Published on TheHill.com on December 16, 2008
With the election of Barack Obama, the United States has moved dramatically to the left in its foreign policy at just the time that Israel, which seems likely to return Bibi Netanyahu to office in early February, is moving to the right. A collision is almost inevitable.
Caroline Glick, the highly astute conservative columnist for the Jerusalem Post, writes that the “international community” believes that Obama “will move quickly to place massive pressure on the next Israeli government to withdraw from Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the interests of advancing a â€˜peace process’ with the Palestinians and the Syrians.” She notes that “people who have been in close contact with Obama’s foreign policy transition team have privately acknowledged that the widespread belief that Obama will move swiftly to put the screws on Israel is fully justified. According to one source who has spent a great deal of time with the transition team since last month’s U.S. elections, Obama’s people are â€˜scope-locked’ on Israel.”
Meanwhile, in Israel, there is a growing consensus, reflected in public opinion surveys, that trading land for peace is a chimera. Netanyahu points out that “we do not have a viable partner with whom to negotiate peace.” The Palestinian Authority does not speak for the people of either Gaza or the West Bank, and Hamas, which probably does (it won the election), does not want to be a party to any peace agreement. Recent experience suggests that Hamas will quickly install rocket launchers on any territory Israel concedes, using it not as a basis for peace, but as a platform from which to kill more Jews.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the candidates of the left, Labor’s Ehud Barak and Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, are deeply committed to land for peace. Their rejection by the Israeli electorate – the anticipated outcome of the Feb. 10 election – will signal a bold departure in the political consensus of the Jewish state, a consensus that flies directly in the face of Obama’s likely policy.
The difference between the U.S. and Israel also extends to the realm of how strongly they oppose Iranian development of nuclear weapons. While Iran moves closer and closer to a bomb that could and will be used against Israel, Obama speaks of extending the American “nuclear umbrella” to cover Israel.
Reading between the lines, this means that he doesn’t think he can stop Iranian nuclear ambitions and will retreat to a policy of deterrence, accepting a nuclear Iran in the bargain.
If Netanyahu wins the election, he will bring with him a determination to stop Iranian nuclear weapons, no matter what, and a refusal to concede more territory in the name of the peace process. But Obama’s foreign policy team will be focusing on pushing Israel in just the opposite direction.
The result is likely to be the most significant divergence between Israeli and American policies since 1956, when President Eisenhower sided with the Arabs to halt the British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez.
The United States has tremendous leverage over Israel – military, financial and political. And Obama’s ability to carry the Jewish vote by a wide margin despite his likely Middle East policy makes him largely immune to the kind of political pressure that has disciplined American presidents in the past and forced them to incline toward accommodating Israeli views on the Middle East.
But Israel probably has the military capacity to bomb Iran and to win the Middle East war against Syria, Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah that is likely to result. Unlike Olmert, Netanyahu will use ground troops right off the bat and will fight such a war to win and to win big. But they may have to do it without their strongest ally: the United States.