Obama Getting 'Honest' With Israel

By Dan Froomkin
11:15 AM ET, 06/ 2/2009

President Obama's call for a "new dialogue" in the Middle East -- one in which the U.S. would be "honest" about what Israel has to do to achieve security -- is the clearest indication yet that the new administration is taking a dramatically different and much more assertive approach with its long-time ally.

Obama's comments indicate that he believes Israel has been indulged -- even deluded -- by previous administrations, to its own detriment. By contrast, this president's view seems to be that what Israel really needs is to be pushed into making the difficult concessions that are in its own long-term interests.

And Obama has been clear that the first concession Israel needs to make is to freeze the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that both literally and figuratively set the occupation of Palestinian territories in concrete.

Stopping the growth of settlements -- not to mention dismantling them -- is a hugely sensitive political issue for Israelis, and Israel's current right-wing leadership is already talking about defying Obama's request.

But on the eve of an overseas trip that will include a major address to the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday, Obama is showing no signs of, as he would put it, "equivocation."

Here is an excerpt from Obama's interview yesterday with Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep of NPR that's worth reading carefully (transcript, audio):

Inskeep: Mr. President, you mentioned a freeze on settlements. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quoted today saying to cabinet members in Israel that he will not follow your demand for a freeze on settlements in the West Bank – that it's not going to happen. What does it suggest, that Israel is not taking your advice?
Obama: Well, I think it's still early in the process. They formed a government, what, a month ago? I think that we're going to have a series of conversations. Obviously, the first priority of an Israeli prime minister is to think in terms of Israel's security. I believe that, strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israeli security; that, over time, in the absence of peace with the Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems along its borders. And so, it is not only in the Palestinians' interest to have a state. I believe it is in the Israelis', as well, and in the United States' interest, as well.
Inskeep: But if the United States says for years that Israel should stop the settlements, and for years, Israel simply does not, and the United States continues supporting Israel in roughly the same way, what does that do with American credibility in the Muslim world which you're trying to address?
Obama: Well, I think what is certainly true is that the United States has to follow through on what it says. Now, as I said before, I haven't said anything yet, because it's early in the process. But it is important for us to be clear about what we believe will lead to peace and that there's not equivocation and there's not a sense that we expect only compromise on one side; it's going to have to be two-sided, and I don't think anybody would deny that, in theory. When it comes to the concrete, then the politics of it get difficult, both within the Israeli and the Palestinian communities. But, look, if this was easy, it would've already been done.
Norris: Many people in the region are concerned — when they look at the U.S. relationship with Israel, they feel that Israel has favored status in all cases. And what do you say to people in the Muslim world who feel that the U.S. has, repeatedly over time, blindly supported Israel?
Obama: Well, what I'd say is, there's no doubt that the United States has a special relationship with Israel. There are a lot of Israelis who used to be Americans. There is huge cross-cultural ties between the two countries. I think that as a vibrant democracy that shares many of our values, obviously we're deeply sympathetic to Israel. And, I think, I would also say that given past statements surrounding Israel: The notion that they should be driven into the sea, that they should be annihilated, that they should be obliterated — the armed aggression that's been directed toward them in the past — you can understand why not only Israelis would feel concerned, but the United States would feel it was important to back this stalwart ally.
Now, having said all that, what is also true is that part of being a good friend is being honest. 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. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region.

Why are the settlements such a big deal? And why is Israeli resistance to a freeze so intense?

Isabel Kershner writes in the New York Times:

The Israeli population of the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, has tripled since the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort started in the early 1990s, and it now approaches 300,000. The settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians in about 120 settlements, which much of the world considers a violation of international law, as well as in dozens of outposts erected without official Israeli authorization.

Those settlers are a determined bunch. As for the politics:

Mr. Netanyahu is trying to hold together a fractious coalition, including parties that favor settlement building and oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. He must contend with an aggressive settler movement, emboldened by support from Israeli governments for decades and determined to continue building, if necessary through unofficial means....
Underlining the competing pressures on Mr. Netanyahu, extremist settlers rioted on Monday in various parts of the northern West Bank, stoning Arab vehicles, burning tires and setting fields alight, according to a witness and the police. They were protesting the government's recent actions against some tiny outposts. Several Palestinians were wounded. Six Israeli settlers and a rightist member of Parliament were arrested and later released.
Israel had reached tacit agreements with the Bush administration that allowed for some continued construction of settlements. But Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are now demanding an end even to what the Israelis call "natural growth" in existing settlements.

Meanwhile, as Glenn Kessler reports in The Washington Post, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is in Washington meeting with U.S. officials.

Israeli officials have been stunned by the demands of top Obama administration officials that Israel halt settlement growth throughout the West Bank, and Barak was said to be carrying compromise proposals focusing mainly on dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts.

But if anything, Obama's position is getting more rigid.

The Obama administration has also indicated it does not consider itself bound to the terms of a 2004 letter that President George W. Bush gave then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying Israel could expect to keep major settlements in a peace deal. Late Friday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly issued a statement pointedly declining to reaffirm that the letter carried over to the current administration. He instead reiterated that there must be a "stop to settlements."

Josh Marshall writes for Talking Points Memo:

"[N]atural growth" really is the most natural thing in the world if -- and this is what all turns on -- if you think the settlements are permanent. If the existing settlements are permanent, then it's silly to think that one settler can live in a house but it's forbidden to build a new house on the lot next store.
But if the settlements are permanent, then a Palestinian state is basically impossible. And that means the occupation is permanent, as is the conflict.
Now, if you think arresting the growth of the settlements in the dysfunctional politics of contemporary Israel is difficult, try dismantling them. I've long worried that any effort to dismantle them would lead to something like civil war in the country. Because the settlers, at least the most ideological ones, are completely indifferent to the rule of law.
But resolving the conflict is impossible with the West Bank settlements. And before you can dismantle them, you have to start to by stopping their growth. And on this point Obama seems like he means business.

Jonathan Marcus writes for the BBC:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem.
Something has changed in Washington. This new US President, Barack Obama, is unlike any that an Israeli leader has faced before....
The tone and content of the Obama administration's pronouncements on the settlement issue are clear and to the point.
The US wants a halt to settlement building. Now.....
The change in mood also extends to Capitol Hill where, when Mr Netanyahu visited Washington, he was left in no doubt that the president's approach is supported by many of Israel's longstanding friends in Congress.

Regarding that last matter -- the issue of Congressional support -- it's not at all clear how widespread it is or how long it will last. Congress has a long history of being enormously vulnerable to pressure from the pro-Israeli lobby.

And right on cue, Ben Smith writes for Politico that

the administration's escalating pressure on Israel to freeze all growth of its settlements on Palestinian land has begun to stir concern among Israel's numerous allies in both parties on Capitol Hill.
"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....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.

Liz Halloran reports for NPR, Obama also commented on former Vice President Dick Cheney's outspoken defense of Bush-era national security policies in his NPR interview:

Norris: He's forceful, he's unapologetic and he doesn't seem willing to scale back his rhetoric....
Obama: Well, he also happens to be wrong. (Chuckles.) Right? And last time, immediately after his speech, I think there was a fact-check on his speech that didn't get a very good grade. Does it make it more complicated? No, because I think these are complicated issues and there is a legitimate debate to be had about national security. And I don't doubt the sincerity of the former vice president or the previous administration in wanting to protect the American people. And these are very difficult decisions.

Obama was clearly referring to Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel's excellent analysis of Cheney's May 21 speech for McClatchy Newspapers.

Obama also did an interview yesterday with the BBC, mostly about his upcoming speech in Cairo.

Justin Webb writes for the BBC:

This is not an apology for the actions of the Bush White House - that the president told me flatly.
Nor is it a speech that is designed only to please the audience - the president will talk about the US Muslim community ("huge and thriving" he called it) and point out misperceptions in the Muslim world's view of the US.
But on human rights, I fear he will disappoint: I asked him straight whether Hosni Mubarak (the Egyptian leader for 38 years!) was an autocrat. Mr Obama told me he was a force for stability and good.

On the issue of Israeli settlements, Webb asked Obama what he would do if Israel refuses to stop their growth. "I think I've said my peace on this matter," Obama said. "We're going to continue negotiations. We think that it's early in the process, but we think we can make some progress."

Meanwhile, in a Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren yesterday, Cheney (accompanied by his daughter Liz) had some unsolicited advice for Obama, on his upcoming Cairo speech:

Cheney: [T]here's a bit of a temptation, I think, on the part of people who haven't dealt with that part of the world on a regular basis to think that the key is, you know, being super-nice or apologetic. My experience in that part of the world is that it's a question of respect. And what they admire most, for example, in American officials are people who stand tall for what they believe in but also are very direct, keep their word and not apologetic....
I hope he's had good advice as he crafted his remarks and decided what message it is he wants to leave with his hosts.
Van Susteren: Do you think he's soft?
Cheney: I don't -- I can't say that. I think -- I do think he's still, you know, still learning. He was a state senator and then he was a U.S. senator for a few months, and then he ran for president. It's a tough, tough job, and he's had plenty put on his platter to begin with, a very difficult economic situation, North Korea's testing nukes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, there are plenty of problems that he's got to address, and he doesn't get a breathing spell here to address them.
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