Since the first stirrings of the Arab-Israeli peace process after the Yom Kippur war, America’s relations with Israel have been characterized by a paradox. Those presidents regarded as the least friendly to the Jewish state have done it the most good. Its strong allies have proven much less helpful.
This history begins with Jimmy Carter, who threatened a cutoff of American aid to pressure Menachem Begin into returning all of Sinai to Egypt, which made possible the 1979 Camp David agreement. The other most meaningful U.S. contribution to Mideast peace came under the first President George Bush at the 1991 Madrid Conference. When the Israelis refused to participate, Secretary of State James Baker withheld loan guarantees and said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir should call him when he got interested in peace. At one point, Baker actually banned Benjamin Netanyahu, who was representing Shamir in Washington, from the State Department Building. Madrid led to a peace treaty with Jordan, the recognition of Israel by many other countries, and the first real face-to-face negotiations with Palestinians.
By contrast, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, all trusted friends, have often encouraged Israel’s worst tendencies. Reagan looked benignly on Biblically-based claims of ownership over the West Bank, Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, and its refusal to talk to the PLO. Under Clinton, “we never had a tough or honest conversation with the Israelis on settlement activity,” former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller writes in his memoir The Much Too Promised Land. George W. Bush continued to ignore the obscene settlements policy, neglected the peace process, and condoned Israel’s military misjudgments in the West Bank, Lebanon, and Gaza. These presidents steadily built up Arab resentment while fostering Israeli illusions that there might be an alternative to trading land for peace.
Happily, President Obama seems poised to defy this old dichotomy. That he means well for Israel there’s little doubt. “I haven’t just talked the talk, I’ve walked the walk when it comes to Israel’s security,” Obama told a Jewish group during the campaign. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Envoy George Mitchell, and Vice President Joe Biden can make the same claim. Special Envoy Dennis Ross is an observant Jew, an experienced Mideast negotiator, and a longstanding friend to Israel. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has an Israeli father and once served as a civilian volunteer for the Israeli army. That this crew is serious about pressuring Israel is equally apparent. In his Cairo speech, Obama demanded that Israel freeze its settlements in the West Bank and enter peace negotiations with the Palestinians based on the principle of two states, two peoples. Hillary Clinton followed up by specifying what a freeze means: no “natural growth” or other wiggle room, regardless of what Bush representatives might have said to Israeli officials privately.
This is a gutsy step forward. Being a good friend to Israel today means leaning harder on the Jews and the Arabs to get serious about a deal. And even if they don’t produce a peace agreement, Obama’s personal commitment and evenhanded reframing of the conflict could have large benefits. The perception that the United States is pushing its ally Israel as well as the Palestinians should help America’s standing in the Middle East enormously. But to carry off this coup, Obama will have to do the nearly impossible several times over.
First, he needs to force either a change in Netanyahu himself or a change in the Knesset. In Israeli politics, Bibi has always stood for the proposition that the Palestinians will settle only for the destruction of the Zionist state. After a decade out of power, his hostility to an independent Palestine clearly hasn’t changed, and it has been compounded by a dangerous fixation on striking militarily against Iran’s nuclear capability. But Netanyahu is also a cunning politician who knows he can’t survive mismanaging his country’s most important relationship. Obama’s gamble is that the Israeli public, if not Bibi himself, will take the threat of diminished American support seriously. (See this excellent piece in Foreign Policy about the way settlement expansion undermines prospects for peace.)
At the same time, the president needs to assuage nervous American Jews. If this were any other ally, the next diplomatic steps would be fairly simple. You want us to keep supplying nearly 20 percent of your defense budget? Selling you our most advanced weapons? Sticking up for you at the U.N.? Enough with the settlements. But too overt a use of leverage would court a dangerous backlash from Christians as well as Jews who suspect the president of clandestine Muslim tendencies. Conservatives are keen to encourage those doubts.
So far, Team Obama has gone at the problem in a canny way: by lining up Israel’s allies in Congress in support of his tough-love policy. After Netanyahu received his scolding at the White House last month, he visited Capitol Hill, where he was surprised to discover that many of Israel’s strongest backers were on Obama’s side. AIPAC, which doesn’t love the settlements, either, has so far only urged the administration to “work closely and privately” with Israel on areas of disagreement. But there has been some agita among the most pro-Israel Democrats in the House. To convince American Jews that he is leaning on Israel for Israel’s sake will take all of Obama’s rhetorical powers.
Finally, Obama needs to avoid over-investing in the peace process. To broker a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the fantasy of every president since Nixon and the achievement of none of them. Even as he presses for peace, our supremely confident president should bear in mind that the odds overwhelmingly favor failure.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.