Will Obama Be Strong?

Returning to Jerusalem from New Hampshire is always something of a shock, not just trading English for Hebrew (including trading the automatic if complacent multiculturalism of America's talking heads for the self-conscious if tortured parochialism of Israel's), but trading big space for big time, "nature" for "history." This week, however, the little shock of moving is magnified by the stalled peace talks, which fills the air with a sense of impending crisis. It is not that anyone really thought Netanyahu and Abbas would get very far on their own; the hope was that talks would create a context in which the Obama administration could finally put a thumb on the scales. But that is precisely why the peculiar way the talks are stalled seems so disquieting. For anyone with plane rides to reflect on the state of politics in Israel and America, the crisis seems a case of convergent pathologies.

M.J. Rosenberg points out that Netanyahu is not only the prime minister of Israel but another Republican for Obama to contend with: another Fox-News hero, darling of conservative columnists, embodiment of the war against "terror," champion of markets, beneficiary of powerful lobbyists. Moreover, moving Netanyahu to a deal is not just the chance to rack up a "foreign policy" victory. Getting a deal is a kind of Middle Eastern "stimulus," a crucial step in turning around a potentially catastrophic series of failures, which US troops are trying (and failing) to prevent. That Obama move Netanyahu is a matter of national interest. How he will move Netanyahu, if at all, will say much about whether he will overcome the forces that are discrediting his presidency beyond all reason.

I hasten to add (on this anniversary of the October War of 1973) that Netanyahu is making Israel the country of No, not because, as Time suggests, "Israelis" don't care about peace, but because he is afraid of becoming politically irrelevant, something like the way Yasir Arafat did when the Al-Aqsa Intifada started spontaneously in the fall of 2000. His governing party, the Likud, is not just a party in the Western sense. It is the rallying point for a proto-fascist settler movement which, if you add up all of its sympathizers in and around Jerusalem, and all of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that march in lockstep with proponents of Greater Israel, probably numbers a million and half people.

They are led by a coalition of settlement council leaders, xenophobic rabbis, militant cynics from Russia, populists, anti-"elitists." Many of them are armed; they are willing to take the streets, preempt the law by changing facts on the ground, and oppose a Palestinian state (i.e., a huge Arab city-state engulfing Jerusalem) as a threat to their way of life. For them, freezing settlements is just a warm-up. All are waiting for Obama to dare force Netanyahu to make concessions regarding Ariel, or Jerusalem, or the "Jewishness" of Israel in the face of Israel's huge Arab minority.

Obama is offering the Israeli government a carrot, which Netanyahu may just manage to persuade his inner cabinet to take: an array of guarantees and weapons systems, if it will extend the moratorium on settlements by just two months. There is a certain logic to this offer: two months will get Obama passed the congressional elections, after which he will presumably have a freer hand, or at least a freer thumb. The time would hypothetically give negotiators a chance to progress on principles to base a final border on, which would make the question of whether a settlements' freeze is total or partial moot. Besides, as long as the sides are talking, the less likely it is that violence will break out. Nobody thinks Abbas can survive a new intifada. . 

But will there also be a stick? Netanyahu is not some regional Olympia Snowe; nor is his problem just a potential "coalition crisis." He may well be enough of a globalist to fear the economic hazards of isolation. But whatever his ideological drift, asking him to work with Abbas on a serious plan is like asking him to isolate himself--that is, join as a junior partner with leaders of Israel's secular (and narrowing) majority, centered on Tel-Aviv and Kadima, to preempt a potentially violent insurrection of the very people he has been leading; people he could never take into a deal on his own prestige, and who will slough him off as quickly as they did Sharon, Olmert, and Livni before him.

Obama is giving Netanyahu enough space to be another De Gaulle, and--who knows?--he may surprise us. But it will always be easier for Netanyahu to posture as Churchill and act like Sen. DeMint: count on Obama to make his prestige hostage to a successful negotiation, preclude success, and outlast the "Waterloo." Eventually, he thinks, Obama will run out of months, F-35s, and Senators. Which brings me to America's politics, and a little digression.

I CONFESS THAT I was one of Obama's supporters who believed that if he could notch some major legislative victories, nobody would doubt the power of his presidency--that his popularity would remain stable, in spite of the furnace that is Fox-News. Things have not quite worked out this way. Here we have a president who can reasonably claim to have saved the financial system while recovering most of the TARP funds, prevented a depression by passing the stimulus (meanwhile jump-starting the technologies of electronic mobility), saved the auto industry, achieved healthcare reform, put two superior women on the Supreme Court, jawboned BP into putting $20 billion into environmental recovery, reformed banking regulations and set up a consumer protection agency for borrowers, repaired relations with Russia--quite apart from getting the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president into the same room. And yet, Velma is tired of defending him.

Now, one explanation for Velma is Iraq and Afghanistan, another is that people "are angry." But even Velma knows that Obama was stuck with wars, a recession, and a global transformation he did not create. (Another explanation, perhaps, is that Velma could not resist making the most of her fifteen minutes of fame). The most common explanation, at least in progressive circles, is that all of Obama's achievements are tainted by his tactical coziness with the corporate rich: arguably, Rubin's protégées should not have become the faces of recovery, the banks should have been nationalized, the stimulus should have been bigger, GM managers should have been allowed to fail, healthcare should have had a public option, the administration should have "cleaned house" at the oil industry's regulator, we should be taxing carbon. Yes, and investors should not be rich and fifty-five plus half-of-five should equal sixty.

Still, if Obama can be faulted for his decline--here, the plane-ride thoughts--it is because erudite, sober, articulate people like him resist some hard truths that offend the humility of reason; truths that the new media environment have made truer than ever; an environment you have to be away from nine months a year to fully detest. A great many Americans still respect Obama's arguments; he polls consistently at about 45% approval, remember. But many other people care more about leaders who seem strong, not merely smart (which is dangerously close to being "elite"). They are motivated most of all, as Orwell said, by a desire "to avoid looking a fool," which means they will dislike you if they think it is safe or cool to dislike you. For many, the 24/7 cycle is just another version of "Survivor": you get points for passion and steadfastness. Ed Rendell stays. How many faces of the Obama administration would?

I know I am not saying anything others have not. Obama himself has been complaining of late about a media drawn to the grotesque: he was talking about this very thing when that kid yawned in his face--and we know the kid was yawning because, well, the media is drawn to the grotesque. But as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us, the most grotesque show this past two years has been Republicans ferociously undermining everything Obama has proposed, mocking him for the lack of progress--and getting credit for, of all things, ferocity. Like it or not, Obama is not going to get his "independents" back unless he can prove himself strong in something like this way. He can't count on nuclear missiles in Cuba to quarantine.

All of which brings me round to Netanyahu again. Sure, the offer he made to the Israeli government may be reasonable, but it feels vaguely like the offers made to Senator Grassley during the summer of 2009 over healthcare, and with about as much likelihood of ultimate success. Nor will displays of patience for Netanyahu's coalition get Obama credit anymore than paeans to bipartisanship did. Most Americans, including American Jews, think the settlements are a disgrace, the Dershowitzian defense--that the cause of the conflict is, not settlements, but rather Arab enmity--a non-sequitur. Even if there are secret negotiations to delineate a border, Obama's public opposition to settlements will only help them succeed.

Nor can Obama's opposition come only in a UN speech. It must be backed up with (as MJ and many of us have longed claimed) with proportional cuts to aid and other sanctions; it must be backed with a public explanation for this policy, the way Eisenhower publicly called for Ben-Gurion's withdrawal from Sinai in February, 1957. Enough!, as a candidate I heard once said. Obama must show Israeli globalists and Palestinian moderates that he has their back in a fight that will be tough and can no longer be put off. As with healthcare, Obama must show people in the region that he is prepared to frame the problem and make the fight. The point is, he has to show Velma, too.