Tsipi Livni, and her party has sunk in the polls to 7-9 seats, making it the weakest of the centrist parties.
At least part of the explanation of what is happening in Israeli politics appears in Barack Obama's own remarks. The President's recognizes the problems from the Palestinians and the chaos elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet Obama is explicit is assigning much of the responsibility for the impasse to Israel, i.e., to Bibi's timidity and the power of the settlement lobby. Similar or even stronger criticism of Israel comes from European capitals.
The explicit endorsement of the White House will spur even more of those sentiments from Western politicians and media. More is expected of Israel than of the Palestinians or any other Arabs.
A parallel question is, what do Israeli voters think about Barack Obama?
The President's reputation among Israelis has had modest ups and severe downs. At least some of the strength currently shown by rightist and pro-settlement candidates, and disinterest in the peace process, reflects voters' rejection of criticism from the United States and Europe.
What will come of all this, i.e., the explicit criticism of the Prime Minister by the US President, Netanyahu's likely re-election, the increased weight of right wing politicians in the Knesset, along with whatever happens in Syria and elsewhere in the neighborhood, including Mahmoud Abbas, his colleagues and rivals, plus events on the streets of the West Bank?
The greatest source of moderation may come from the timidity of Bibi that Barack holds against him. The Israeli Prime Minister has acted more carefully than he has spoken. Despite his frequent threats about Iran and outspoken support of settlements, there has been no Israeli attack on Iran and no construction in E 1. Most of the construction in "settlements" has been in the major blocs and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, widely thought to remain in Israeli hands.
There are many variables at work and too many possibilities for anything close to certainty about what comes next. Barack Obama may spend more time on economics and gun control than the Middle East. Europeans are not out of the economic woods, and the French have started an involvement in Mali. We may be left alone while Syria continues to burn and eventually remakes itself into who knows what. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan and Palestine are each going through their own uncertainties. Our little corner of the Middle East may actually be the quietest patch between Washington and Pakistan, and down into central Africa.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem