In the months leading up to election day, U.S.-Israel relations seemed to be improving. This was no great surprise, since President Barack Obama's campaign this year consisted mainly of appeals to specific groups within the electorate, rather than a national campaign, similar to the one run by his opponent, Mitt Romney. The President’s team was confident that America’s growing minority population – African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, plus gays, single women, younger voters, union members, trial lawyers, professors, environmentalists, and both Jews and Muslims – would be enough to put him over the top. The campaign found a way to stroke each ethnic or interest group with some pronouncement, initiative, executive order or agency ruling during the course of the campaign.
One fierce critic of Obama’s policies towards Israel in the first three years of his administration, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, noted that things had changed in the last year and in the month after the election as well.
“Speaking of the President – credit where credit is due. I have previously criticized the record of his first three years on Israel, and stand by that. My criticism was always non-partisan. As I often point out, the Democratic Party has always been in lock-step with the general American solicitude for Israel, but Obama in his first three years took a different, confrontational course.
In the year before the election, he switched gears. I am happy to observe that since the election, his support of Israel has been what one would expect of any generic American president. One suspects that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas’ obvious rejection of any serious peace process, and his open use of Obama as a cat’s paw, began to grate.”
Kontorovich’s article appeared after the United States had been one of only nine members of the United Nations General Assembly who voted against elevating the Palestinian Authority to observer status in the U.N. The United States reportedly lobbied the Palestinian Authority to withdraw the motion, and in any case, to make a commitment not to use its new status, which was certain to win an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly, to pursue legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court or in other bodies in which it obtained legal standing. The U.S. was unsuccessful in both appeals.
None of the news reports on the American discussions with the PA in the period leading up to the vote indicated that Obama or his emissaries to the PA had threatened financial aid cutoffs if the Palestinian U.N. action were pursued, despite our wishes that it be withdrawn. Since the PA has an automatic majority in the U.N. for any action on which it is on one side and Israel on the other, the only way to stop the motion was for the PA to have agreed not to bring it forward.
Some critics of the Obama administration argued that the failure to stop the PA’s initiative suggested either that we had minimal leverage over it, or alternatively, that the president did not use all the weapons he could have had he really cared to stop the U.N. action in its tracks. But most observers believed that the "no" vote by the U.S. in the General Assembly, when many of its close European allies voted yes (France, Spain, Italy) or abstained (Germany, Britain, Australia), was further evidence of the president having Israel’s back, similar to the his support for Israel’s Operation “Pillar of Defense” during the eight days of air strikes against Hamas missile and rocket sites and weapons stores in Gaza.
The president’s loving embrace of Israel in the first weeks of November disappeared after Israel's announcement, presumably as a retaliatory step to the PA’s U.N. bid, that it was moving ahead with 3,000 new housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and was also moving ahead with planning for housing units in the E-1 area between Jerusalem and the community of Ma’ale Adumim. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also announced that he would withhold some funds from the PA as an offset for money owed to Israel’s electric company. However, the president himself avoided scolding Israel for its announcements, and left that job to surrogates.
The mildest retort came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a one time and likely future contender for the White House again in 2016. Clinton will soon be vacating her post, and in a speech at the Saban Center for Mideast Policy last week, Clinton offered these comments:
“I’m not making excuses for the missed opportunities of the Israelis, or the lack of generosity, the lack of empathy that I think goes hand-in-hand with the suspicion. …So, yes, there is more that the Israelis need to do to really demonstrate that they do understand the pain of an oppressed people in their minds, and they want to figure out, within the bounds of security and a Jewish democratic state, what can be accomplished.”
If Clinton was the carrot, the Obama's former chief of staff and now Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, offered the stick to Israel.
"According to an account by New Yorker journalist David Remnick, Emanuel had said that Netanyahu had 'repeatedly betrayed' Obama, and that the latest Israeli moves – apparent retaliations for the successful Palestinian bid to achieve non-observer state status last week at the United Nations – were especially galling given U.S. support for Israel during its recent mini-war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.”
Emanuel has always had the reputation, one he seems to enjoy, of being the tough guy, an enforcer. Rahm’s home city is in the midst of a murder spree that has made it the undisputed murder capital of America, (25 percent more murders this year than New York City, which is more than three times Chicago’s size). In September, Emanuel failed in his attempt to prevent a teachers’ strike, a strike settled only after Emanuel conceded on pretty much all major issues to the Chicago Teachers’ Union. It is no wonder that Emanuel undoubtedly enjoyed the opportunity to get out of Chicago and pontificate on national and international affairs. Emanuel, as the son of an Israeli father who was a member of the Irgun, is given more allowance to use tough language directed against Israel’s prime minister than many other politicians. It is likely that given the president’s obsession with Israeli settlements in his first three years in office, that Emanuel’s comments were more reflective of the Obama's views than Clinton’s far milder reproach.
There were also reports that Obama encouraged several European nations to call in their Israeli ambassadors and read them the riot act for the announcement of the settlement expansion, particularly the plan to build in E-1. The complaints directed at Israel were that Israel’s actions would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible in the West Bank, killing the chances for the “two-state solution.”
Of course, four of the five European nations which summoned their Israeli ambassador – France, Spain, Denmark and Sweden – had voted for the Palestinian Authority’s observer status in the General Assembly, a step that violated the Oslo Accords and, to use the terminology of the peace processors, could also kill the chances of a negotiated two-state solution. If the report is true, it means that Obama wanted Israel publicly condemned, but would not do it personally.
What is unclear is whether the Israel bashing by Emanuel and the Europeans was choreographed as part of an effort to enhance Mahmoud Abbas, which was the same explanation offered by many analysts to explain why many European nations endorsed the PA’s move at the U.N.
The General Assembly vote seemed to temporarily lift Abbas’ standing in the West Bank, after Hamas had gained some international stature after its fight with Israel. The Israeli response to the U.N. vote probably diminished the glow for Abbas, thereby explaining the European criticism of Israel and Emanuel’s caustic comments. In any case, neither the brief Gaza war, the U.N. vote, the Israeli actions, nor the European criticism of Israel has changed the reality of a peace process that does not exist, and hasn’t for many years. It is no wonder that elaborate dances are the diplomats’ daily fare.