Well, President Barack Obama has passed his first year in office, and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is not the only one wondering whether American Jews might be experiencing "buyers' remorse." (For the Jews of Israel, the matter was long ago settled. The president has done nothing to increase his popularity since it was last measured in the single digits.)
In an interview with Time Magazine's Joe Klein, even Obama, who is not notably disposed to confessing any error other than not having explained his policies sufficiently clearly for the rubes to understand, admitted that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is "just really hard. This is as intractable a problem as you get." He went on to say, "[I]f we had anticipated some of these problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."
The most obvious question raised by the president's confession of failure is why he found anything that happened surprising. After all, President Bill Clinton devoted his full energies and prestige to forging a peace deal at Camp David in 2000, and failed miserably. What magic did President Obama think he would bring to the table that Clinton lacked – other, of course, than "me," as he recently told one Arkansas congressman, explaining the difference between the 1994 midterm elections and those upcoming 2010 midterm elections.
In 2000, Yasir Arafat was still alive, and he, at least, had the prestige in Palestinian society to have possibly pulled off a peace deal. Mahmoud Abbas has nothing remotely approaching Arafat's status in Palestinian society. In 2000, Gaza and the West Bank were still unified under the Palestinian Authority, rather than two separate entities, one of them ruled by Hamas, which opposes any peace deal. In 2000, Clinton had the benefit of an extremely compliant Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, who was desperate to conclude some kind of deal in the hope of rescuing his floundering government.
For his efforts, President Clinton succeeded only in triggering the Second Intifada. Why, then, should Obama have imagined that he could do any better, given that he started from a considerably worse position? And why should he have been surprised to find, as he told Klein, that Abbas has "got Hamas looking over his shoulder and . . . an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process."
Typically, Obama balanced that criticism of the Arab world, in general, and the Palestinians, in particular, with some criticism of the Israelis. While admitting that Israel had shown a "willingness to make some modifications in their policies," the president still found that they had not many "any bold gestures." Those minor modifications, of course, included a ten-month freeze on building in the settlements. And if the president wanted to know why further "bold gestures" were not forthcoming, he needed to look no further than Abbas's refusal to enter into negotiations. Why should Netanyahu reward Abbas for playing the role of petulant child with further gestures, especially when the ones already made tested the limits of his coalition and went far beyond anything Obama was entitled to expect when he entered office. Meanwhile, the United States has refused to even hint at pressure on the Palestinians for their refusal to respond to Israel's declaration of a settlement freeze.
Given the deep suspicions in Israel and elsewhere about President Obama's commitment to Israel, one might have expected the president to reaffirm that commitment in his State of Union address. Yet, as Barry Rubin pointed out, Israel went unmentioned, likely for the first time in decades. Apparently, revisiting the scene of policy failure is too painful for the president.
LET US BRIEFLY REVIEW that policy failure. The administration entered office determined to once and for all resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its chosen means of doing so was to hector Israel on its settlement policy and place Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution at the top of the peacemaking agenda. In doing so, the administration lifted a page from the playbook of the foreign policy "realists," who have long viewed Israel not as a strategic ally but as an unwanted burden, which hinders development of relations with the Moslem world, where all the oil is. During the campaign, candidate Obama referred to the Arab-Israeli conflict as an open sore infecting every aspect of American policy. That too was fully consonant with the realists' view.
All the Obama administration succeeded in doing was convincing the Palestinians that the United States would hand them Israel's head on a platter, and that they need do nothing. On his first visit to Washington, Abbas shocked the editorial staff of the Washington Post by insisting that he would not negotiate with Israel because there was no need: American pressure on Israel would achieve the desired results.
Thus the administration pushed serious negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel ever further away. With the Americans having belabored the settlement issue so greatly, Abbas was now trapped: He could not treat the settlements as less important than the Americans did, and was now bound to demand a full Israeli withdrawal, or at least a commitment to it, as a precondition to negotiations.
Meanwhile, by treating President Bush's acknowledgment to Prime Minister Sharon that realities on the ground over the intervening decades render a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines unrealistic, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton helped convince Israel that American guarantees cannot be relied upon, and thereby made Israeli concessions even less likely than previously.
In addition, the Americans seemed to treat Palestinian statehood, not peace, as if it were the key desiderata of the so-called "peace process." That, needless to say, is not the Israeli view.
FROM THE STANDPOINT OF ISRAEL, the new administration's policy with respect to Iran has been even worse. Iran constitutes a threat to Israel's very existence to a degree that the Palestinians do not. President Obama entered office with his hand extended towards the Iranians with great fanfare. It has remained there for a year now, despite repeated snubs by the Iranians, when they bothered to respond at all. A president more mindful of the fact that the Europeans had tried the "let's be friends" approach for nearly six years before he entered office might have been less convinced that he had found a brilliant gambit to end the Iranian nuclear threat and less surprised when that turned out not to be the case.
The permanently extended hand has resulted in the Iranians moving a year closer to their goal of obtaining a nuclear capacity without the slightest hindrance from the United States. Indeed the failure of America to act upon any of its own deadlines or to declare enough is enough has only convinced the Iranians that the United States will never act to impose serious sanctions.
Clinging to the fantasy of "engagement" with bulldog tenacity caused President Obama to whiff entirely on the greatest unexpected opportunity – the development of a significant protest movement in Iran in the wake of the rigged presidential elections. Because he feared angering the mullahs, Obama first declared the brutal suppression of protests an internal matter and has offered only the most tepid support subsequently.
At this point, it is crystal clear that no sanctions could stop the Iranian nuclear build-up, and that the United States will not take military action. But the danger of a nuclear Iran lies not so much in the weapons themselves – as dangerous as those may be – but rather their possession by theocrats for whom a nuclear conflagration may well fit nicely with their eschatology. Regime change is ultimately the best hope for tempering the Iranian nuclear threat, and yet the United States has offered nothing in the way of support to the growing Iranian dissident movement.
So pathetic has the American approach proven that we were treated to the spectacle of French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly unbraiding President Obama at the U.N. for fantasizing about reducing American and Russian nuclear stockpiles, even as Iran and North Korea are acquiring nuclear weapons virtually unhindered. Britain, France, and Germany are pressing the United States to join them in serious sanctions, while President Obama holds out the pipe-dream of Russia and China joining in a U.N Security Council resolution. Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs, concludes that Iran will acquire a bomb without the United States having even made "a good show of trying seriously to do anything at all," much less anything effective.
ONE OF HISTORY'S MIRACLES was that if Israel had only one friend in the world, at least it was the most powerful nation in human history. In one short year, President Obama has gone a long way both towards removing American friendship towards Israel and towards neutering American power. A year of apologies and the refusal to project American power or act upon its own deadlines has emboldened America's enemies and dismayed those who depend upon American support. In Rubin's view, there is not a single nation in the world with whom American relations are on a more solid footing than they were as of President Obama's inauguration.
America's sinking international standing is only one part – and likely the smallest part – of the president's plummeting popularity. No president has ever dropped so far so fast in the polls. Presumably, American Jews are not completely immune to the loss of the Obama magic, but my guess is that they remain more supportive than all but black Americans and perhaps Arab Americans. Certainly, the dangers to Israel, which have only increased on Obama's watch, have had little impact on American Jewish support. That support remained well above 70% in America long after it had fallen to 6% in Israel. Not by accident, did Limbaugh ask whether Jewish investment bankers (and he might have added Jewish doctors) are experiencing "buyers' remorse," not whether supporters of Israel are losing faith in Israel.