Israel's Dangerous Predicament

Benjamin Netanyahu overplays his hand, and Obama withdraws his.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Last year, I interviewed President Obama about, among other things, the nature of the U.S. commitment to Israel. He talked about strong security ties between the two countries, and the unbreakable nature of their relationship. But he also suggested that, should the peace process break down in dramatic fashion, America's ability to manage the international ramifications for Israel—in the United Nations Security Council, and elsewhere—would be limited. "[I]f Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited," he said.
At which point, I asked, "Willingness, or ability?"
He responded, "Not necessarily willingness, but ability to manage international fallout is going to be limited. And that has consequences."
Well, we seem to be moving into a different phase, one that Obama did not see comingor would not acknowledge that he saw coming. The question on the table now is not about the U.S. ability to protect Israel internationally, but its willingness. On Monday, Netanyahu, in a desperate, and ultimately successful, attempt to shore up his base on election eve, renounced the two-state solution. After his victory on Tuesday, he un-renounced his renunciation, but it is obvious that the White House is not buying the walk-back.

"Words do matter, and that I think every world leader or everybody who is in a position to speak on behalf of their government understands that that’s the case, particularly when we’re talking about a matter as serious as this one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The consequences of this are profound. Jennifer Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said, "We are currently reevaluating our approach but it doesn’t mean that we’ve made a decision regarding changing our position at the UN." Though she said that the U.S. will continue to block resolutions that are "unfair or biased"—which is to say, nearly all resolutions in the Israel-scapegoating UN—it's clear that President Obama is not particularly interested in spending political capital on behalf of Netanyahu in order to block a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood.

It is up to Netanyahu, in the coming weeks, to show he is actually committed to preserving the possibility of a two-state solution. I would like it, of course, if the White House would cease to dump on Israel for a day or two—it would be nice if it would exhibit the same restraint it shows when talking about the actions of the Iranian regime, for instance—but, nevertheless, this is a problem largely created by Netanyahu's deep cynicism, and cast-iron obstinacy.

If the Security Council recognizes Palestine as an independent state, Netanyahu will have no time at all to get his house in order before Israel becomes a true pariah. I've been arguing for years that Netanyahu has had two choices: Arrange for the birth of a Palestinian state in an orderly, secure way, over a period of several years, or do nothing over a period of several years, and then face a sudden crisis in which Israel loses its ability to manage the situation.

Here's something else Obama said in that interview last year: "I have not yet heard ... a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario."

He went on, "The only thing that I’ve heard is, 'We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority.' And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem. ... And my assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices."

Over the past couple of days I've had several conversations with American Jewish leaders—those who are located in the broad middle, between the J Street/Sheldon Adelson ends of the spectrum—and they are uniformly, and deeply, anxious. The message was the same: Netanyahu's next, even-more-right-wing-than-usual government, they fear, will only take steps to further Israel's isolation, from America and from the world, and the Obama administration, which feels such deep, emotional anger toward Israel, will only make the situation worse, by misunderstanding, and downplaying, Israel's anxieties. (Sad but true: Some Israelis voted for Netanyahu because they're frightened of Obama.)

Practical suggestions were in short supply, though a number of people suggested—and I endorse, for what it's worth—that the Obama administration deputize Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser, and that the Netanyahu government deputize Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States (and probable future member of the Netanyahu ruling coalition) to together hash out a provisional modus vivendi. Donilon understands Israelis better than most anyone in Obama's circle, and Oren understands American politics, and the Democratic Party, better than most anyone in Netanyahu's orbit. Such a dialogue won't solve everything, but at least it would lower the too-high temperature.

UPDATE: A couple of people have pointed out to me that it is highly unlikely that either Oren, or especially Donilon, will be deputized to therapize the relationship. Yep, true. But they'd be good at it nonetheless.