POLITICO By BEN SMITH Vowing to change a region that has resisted the best efforts of presidents and prime ministers past, Barack Obama dove head first into the Middle East peace process on his second day in office.
He was supposed to be different. His personal identity, his momentum, his charisma and his promise of a fresh start would fundamentally alter America’s relations with the Muslim world and settle one of its bitterest grievances.
Two years later, he has managed to forge surprising unanimity on at least one topic: Barack Obama. A visit here finds both Israelis and Palestinians blame him forthe current stalemate – just as they blame one another.
Instead of becoming a heady triumph of his diplomatic skill and special insight, Obama’s peace process is viewed almost universally in Israel as a mistake-riddled fantasy. And far from becoming the transcendent figure in a centuries-old drama, Obama has become just another frustrated player on a hardened Mideast landscape.
The current state of play sums up the problem. Obama’s demand that the Israelis stop building settlements on the West Bank was met, at long last, by a temporary and partial freeze, but its brief renewal is now the subject of intensive negotiations.
The political peace process to which Obama committed so much energy is considered a failure so far. And in the world’s most pro-American state, the public and its leaders have lost any faith in Obama and – increasingly — even in the notion of a politically negotiated peace.
Even those who still believe in the process that Obama has championed view his conduct as a deeply unfunny comedy of errors.
“He’s like rain,” said a top Israeli official involved in diplomacy with the U.S., speaking of Obama’s role in negotiations. “You can do all kinds of things to cope with it.”
Some fret that not only has Obama failed to move the process forward, but that he and his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts may have dealt it a setback that will leave it worse off than when they began.
“Each of them has exacerbated the mistakes of the other,” said Michael Herzog, a retired general who still plays an informal role advising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiators. He worries that the result of the bumbling could be “disastrous: people will lose hope in the possibility of a two-state solution.”
The notion that Israel would get $2 billion worth of military hardware for a three-month delay in the construction of a few houses appears incomprehensible, and has drawn criticism for two reasons: Netanyahu’s conservative coalition partners worry that the Americans are selling them yesterday’s carpet, making a condition of something that was already in the works. His American critics, meanwhile, expressed astonishment that Obama would pay so much for so little.
The reality is more complicated, and emblematic of the stilted relationship between the United States and its ally, and of the Israeli angst over American support, its mistrust of Obama, and its assumption that peace talks will fail. The Israelis are using the talks – viewed by most of the government as a fantasy – as a bridge to their more immediate security needs.
“It’s not connected to the 90 days – it’s connected to the Saudi deal,” said a senior aide to Netanyahu. “It’s not something [Netanyahu] had in his pocket.”
Still, a visitor finds no shortage of good news on the ground. Israel’s tech sector is booming, Tel Aviv’s cafes bustle and Israel has enjoyed a period largely free of suicide bombings and rocket attacks. In the Palestinian territories, there is also a positive tale to tell: The robust economic growth in West Bank cities patrolled by a functioning Palestinian police force.
But the American president has been diminished, even in an era without active hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. His demands on the parties appear to shrink each month, with the path to a grand peace settlement narrowing to the vanishing point. The lack of Israeli faith in him and his process has them using the talks to extract more tangible security assurances – the jets. And though America remains beloved, Obama is about as popular here as he is in Oklahoma. A Jerusalem Post poll in May found 9 percent of Israelis consider Obama “pro-Israel,” while 48 percent say he’s “pro-Palestinian.”
“Israelis really hate Obama’s guts,” said Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for two leading Israeli newspapers. “We used to trust Americans to act like Americans, and this guy is like a European leader.”
Many senior Israeli leaders have concluded that Hillary Clinton and John McCain were right about Obama’s naivete and inexperience.
“The naïve liberals who are at the heart of the administration really believe in all the misconceptions the Palestinians and all their friends all over the world are trying to place,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former high-ranking military intelligence officer who is now deputy director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Kuperwasser, like other Israelis, bridled at the suggestion that the country’s dislike of Obama draws from the Muslim influences of his heritage – or even his name.
“It drives me crazy. Who cares that his middle name is Hussein? It’s the last thing we care about. [To suggest that] is just anti-Semitism,” he said. “There is one reason why we are hesitant about this guy: he doesn’t understand us.”
“It might be that the reason you haven't had peace with the Palestinians is not because you haven’t had changes in policies, not because you haven’t had changes with the American approach, but because the Palestinians haven’t brought themselves to real reconciliation with Israel,” Netanyahu’s closest adviser, Ron Dermer, told POLITICO.
“The prime minister is not only more optimistic than his staff. The prime minister is more optimistic than his ministers,” he said, adding that unlike Begin, Netanyahu “does not believe that the status quo is sustainable.”
Netanyahu is almost alone in his party in suggesting that the peace process could go somewhere; one of the few others in Israeli public life who insists on that point is his chief rival and critic, opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Peace talks really could advance, she argues, if Israel had a leader whom the Americans and Palestinians could trust, as they did when she served as Foreign Minister when her party, Kadima, ran the government before the rightward correction that occurred just weeks after Obama’s own election.
“I believe it’s feasible, but I don’t have a 100 percent guarantee. What I don’t do is try to undermine the willingness of the other side,” Livni told POLITICO. “When we negotiated there was trust – there’s no trust now.... It depends on the way you negotiate.”
Livni scrupulously avoids criticizing Obama’s conduct of the peace talks, but those around her are blunter.
“If Obama wanted to be a transformational figure, he would never have led with the settlements,” said Eyal Arad, the architect of Livni’s campaign for prime minister. He argues – like most Israelis – that Obama inadvertently got talks hung up on a matter of irrelevant principle, rather than engaging the reality that some settlements can stay while others must go.
“The settlements were pushed by a bunch of left-wingers who were out of sync with the realities and were out of government too long,” he said. “The irony is that Obama went directly back to the place where George Bush the father left off.”
“Obama’s biggest problem is that we don’t buy what he’s selling, and that is hope,” said one Israeli veteran of past negotiations. “There’s this sincerity about the American approach that is heartbreaking to watch.”