The American push for a settlement freeze would be the first flash point in Obama’s relations with Israel and also a turning point in his standing with Jewish voters at home. With Netanyahu having just reassumed the prime-ministership in a coalition government that included several ultraconservative parties, he resisted Obama’s call for a freeze. American Jews, meanwhile, saw the administration as aggressively pressuring Israel but treading softly on the Palestinians. In combination with its policy of engagement with Iran, this fostered the impression that Obama’s stance amounted to punishing America’s truest friend in the region while rewarding its—and Israel’s—most lethal foe.
Obama’s advisers rightly point out that engagement with Iran was never any kind of reward; it was a way of reframing the issue, of putting the focus on Iran’s bad behavior and rallying international support for taking action against the rogue state—which, of course, later occurred with the imposition of U.N. sanctions.
Regarding the call for a settlement freeze, the Obamans defend the decision without a trace of apology. Beyond the political rationale behind the demand, the settlements have been deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, are supported by no country in the world, and have been opposed by every American president since Richard Nixon. “We were enunciating twenty-plus years of U.S. policy,” observes Emanuel. “The difference was we weren’t just lip-synching it.”
Equally important, Obama’s advisers argue, is that the idea that the administration demanded little of the Palestinians is simply false. “I called it synchronized swimming,” recalls Prince. “The Israelis would do settlements, the Palestinians would do some stuff on incitement [of violence against Israel] and security, and other Arab states would undertake a variety of measures that would be steps to normalization. It could be reopening trade offices. It could be allowing overflights. It could be opening direct cell-phone connections. All stuff the Israelis said they really wanted. We spent many more hours in meetings with Arabs about Arab steps than we did with the Israelis. We had equally tough conversations with Arabs; the president had some hard meetings. But that didn’t get reported.”
Lazy journalism can be cited for the lack of coverage of those efforts, but Obama and his people bear fault, too. “Because no administration had been that clear and unambiguous with Israel on settlements, that was news,” says Emanuel. “But there was a sense that it was one-sided. We had an obligation—and this is where we deserve a yellow card—to explain what we were doing with the Palestinians or Arabs, to put more air in the tires on that side. Not tone down what we said on settlements, but work harder so there was more recognition of the parity that existed with the Arab violations.”
Another blunder, and not a minor one, made by the administration revolved around Obama’s vaunted speech to the Muslim world in Cairo that June—which more than a few Jews perceived as coming at the expense of Israel, especially when Obama failed to visit Jerusalem on the same trip (or at any time thereafter). “We made a mistake,” admits one senior administration foreign-policy adviser. “Nobody thought of it as a big deal at the time, but, I mean, you’re in the neighborhood, you’re right down the street, and you don’t stop by for coffee?”
By the end of 2009, the cumulative effect of these episodes was plain. On the right, the claim that Obama had shown his true colors was de rigueur; as the conservative pundit John Podhoretz put it, “The turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass.” Among Jewish voters more broadly, Obama’s approval ratings had plunged by more than twenty points. In the 21 months since then, his pursuit of peace has run through the usual stop-and-start cycles, but three things have stayed constant: on the Palestinian side, a partner unable to deliver; on the Israeli side, a partner unwilling to; and in the Israeli prime minister’s office, a man with whom Obama’s relationship started off scratchy—and went downhill from there.
To Netanyahu’s way of thinking, he had reason to be wary of his counterpart even before they first met. In 2008, Obama had declared to a campaign crowd in Ohio, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”
Putting aside the substantive validity of the argument, it’s not difficult to imagine how that sounded to Netanyahu, whose ascension to the prime-ministership for the second time both coincided with and augured moments of dark existential crisis in Israel. On one hand, there was Iran, making rapid advances toward nuclear capability. On the other, there was Hamas, which in the years after Ariel Sharon had withdrawn from Gaza had turned the place into a staging area for rocket fire into Israel—dampening the Israeli public’s appetite for further territorial compromise with the Palestinians. And then there was Netanyahu’s surpassingly volatile governing coalition, which was held together by far-right nationalist, fundamentalist, and even proto-fascistic elements (cf. Avigdor Lieberman).