Ben Smith
January 24, 2011 - 1:00am

For two years, the Obama White House has tried to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as a prospective peace partner — viewing him as a leader who shared U.S. goals but faced tough domestic political constraints that Washington felt obliged to help counter.

That’s over.

In recent weeks, in the wake of the latest collapse of American diplomacy in the region around Thanksgiving, a new, more hard-headed view of Netanyahu has become cemented in the West Wing — one that rates the chances of a personal alliance growing between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama to be just about zero.

The notion that the two men could prove a productive diplomatic odd couple has been tossed aside because, in the American view, the worst expectations about Netanyahu’s intransigence have been confirmed. The new view: Netanyahu chose the constraints of a coalition that he steered further right this month, and the U.S. won’t be offering him help, or sympathy, with his domestic politics going forward.

Meanwhile, this distinctly non-rose colored view of Netanyahu has taken hold in the White House just as there is growing doubt about whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can ever be a consistent, strong American ally. The twin conclusions have brought a distinct frost to administration relations with both men — a chill that for now seems likely to freeze the chances for any new U.S. peace initiative in the region.

“Every leader faces difficult politics — the question for both sides is whether they’re willing to make tough choices that are in their interests despite the politics,” said a White House official of both Netanyahu and Abbas, the latter of whom has drawn White House ire for what officials described as inconsistent demands.

This latest moment of gloom comes as the White House has lost interest in the Middle East for another reason. Obama’s two departing senior aides, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, were personally deeply involved in the Middle East talks, viewing them as historic and politically promising opportunities. They’re being replaced with staffers with little demonstrated interest and few ties to Israel, Bill Daley and David Plouffe.

“There’s definitely been a change since Rahm and Axelrod left,” said Zvika Kreiger, a senior vice president of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for International Peace in Washington.

Relations with the two Middle Eastern camps deteriorated from different points. The White House began with the view that Abbas was a reliable ally, and Netanyahu a questionable one, as Clinton-era distrust lingered. But early squabbles with the Israelis gave way to a year of apparent cooperation and to Netanyahu’s public embrace of the idea of two states. He agreed to a partial settlement freeze and quietly tamped down the most inflammatory construction on the ground even in disputed Jerusalem — and his aides had, the Americans believed, agreed to a painstakingly negotiated extension this fall, something that never materialized.

And the U.S. retains extremely warm relationships with elements of the Israeli and Palestinian governments: Security cooperation with the Israeli military has, American officials say, never been closer; and Abbas is given credit for, at least, protecting his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, whose state-building efforts are seen as the brightest spot in the stalled conflict.

But the Thanksgiving collapse of talks launched just weeks earlier with great fanfare — prompted by Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate on points other than security, and the Palestinians’ refusal to enter the American-led talks without prior concessions — has sent the U.S. into a period of re-evaluation, and of frustration with the two leaders in particular.

“It was a total failure of imagination on both their parts,” said a former U.S. official who has been involved in the recent peace talks. “The problem is when you have leaders who lack the imagination to understand how their political environments would change with a deal.”

The U.S. has no obvious path to punish, much less replace, either leader, through a sharp statement . Netanyahu secured his political standing this month by shedding the leftmost elements of his coalition and bringing former Labor leader Ehud Barak into the government in a new party. Abbas’s role as Fayyad’s protector and as a counterbalance to Hamas, meanwhile, makes him better than possible alternatives.

But observers have noted the change.

“There is a sense of frustration, which is genuine — both in terms of the inability to choreograph a positive result and the continuing nature of delay and excuse that is too often exhibited by both sides to this conflict,” said former Rep. Robert Wexler, who now heads the Abraham Center.

“There’s no question that this represents a recognition that they really are up against certain limitations,” said veteran Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, saying it showed the realization that Obama’s rhetoric and efforts “simply cannot substitute for the absence of ownership in these negotiations on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Observers debate the consequences of the new chill, and pro-Palestinian activists in particular worry that they will be its victims.

“It really is unhelpful for the U.S. to be on terrible terms with the Israeli government,” said Hussein Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “A certain level of American pressure on Israel is very helpful and important when good things are being accomplished, but generalized ill will is not helpful.”

Others welcome at least one half of the chill.

“There’s an advantage to demonstrating to Bibi that they’re not a total dishrag,” said Dan Levy, a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Another observer of the process, the foreign policy historian Walter Russell Mead, suggested the opposite: That the U.S. disengagement is a kind of a luxury, born of success elsewhere. With some suggestions that an Iranian bomb is not imminent and with sanctions against Iran biting deeper than expected, he suggested, the pressure is off the U.S. to satisfy Israeli and Arab leaders with an investment in the peace process.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017