As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama's Boldness On The Settlements Issue

It's clear that, while the President has been less willing to stake out a bold and uncompromising position on many issues, with respect to settlement growth in the West Bank, he has definitely done so. This has played out very publicly, surprisingly so, with Obama and his Administration calling for a freeze, while the Netanyahu government in Israel seeks expansion, which they call "natural growth," an insidious euphemism. President Obama has signaled more bluntness on the issue in the weeks to come.

The United States will be more blunt in raising objections to Israel's settlement policies in the Palestinian territories than previous administrations, President Barack Obama told a U.S. radio network in an interview on Monday.

"Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama told National Public Radio. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests.

"We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace," he added. "I've said that a freeze on settlements is part of that."

When asked about Israel's refusal to commit to a complete settlement freeze, the president told NPR it was still too early to determine what measures the administration could take to pressure Jerusalem.

"It's still early in the process," Obama said. "They've [Israel] formed a government, what, a month ago?"

"We're going to have a series of conversations," the president told NPR. "I believe that strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said. "Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders."

Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, met with US officials yesterday and received the same message - that settlement expansion is intolerable, and a freeze represents the first step on the path to peace. Barak's compromise proposals were not accepted, and Obama himself popped in at one point to discuss the situation. While aides downplayed the tensions, clearly the US and Israel differ on this crucial issue.

Clearly the settlements issue will not be settled overnight, but just as clearly, the forces supporting the status quo and an expansion of the settlements in the West Bank are marshaling their forces, trying to whip up Congressional opinion against Obama's stance. This was a matter of time - the Israel lobby has many friends on Capitol Hill, and seeing their hardline position threatened, they at some point were going to use those allies to try and head it off.

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). “I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

“When Congress gets back into session the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me,” she said.

Presidents from Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush saw attempts to pressure Israel draw furious objections from Congress, but members of Congress and observers say Obama will most likely prevail as long as he shows that he’s putting effective pressure on Israel’s Arab foes as well.

But even a key defender of Obama’s Mideast policy, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), is seeking to narrow the administration’s definition of “settlement” to take pressure off Obama. And the unusual criticism by congressional Democrats of the popular president is a sign that it may take more than a transformative presidential election to change the domestic politics of Israel [...]

“There’s a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the president is tiptoeing right up to that line,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who said he’d heard complaints from constituents during the congressional recess. “I would have liked to hear the president talk more about the Palestinian obligation to cut down on terrorism.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who said he thinks there’s “room for compromise.”

Lining up one by one.

The ruling Likudniks in Israel have matched this rhetoric, accusing Obama of interfering in their domestic politics. This is ridiculous. The greatest interference by the United States in Israeli domestic politics concerns the billions in foreign aid we lavish on them every year. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that, as a condition of that support, Israel does not pursue policies that inflame hatred in the Muslim world, particularly hatred toward the United States. Settlement growth is a national security issue for this country.

And Obama has proceeded with determination not to allow such destructive policies to rebound on the United States. As Juan Cole says, Israel's settlement policy is the "Amy Winehouse of foreign affairs," hurting both itself and others. Cole has some ideas about where Obama can go next, but I think he's on the right track. And the Middle East issue sits at the forefront of all of our problems with the Muslim world, so he certainly has the pressure and mindset to move forward in a forthright manner.

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