It’s going to get bad fast between Israel and the US

Pressuring Israel through the framework agreement is just what a weakened Obama needs to regain the adulation of his supporters

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Dysfunctional. Rocky. Frosty. There are a variety of terms pundits have used to describe the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama over the past five years. Though the atmospherics improved somewhat after Obama’s 2013 trip to Israel, the relationship has chilled again in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran.

And it’s about to get a lot worse.

Only five years ago, Obama was a political and cultural phenomenon, a transformative leader who millions of young Americans expected to usher in age of domestic unity and international cooperation. Famous singers turned campaign speeches into songs. His photograph became an iconic piece of pop art. Health care would become affordable and painless, supporters dreamed, America’s erstwhile enemies would sit down and find common ground with this new president, oceans would stop rising. The expectations even came complete with a Nobel Prize, which the award committee voted on only 12 days after he took office.

But five years is an eternity in politics, and things look very different in Obama’s second term. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic achievement, has been an unmitigated disaster. A Democratic senator recently warned of a “complete meltdown” in the program. Obama’s approval ratings have dropped below much-reviled predecessor George W. Bush’s at this stage of his presidency, with 42% approving of his job performance in the latest poll, against 54% disapproving. The numbers were reversed a year ago.

Outside of America’s borders, the situation isn’t much better. The Arab sheikhs and kings in the Persian Gulf no longer trust Obama after he suddenly backed off a strike on Syria and cut a nuclear deal with Iran.

“There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran,” said a Saudi royal, as another prince announced a “major shift” away from America.

After the US tried to prevent the military from toppling the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, then suspended key military aid, Cairo turned toward Russia, giving Moscow influence again in a country that expelled the Soviets four decades ago.

And in Europe, the continent where 200,000 people gathered in 2008 to listen to candidate Obama deliver a speech in Berlin, leaders are furious at the president. The man who lambasted Bush for his national security policies was, it turns out, presiding over a spying program targeting European citizens and leaders. Allies who had embraced Obama’s multilateralism turned on him in an instant. “We need trust among allies and partners,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the NSA’s targets. “Such trust now has to be built anew.” Sweden’s prime minister said the spying was “completely unacceptable,” while his Dutch counterpart called the charges “exceptionally serious.”

And with the 2014 midterm elections fast approaching, things don’t look good for the Democrats right now. Polls show Republicans beating Democrats for control of both the House and Senate on generic ballots, with independent voters breaking strongly Republican.

Obama needs a gamechanger. Something historic, an achievement that will justify that Nobel prize and the expectations of his legions of followers. A move that will turn him into a hero again in the eyes of American editorial boards and in the corridors of European parliaments. A move that would rescue his legacy.

He needs to find a problem the world takes a serious interest in, involving a country the administration still feels it has leverage over.

Thank God for Israel.

The president, like many officials in Europe, still sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a root cause of the Middle East’s troubles, with the settlements perched firmly at the heart of the problem. And given Netanyahu’s current isolation over his opposition to the Iranian nuclear pact, he is a prime target for US pressure.

And, right on schedule, Kerry will present the administration’s framework agreement to the two sides sometime in the next month.

The development, first brought to light by Meretz MK Zehava Gal-on, who said the US would be transitioning to “active intervention,” should raise warning flags in Jerusalem. Active intervention means quickly resorting to pressure if need be, and if the past half-decade and recent administration statements about settlements are any indication, the preponderance of that pressure will fall on Israel.

Kerry himself has already tried to force Israel’s hand by setting it up for blame if (it’s almost certainly when) talks fail in the spring.

“I mean does Israel want a third Intifada?” he asked during a November interview with Channel 2. “Israel says, ‘Oh we feel safe today, we have the wall. We’re not in a day to day conflict’,” said Kerry. “I’ve got news for you. Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s…” Israel’s neighbors, he warned, will “begin to push in a different way.”

The secretary went on: “If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis.”

Kerry’s predictions themselves aren’t what make the statement so troubling, as Israel doesn’t need the US secretary of state’s prognostications for its intelligence assessments. It is rather the fact that when the Palestinians finally make enough new demands that Israel gives up on the talks, and violence subsequently rises, Israel will already be set up as the guilty party. Israel was warned, observers will say, and its stubbornness had led to the deaths on both sides.

And the peace talks, a White House initiative on which, out of the all the world’s problems, Obama has decided to exert concerted effort, have already begun to bear their bitter fruit for Israel. Since talks started in July, violence has risen steadily every month, climbing from 87 attacks in July to 167 in November.

What’s more, Israeli experts are expecting another spike in violence in April, when the talks are slated to end, most likely with no tangible agreement.

As Israel faces concerted pressure, lethal violence and international opprobrium because of the failure of US-generated talks that themselves have brought violence, the Jewish state can perhaps take some solace that at least one neighbor understands their predicament — their new kindred spirits in the Saudi royal family.

“He’s so wounded,” said influential Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal, referring to Obama. “It’s very scary. Look, the 2014 elections are going to begin. Within two months they’re going to start campaigning. Thirty-nine members of his own party in the House have already moved away from him on Obamacare. That’s scary for him.”

Not only for him, your Highness.

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