It is a truism that President Barack Obama inherited a mess from his predecessor in the White House. The United States was bogged down in two foreign wars of dubious provenance; Wall Street gamblers had flung the economy into deep recession; and, not least, the US had seemingly abandoned its self-appointed role as seeker of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

So the air was heavy with redemptive symbolism when, on his third day in office, Obama appointed retired Sen. George Mitchell, a veteran diplomat, as his special Middle East envoy. Coming on the heels of Israel’s enormous assault upon Gaza, which the outgoing George W. Bush administration had blithely countenanced for 22 days, the Mitchell appointment was widely seen in Washington as evidence that Obama would retrieve the mantle of “honest broker” in the Middle East from the dustbin of history. The optimism grew when Mitchell was tasked with inducing Israel to freeze its settlement project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: After eight years of echoing Israel in making demands of the Palestinian side, the US would make demands of both sides. After eight years of bias, American diplomacy would be even-handed.

But most encouraging of all was Obama’s pronouncement in 2010 that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was a “vital national interest of the United States.” The peace process industry in Washington had long argued this line: Chasing a comprehensive agreement is not only noble, but strategic, as it promises to remove an irritant from US relations with Arab nations and salve the battered visage of the United States before Arab and Muslim peoples.

In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, as in others, Obama has bitterly disappointed those who invested so much hope in his savior-like persona. There was no lasting settlement freeze; Israeli-Palestinian negotiations did not restart in earnest; Mitchell reentered retirement to the scornful hoots of former boosters branding him a failure. Like Bush before him, Obama openly blamed the Palestinians — by far the weaker party — for the lack of a “peace process.” His most vigorous and sustained intervention came in the late summer of 2011, when the US threatened dire consequences if the Palestinians advanced their bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations. The State Department denounced this Palestinian move as “unilateral,” a word it does not use for the endless construction of Jewish colonies on land nominally reserved for the future Palestinian state the US claims to desire. In practice, the Obama administration has tilted just as far toward Israel as Bush ever did; it has adopted Israel’s fundamental view that the conflict with the Palestinians can only be managed, and cannot be resolved.

Conventionally, blame for this state of affairs is laid at the doorstep of the pro-Israel lobby and its allies in Congress, who miss no opportunity to attack the president when he appears ready to exert pressure on Israel. For the last year and a half, Obama has faced the added constraint of his reelection campaign: Not only do his chances in November depend on victory in states like Florida and Pennsylvania that have high concentrations of pro-Israel voters, both Jewish and evangelical Christian, but he will also square off against a Republican opponent who boasts a lifelong personal friendship with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

The pro-Israel lobby is powerful indeed, and the electoral worries are prominent in White House minds, but these factors are not the root explanation for why Obama, like every president since Jimmy Carter, has pursued an Israeli-Palestinian peace half-heartedly at best. The core reason is simply that such a peace is not a “vital national interest of the United States.”

The US national interest does not equate, in some tautological fashion, to whatever the president says it is. Rather, US strategic goals can be gleaned from observing Washington’s expenditures and priorities over time — by attending more to its deeds than its words. The US has a “vital national interest” in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, namely preventing a multi-front war like those in 1967 and 1973, when the petro-princedoms of the Gulf imposed an oil embargo on the West and the Suez Canal was closed. Hence the US brokered Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and hence the Obama administration remains lukewarm to the idea of regime change in Syria, where the regime has kept the border with Israel deadly quiet.

Long divested of their Arab strategic depth, the Palestinians pose no forbidding danger to the overall US posture in the region. Justice for them, and peace between them and Israel, may be desirable, but it is not a key prerogative worth significant political capital. And so, on this issue, too, the electrifying Obama the candidate yielded to Obama the governor, a man who is cool, calculating and anything but inspirational.

The French version of this piece is here.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Explaining Obama’s Deference to Israel," Middle East Report Online, August 31, 2012.

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