Is Obama Getting Tough With Israel?

By Dan Froomkin
2:00 PM ET, 05/29/2009

President Obama heads to the Middle East next week, where on Thursday he'll make a much-anticipated address in Cairo aimed at repairing American's ties with the Muslim world.

He has a big advantage simply not being George W. Bush, of course -- and having abolished the most egregious, Crusade-like aspects of this country's approach to counter-terrorism.

But what can he tell the world's Muslims to assuage their anger about their most long-standing grievance: America's reflexive support of Israel?

As I've written before, there are signs Obama will promote a new regional peace initiative for the Middle East, much like the one championed by Jordan's King Abdullah.

And now along comes the first distinct signs that Obama is willing to play hardball with Israel.

Paul Richter, Christi Parsons and Richard Boudreaux write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama and top Israeli officials staked out sharply opposing positions over the explosive issue of Jewish settlements Thursday, propelling a rare dispute between the two close allies into full public view just days before the U.S. leader is due to deliver a long-awaited address in Egypt to the world's Muslims.

"Speaking after a White House meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama reiterated that he had been 'very clear about the need to stop building settlements, to stop building outposts' on Palestinian territory.

"Only hours earlier, the Israeli government said it would continue to allow some growth in the settler communities in the West Bank.

"The exchange underscored the unusually hard-line position Obama has taken publicly with Israel early in his administration. Most U.S. presidents, aware of the political sensitivity, have worked hard to keep disagreements out of sight, when they existed."

The issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories is incendiary for Palestinians, and nearly defining for the right-wing Israeli political bloc that newly re-installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends on in order to retain power.

Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe: "As he prepares to fly to the Middle East next week to give a speech on his policy toward the region and US-Muslim relations, it seemed clear yesterday that his administration is willing to risk prickly relations with one of the closest US allies - and possible anger from some Jewish voters - to try to create a Palestinian state."

David S. Cloud writes for Politico: "Obama's willingness to place much of the initial onus on Israel for resuming peace talks is clearly greater than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who rarely allowed any hint of public difference between himself and Israel. The strategy also carries some domestic political risk for Obama. That was clear Thursday when 329 House members and 76 senators sent him a letter advising against putting too much public pressure on Israel."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post that the 2003 "road map" for peace, "commits Israel to dismantling settler outposts and freezing 'all settlement activity,' including building to accommodate what is known as 'natural growth.' But the near-daily barrage of U.S. demands that Israel halt settlement growth has surprised Israeli officials, who argue that they greatly restrained growth under an unwritten 2005 agreement with the Bush administration. Under that deal, Israel was to stop providing incentives for settlers to move to the West Bank and was to build only in areas it expected to keep in future peace agreements....

"The Obama administration appears to have calculated that pressing Israel on settlements will help demonstrate to the Arab nations that the United States is serious about pursuing peace, even at the risk of appearing to undermine Netanyahu's nascent government."

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama Thursday ratcheted up what might be America's toughest bargaining position with Israel in a generation."

Thomma also writes: "It's noteworthy that Obama this week announced that he'd go to Saudi Arabia early next week for a private dinner with King Abdullah, en route to Cairo.

"'If what Obama is trying to do is get states like the Saudis to actually do things now, not only will he have achieved something pretty significant, he'll make it almost impossible for the Israelis to say no,' Miller said. 'No Israeli prime minister can afford to mismanage Israel's most important relationship, especially at a time when the Iranians are closer to nuclear power.'"

It's also possible that Obama is willing -- heck, even eager -- to see Netanyahu's government collapse. The prime minister has been a longtime skeptic of proposals to create a Palestinian state and refused to commit to the concept during his U.S. visit.

Laura Rozen blogs for Foreign Policy: "According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu's dismay, Obama doesn't appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was....

"Even one veteran Washington peacemaker who had grown skeptical that Washington can overcome obstacles to get substantive progress on Middle East peace admitted to being impressed by the Obama team's resolve. 'What I'm beginning to see is that the Obama administration may be less concerned with actually getting to negotiations and an agreement and more interested in setting new rules and rearranging the furniture,' said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute. 'They may have concluded that they can't get to a real two state solution with this prime minister. Maybe they want a new one? And the best way to raise the odds of that is to demonstrate that he can't manage Israel's most important relationship: with the U.S.'"

Jackson Diehl writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.

"Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel."

This is not a good thing, Diehl writes, because in so doing, Obama "has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud."

But in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth translated by M.J. Rosenberg, Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former United States ambassador to Israel, suggests that Obama is on a larger mission.

"Netanyahu should listen to Obama because Obama is telling him, in essence, that resolving the conflict is an American interest," Indyk said. "What is happening at present is that the Israeli-Arab conflict serves as an instrument in the hands of America's enemies — Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Time is not working in Israel's favor or in favor of peace."

Indyk says Obama's new message to Israels is this: "[A]ll these years, the US has been strengthening you precisely for this purpose — so that you can take the risk of making peace. How exactly can the Palestinians destroy you? The real existential danger is that you will not succeed in parting from them."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company