Peter Beinart
Time (Opinion)
June 12, 2009 - 12:00am,9171,1904163,00.html

The big question about Barack Obama has always been this: Is he a risk taker? Domestically, he answered it months ago with his massive stimulus package. On foreign policy, we only just learned the answer. By taking on the Israeli government over the issue of settlement growth, Obama is showing that he's a gambler overseas as well. Despite the conventional wisdom that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is impossible anytime soon, he seems hell-bent on pursuing one. And if he breaks china in the process, so be it.

American Presidents have opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank since Israel conquered it in 1967. But in practice, they've mostly turned a blind eye. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush showed why when he tried to condition loan guarantees to Israel on a halt to settlement growth and stirred up a nasty political hornet's nest in the process. He won only 11% of the Jewish vote the following year.

Since then, public spats with Israel have been the third rail of U.S. foreign policy. If Obama loses his current showdown with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they could well remain so for a generation. But luckily for Obama--and unluckily for the supporters of the political status quo in Washington and Jerusalem--he's not likely to lose.

The first reason is that he's taking on Netanyahu where the Israeli Prime Minister is weakest. Israelis may not be thrilled about freezing settlement growth, but it's not an issue like Iran's nuclear program, which they consider important enough to risk their relationship with the U.S. over. A poll published in Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, on June 5 found that 56% of Israelis would rather cave on the settlements issue than face sanctions by the U.S.

Obama also has the political advantage in Washington. Settlements are to the mainstream pro-Israel crowd what partial-birth abortions are to the mainstream pro-choice crowd: the issue they hate talking about. Even the most powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which opposes public U.S. pressure on Israel, hasn't taken an explicit stance on the settlements dispute. Obama has also surrounded himself with the kind of advisers (Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross) and made the kind of symbolic gestures (holding a seder at the White House and condemning Holocaust denial in Cairo) that reassure many American Jews. Historically, Israel's American supporters have used their strength in Congress to box Presidents in a corner. But when Netanyahu came to Washington last month, even reliably pro-Israel Jewish members of Congress gave him an earful on settlements.

The third reason Obama will most likely win this fight is that Netanyahu has bigger fish to fry. He knows that sometime in the next year or two, he could well end up paying a visit to the White House to ask for U.S. support for a military strike against Iran's nuclear program. For an Israeli Prime Minister, alienating a U.S. President is almost always bad politics, but it's particularly bad politics when you need his help to stop what you've called an existential threat. If Israelis decide Netanyahu can't negotiate with the U.S. effectively over Iran, they may demand that he be replaced with someone who can.

For Netanyahu, backing down won't be easy. If he concedes too much, his right-leaning government could fall. But that's not Obama's problem. In fact, the White House would probably be thrilled if Netanyahu were forced to trade his right-wing partners for a coalition with Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima Party, which is serious about a peace process with the Palestinians. It would be even happier if Livni replaced Netanyahu altogether.

This crisis has already revealed something about Obama: he's not timid. If he succeeds in getting Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth, his next moves may be to dial up the pressure on the U.S.'s Arab allies to take steps toward recognizing the Jewish state and put heat on the Palestinians to overcome their political division, which might entail some easing of the U.S. ban on dealing with Hamas. The latter move would spark loud wailing and gnashing of teeth on both the Israeli and American right. But it may not matter. During the campaign, Obama's foreign policy advisers told journalists that unlike past Democrats, he wouldn't be afraid to test the limits of what was politically possible. We're now starting to see what that means. It should be an interesting few years.


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