Aaron David Miller
The Los Angeles Times (Opinion)
April 29, 2011 - 12:00am

Among the most durable pieces of conventional wisdom circulating in Washington these days is that President Obama would never risk a confrontation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (when he comes to town in May) out of fear of angering Israel's supporters in America a year before the U.S. presidential election.

The notion that domestic politics and the pro-Israel community hold the president's Middle East policy hostage seems to bind Washington like a hard-and-fast political law of gravity.

The only problem is it's dead wrong and dangerous.

The pro-Israel community in America has a powerful voice, to be sure, but it doesn't have a veto. If Obama saw a chance to do something truly significant on the peace issue, he'd go for it. It's not his fear of the Jews that drives him; it's his fear of failure.

In fact, if there's any lobby he should worry about, it's not the 5.5 million American Jews and their supporters in Congress. It is the Jewish lobby of one — an Israeli prime minister whose cooperation he needs for any agreement but whose views on negotiations and Palestinian statehood are far different from the president's.

In the only three examples of American-orchestrated breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, U.S. presidents and secretaries of State wrestled with Israel and its supporters in the United States and won. In each case — the 1973-75 disengagement agreements; the 1978-79 Camp David accords and Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and the 1991 Madrid Conference — the U.S. pressured, cajoled and reassured tough-minded Israeli prime ministers and resisted political pressures from lobbies at home.

No U.S. president seeks confrontation with a close ally that has deep support at home. But at the same time, smart, tough, savvy presidents also won't allow real opportunities to further the national interest to be trumped by narrow domestic politics.

Fast forward to the present. Obama would like to do something big and serious on the Mideast peace process, particularly against the backdrop of big, serious changes in the Arab world. With Netanyahu coming to Washington in late May, the president is considering giving a speech about the Middle East that would also lay out U.S. principles on the big peace issues, with borders and Jerusalem certain to be at variance with Netanyahu's views.

Having already wrestled with the Netanyahu on settlements (and lost), Obama is no sentimentalist about Israel. Unlike Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel; he falls somewhere between Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush on the Israel sensitivity scale. He's also well aware that tensions with Israel will give the Republicans an issue to hammer him on, as the GOP invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress during his visit demonstrates.

If Obama fears anything, it's not the Jewish community but the reality that an ill-timed, wrong-footed approach to peacemaking will fail and represent another foreign policy stumble at a time when he can least afford it. With Libya gummed up and uncertainty abounding throughout the region, the U.S. doesn't need a fight with the Israelis if it can't produce a real breakthrough.

And that is the key point. Fighting with the Israelis is an occupational reality of serious peacemaking. But the fight needs to count for something. That's why the fight over settlements was such a loser issue; it couldn't produce anything positive. But at the right time, a fight over an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could.

Such a breakthrough not only depends on getting the Palestinians lined up (and they're not) but also on being both tough and reassuring with the Israelis. The key to all of this is the Israeli prime minister. And right now, when it comes to the peace process, Netanyahu is on Mars and the president is on Pluto; nor do the president and prime minister like or trust one another. Whether these gaps can be narrowed is doubtful.

If Obama saw the chance for a real breakthrough, he'd go for it. It's the absence of that possibility, not the 2012 election, that may be giving the president pause. He may still give his speech, but if he's smart he'll keep any enthusiasm for a real fight with Netanyahu under control until that fight can produce something that makes it worth the trouble.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of, most recently, "Can America Have Another Great President?" to be published in 2012.


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