(Zalman Shoval-JCPA).President Obama came into office with strong preconceptions about foreign policy and especially about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Obama's view, the parameters of a future peace settlement were already clear. All that was necessary was to convince the Arab world that America was not in Israel's pocket.
To prove it was not following Israel's lead, the Obama administration decided to force Israel to halt any construction over the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line), including within Jerusalem neighborhoods, taking a relatively peripheral issue and making it a decisive element in U.S.-Israel relations. There had been no settlement freeze in the Oslo Agreements, and the U.S. and Israel had reached bilateral understandings during the last decade that allowed Israel to address the needs of its citizens in the settlements without taking additional land in the process.
The main result of the administration's new policy was to encourage the Palestinians to take more hard-line positions. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas began to insist on preconditions for direct negotiations which never existed before.
On Iran, the Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Tehran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite, stressing that if Iran's nuclear program were neutralized, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalized elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace, especially Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria.
The Obama administration now appears to have concluded that the tactics it employed against the Netanyahu government were self-defeating. But it is premature to establish that it has revised its overall strategic outlook.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to say, "What you see from here, you don't see from there" - meaning that there is a difference between how you understand the Middle East before you are in a position of power and how you perceive it when you are in office. Apparently, this truism also could be applied to the Obama administration.
As U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to produce positive results, leading commentators began to question whether the stress the administration placed on resolving the conflict was misplaced. Aaron David Miller, who was involved in the peace process for two decades in the State Department, questioned in Foreign Policy if this was still a core issue.1 Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly head of policy planning in the State Department, also argued, "it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is."2
Why, nonetheless, has the Obama administration stressed the Palestinian issue so much? The answer appears to be a combination of Obama's own ideological proclivities and his own reading of the U.S. national interest. Thus, in April 2010, he declared that conflicts like the one in the Middle East end up "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure." He appeared to be making a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America's war against radical Islamic groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While this harsh statement may have reflected the inner thinking of the administration, it eventually concluded that these tactics didn't work. There were internal political pressures in the U.S. to soften the tone on Israel, especially with the November 2010 mid-term elections coming up.
To many observers, it seems that the Obama administration's policy is really changing on the subject of Iran. On June 9, 2010, at long last, the U.S. reached a consensus in the UN Security Council and pushed through the adoption of new sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 1929. On July 1, President Obama signed a bill imposing tough new U.S. sanctions against Iran that targeted exports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Tehran. It also banned U.S. banks from doing business with foreign banks providing services to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Obama's diplomatic contacts also appeared to yield real results. Shortly after Resolution 1929 was adopted, the EU adopted new measures against Iran on July 26. Norway, Canada, Australia, and Japan all announced new steps against Iran, as well. The U.S. and Israel previously had real differences on Iran as the Israeli government was skeptical about engagement. It felt that new Western sanctions should have been put in place already in September 2009. Still, the Netanyahu government greeted the new U.S.-led actions positively.
One of the great U.S.-Israel differences was far more strategic. The Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Iran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite: in Jerusalem, government officials often stressed that if Iran's nuclear program were neutralized, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalized elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace, especially Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria. However, the U.S. and Israel never resolved their differences over regional strategic priorities.
There have been some indications that the administration had learned some lessons from its almost obsessive focus on settlements. On July 7, a day after his summit meeting with Netanyahu at the White House, Obama gave an interview to Yonit Levy of Israel Channel 2 television, who tried to bring up the settlement issue:
Question: Will you, by the way, extend - request that Israel extends that settlement freeze after September?President Obama: You know, what I want is for us to get into direct talks. As I said yesterday, I think that if you have direct talks between Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Netanyahu, their teams, that builds trust. And trust then allows for both sides to not be so jumpy or paranoid about every single move that's being made, whether it's related to Jerusalem or any of the other issues that have to be dealt with, because people feel as if there's a forum in which conflicts can get resolved.
Obama did not say that if the Israeli government refused to extend its ten-month settlement freeze, the U.S. would react harshly. He seemed to chastise the Palestinians for becoming paranoid "about every single move that's being made." His priority was to get to direct talks. But that did not mean that the administration's policy on construction in the settlements had changed. He also did not signal whether he was pulling back on his insistence on a freeze in construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of the eastern part of Jerusalem.
In short, the U.S. and Israel still have significant differences over the peace process and the issue of Iran. The Obama administration appears to have learned that the tactics it employed against the Netanyahu government were self-defeating. But it is premature to establish that it has revised its overall strategic outlook. President Obama's prioritization of an American effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to continue because he believes that it can transform the difficult relationship between America and the Islamic world that became sharper after 9/11. This approach by the administration is not a question of tactics, but rather a matter of world view. And it is likely to accompany the U.S.-Israel relationship in the months and perhaps years ahead.