It's Time To Pressure Netanyahu

January 22, 2010 10:42 am ET — MJ Rosenberg

Back in the 1960's, David Frost hosted a show on NBC that was an early version of Saturday Night Live.  It was called "That Was The Week That Was" (nicknamed TW3) and it satirized the week's events. The show ended with a song that concluded: "That was the week that was. It's over. Let it go."

Few Democrats would argue with that sentiment this week.  In a week shortened by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the fortunes of the Democratic Party appeared to turn upside down. That probably isn't true. But that is how it felt.  It has been years since the results of a special election in a single state so rattled the governing party.  The last time was in 1991, when Attorney General Dick Thornburgh lost the Pennsylvania Senate special to Harris Wofford after leading by 50 points.

That was the moment Democrats realized that they just might win the 1992 Presidential election.
Fortunately (for Democrats), the incumbent Republican President, the first George Bush, ignored the Pennsylvania results and kept doing what he was doing -- which was, at least domestically, not much.  (It is worth noting that the issue Wofford won on was health care reform, which is why Bill Clinton made it the centerpiece of his successful Presidential campaign against Bush.)

President Obama is not likely to make Bush's mistake.  By taking on the banks two days after the Democratic candidate lost in Massachusetts, he gave an early indication that he will fix what needs to be fixed, assuming he can. 

It won't be easy.  The second Bush left him the worst economy since Herbert Hoover handed an even worse one to FDR.  But those were different times.  Americans understood -- perhaps because FDR made them understand -- that their quite legitimate anger should be directed at the Republicans who had destroyed the economy over the previous 12 years and not at the person who inherited the mess.

In fact, with the exception of the plutocracy of the day, everyone either loved FDR or, at least, hoped for his success.  Sure he had to deal with the equivalents of Rush Limbaugh (Father Coughlin came closest to the Limbaugh model) but his blatant anti-Semitism kept him from achieving the kind of influence Limbaugh has. 

Of course, Limbaugh's attitudes toward women, African-Americans, gays, Latinos and Jews (just to name a few of Limbaugh's favorite scapegoats) has not prevented him from essentially taking over the Republican party.  But the media was different in those days, as was the Republican party. 

Even Coughlin (unlike Limbaugh) never said that he wanted the administration to fail.  Maybe that was because Coughlin was a priest and perhaps, every so often, saw the suffering the depression had inflicted on ordinary Americans.  Limbaugh never leaves his Xanadu-like compound and has no idea what Obama's failure would mean to working Americans.  Or maybe he has the same amount of compassion for jobless Americans that he has for Haitians: None.

The important thing is that Obama not follow the Bush example -- neither domestically nor on foreign policy.

I mentioned the banking reform bill as evidence that he "gets it" on domestic issues, but I'm not so sure about foreign policy.

The Massachusetts election did not turn on foreign policy.  In fact, it was barely mentioned. That is not surprising.  Even Senator-Elect Scott Brown praised Obama's foreign policy initiatives.

But there has been one conspicuous failure (an "epic fail," as the kids say).  It is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  No one forced the President to promise to get negotiations started during his first year in office.  No one demanded that he go off to Cairo to tell the Muslim world that his administration would resume the role of "honest broker" between Israelis and Palestinians rather than act, as George W. Bush did, as Israel's lawyer. 

He did those things because it's right and because he understands that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does more harm to the United States in the Muslim world, does more to destabilize our friends and energize terrorists, than any other single issue.  He also seized the Israeli-Palestinian issue because he understands that continuation of the occupation is destroying Israel's chances of long-term survival and because he was appalled by the horrific Gaza war.

The Muslim world was deeply impressed by the President's words.

But they were not followed by action.  Sure, Obama dispatched former Senator George Mitchell to the Middle East to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.  But, as was the case with the previous administration, Mitchell was undercut by other administration officials whose rule of thumb is "no pressure on Israel. Ever."  So when Obama, Mitchell and Secretary Clinton called for a settlement freeze as an obvious first step toward serious negotiations, Israelis were hearing that they could just resist and Obama would cave.  That is exactly what happened. 

Actually it was worse than that.  The President called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to freeze settlements.  Netanyahu responded with a speech accepting a murky version of the two-state solution but rejected the freeze.  In fact, he expanded settlements with Israelis moving into the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. (For the first time you can see ultra-Orthodox Jews moving into previously all Palestinian areas right near East Jerusalem's downtown while Palestinians are being pushed out.)   

Even worse, when Netanyahu demanded that Obama condemn the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza, the administration did -- even though the White House spokesperson admitted that no one at the White House had read it. And then we insisted, after Netanyahu insisted, that the Palestinians condemn the Goldstone report's finding on the treatment of their fellow Palestinians.

The result of all this is predictable.  Raising expectations and then dashing them is the sure way to fuel rage.  And that is what the administration's lack of follow through has achieved.

I don't argue that any of this produced this week's debacle in the Bay State.  However, it is never good for a President's political health when a foreign leader makes him look like a patsy.  Obama needs to either engage seriously -- and that means pressure on both sides to negotiate honestly -- or he should call George Mitchell home.  In Bush's day, it was Colin Powell who was sent off to serve as Middle East "honest broker" only to be cut off at the knees back in Washington.  Now the same thing is happening to another great American.

It's wrong, and it hurts Obama too.  Right now he needs to demonstrate that he is clearly in charge.  That means telling Netanyahu and Abbas not that he sympathizes with their domestic political situations (as he said in TIME yesterday), but that he doesn't.  The settlers, in particular, are not our problem.  Nor is the longevity of Netanyahu's coalition government.  Abbas and Netanyahu are expendable.  The American national interest isn't.

That interest, in the words of George W. Bush as repeated by Barack Obama, is "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security."

For Israel's sake.  For the Palestinians'.  But mostly for ours.