The Washington Post just published a long story by Scott Wilson about Barack Obama’s failure to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It starts with the now famous exchange in July 2009 in which Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, tells Obama, “If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them.” To the dismay of the Jewish officials present, Obama replies, “Look at the past eight years. During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel and what did we get from that?” Wilson then quotes the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman as saying “We believed from that point that we were in for problems.”
The piece goes on to discuss Obama’s various mistakes, including not visiting Israel, not being emotional enough in his devotion to the Jewish state, and suggesting that the Holocaust justifies Israel’s existence. Fine: Obama made tactical mistakes. But as one evaluates them, it’s worth noting the absurdity of Hoenlein’s alternative path.
Hoenlein’s formulation is itself quite revealing: Israel’s “leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” to be willing “to take risks.” Risks like, presumably, stopping settlement growth and withdrawing from most of the West Bank. If America doesn’t reassure Israel, Hoenlein implies, Israel will take the “safe” path: entrenching its occupation and inviting the Palestinians into a struggle over the character of the single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That, in Hoenlein’s view, is not risky at all.
So what “risks” would the Netanyahu government have taken had the Obama administration followed Hoenlein’s advice? Very likely, none at all. Netanyahu, remember, had spent his entire political career denouncing the idea of a Palestinian state, an idea he repeatedly described as a Nazi-like threat to the Jewish people. He had refused to endorse a Palestinian state while running for prime minister in late 2008. He had refused to endorse a Palestinian state while forming his government in early 2009, although doing so would have made it easier to lure Kadima leader Tzipi Livni into his coalition. He had even failed to endorse the concept during his first meeting with Obama in May 2009. And for good reason. Netanyahu’s own Likud Party was on record opposing a Palestinian state. With the exception of Ehud Barak’s emasculated Labor Party, the other partners in Netanyahu’s government were even more hostile. As Yuval Diskin, Netanyahu’s Shin Bet director would later explain, the Prime Minister worried that confronting his right-wing partners might topple his government. Indeed, in his book, The Missing Peace, Dennis Ross recounts a conversation in which Netanyahu argues that a political leader must never abandon the ideological base that constitutes his “tribe.”
So why did Netanyahu change course in June 2009 and endorse a Palestinian state? The obvious answer is American pressure. During Netanyahu’s first visit to Washington in May, Obama had bluntly advocated a Palestinian state, thus doing exactly what Hoenlein counseled against: putting public distance between himself and Israel. Then, in his Cairo speech in June, Obama had created even more distance by declaring, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Netanyahu responded by calling a special cabinet meeting, and then, in a hastily arranged speech ten days later, endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state.
The idea that Netanyahu only acts under duress is commonplace in Israel. As an Israeli official who has advised Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue recently told Haaretz, “If he doesn't have a sword to his throat, he won’t budge.” Luckily for Hoenlein, after Obama’s initial pressure for Netanyahu to back a Palestinian state, freeze settlement growth and use the 1967 lines plus swaps as his negotiating framework, the President has basically taken Jewish leaders’ advice. Since last summer, when team Obama began turning its focus toward the election, the White House has allowed virtually no distance between itself and Netanyahu on the Palestinian question. And the result has been exactly as Obama predicted during that famed exchange with Hoenlein: no progress at all.