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Obama Recharged U.S.-Mideast Policy

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
March 23, 2010


President Barack Obama is back in the driver's seat. It's not just the historic victory on health care.

In responding sharply to Israel's announcement that it was going ahead with 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, the U.S. president strengthened his hand abroad and at home. Though greater difficulties loom in the Middle East, the president can now address them from a position of strength.

This is a change. Early on, the administration misplayed its hand on settlement construction. By demanding a freeze, including East Jerusalem, the administration asked for something it couldn't get. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defied the U.S. - and a shocked White House saw it had no way of making it stick.

That fiasco, the biggest foreign policy mistake by the administration, left Middle East policy in disarray.

The ambitious administration plan to make Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts a centerpiece of foreign policy fell apart. For the next year, the administration worked to rebuild its position and its prestige for a fresh try.

This explains why the administration had to respond strongly to the ill-timed Israeli housing announcement during Vice President Joe Biden's visit this month. After a humiliating defeat on this issue last year, Washington could not give the impression that Israel was able to abuse it at will.

Washington's ability to extract concessions from the Arabs, much less to pressure Iran, depends on a perception of U.S. strength. The more the Israelis kicked sand in America's face, the more the administration looked like a 98-pound weakling.

Obama grasped that, this time, it was the Israelis who had gone too far.

Whether the timing of the Ramat Shlomo housing announcement was intentional, Israel's failure to coordinate on such a sensitive subject was a blunder. It damaged its closest ally.  

While most Israelis agree that they have the right to build in East Jerusalem, it was clear to Israeli public opinion that Netanyahu's government had mishandled the matter. This could not be blamed on the United States.

Israelis, even those who agreed with Netanyahu on the housing decision, realized that Israel's actions had put it in the wrong. Pressure on Netanyahu to limit the damage was intense.

Obama saw the opportunity and took it. In a 43-minute telephone call described as "blistering," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Netanyahu a list of things he needed to do to get the relationship back on track.  

The screw tightened as David Axelrod denounced Israel's "insult." Next, the White House announced that Middle East negotiator George Mitchell's trip to Israel was "delayed" for mysterious "technical" reasons.

Faced with this combination, the Israelis have moved to calm Washington's ire. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners are to be released and the blockade of Gaza relaxed. But on Jerusalem, the Israelis reiterated their longtime position that East Jerusalem is part of Israel and no one can tell the Israelis whether or not to build there.

However, in a mysterious coincidence, the same Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee that gave the go-ahead for the 1,600 units during Biden's trip canceled meetings at which more East Jerusalem housing was due to be approved. Commission members received a schedule from which all proposals for "controversial" projects had disappeared.

This is a big diplomatic victory for Obama, one that will significantly enhance his authority overseas. Picking a fight with an Israeli prime minister the week before AIPAC's meeting in Washington will strike many foreigners as a gutsy move. Especially in the Middle East, where lurid conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals in Washington are widely credited by both the street and otherwise sophisticated insiders.

Moreover, by overruling Biden - who left the Israelis with the impression that the dispute had been smoothed over - and using Clinton as his go-between with Netanyahu, Obama demonstrated his full control over the "team of rivals" working on foreign policy. The White House clearly called the shots.

Between the health care victory and his diplomatic win in the Middle East, Obama can relax a little. Two weeks ago, his presidency looked vulnerable, insulted abroad and fighting an uphill legislative battle at home.

Now that's all changed. But he's not safe yet. As satisfying as winning an arm-wrestling match with Netanyahu must be, there's much worse to come in the Middle East.

So far, Obama has shown that he can outsmart his friends. Thus far, however, he has little progress to show in the far more difficult and crucial challenges he faces from adversaries such as Syria and Iran.

The Iranian supreme leader, for example, has again dismissed Obama's annual Persian New Year's call for dialogue and improved relations.

Obama and Netanyahu are sure to have plenty to discuss at their meeting, now scheduled for Tuesday. Obama will have to remember not to push Netanyahu too far; this canny leader would like nothing more than to see Obama off balance again.

But for now, with Israel back at his side, his "team of rivals" firmly yoked to the plow and a demonstrated ability to use his massive - though perhaps temporary - majorities in Congress, Obama has a unique chance to put his mark on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

No doubt this presidency will have more dark days ahead. But in the past two weeks, Obama has shown the savvy and, yes, a bit of the ruthlessness that successful presidents need.

Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World" and is working on a book about U.S.-Israeli relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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