Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Israel and Palestine: Is Obama Boxed In By Domestic Politics?

Over the last week, I've read what seems like a score of reactions to Obama's pro-Israel U.N. speech. Some--especially, though not exclusively, foreign observers--have expressed surprise, even dismay, at the content of his speech, in light of Obama's initial attempts to play a relatively neutral and even-handed mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. To these critics, Obama's speech is clear evidence that he has abandoned his overtures to the Palestinians (e.g., his Cairo speech, appointment of a special ambassador for Israel and Palestine, and the public squabbles with Bibi Netanyahu) and is content to let the political and territorial status quo between both sides ride into the foreseeable future. In their view, this development is damaging to the peace process.

For the purposes of this blog post, let's leave aside the impact of Obama's stance on Israeli-Palestinian relations. More interesting, at least to me, is the idea that Obama has turned toward the Netanyahu administration and away from the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. Assuming this is indeed true, what's caused the shift in policy?

I saw several interesting lines a recent New York Times article that are relevant to this question:

“The U.S. cannot lead on an issue that it is so boxed in on by its domestic politics,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in the government of Ehud Barak. “And therefore, with the region in such rapid upheaval and the two-state solution dying, as long as the U.S. is paralyzed, others are going to have to step up.”
And following on this point, from same article, here's more:

"Finally, Washington politics has limited Mr. Obama’s ability to try to break the logjam if that means appearing to distance himself from Israel. Republicans have mounted a challenge to lure away Jewish voters who supported Democrats in the past, after some Jewish leaders sharply criticized Mr. Obama for trying to push Israel too hard."
Combined, these two quotes suggest a fairly straightforward and very familiar logic underpinning Obama's pro-Israel U.N. speech. Obama's up for reelection in 2012. Given the wretched state of the American economy, which has adversely impacted Obama's approval numbers, he'll be in for a real struggle come November 2012. Even David Axelrod, a former White House advisor and current Obama campaign strategist, recently admitted that Obama's reelection campaign is in for a "titanic struggle." As a result, Obama's now filtering policy considerations--both domestic and foreign--through the prism of the upcoming elections. One example of this is his strong show of support for Israel at the U.N, for conventional wisdom suggests issues related to that country are crucial to his reelection. According to this logic, Obama must demonstrate to his base of support--specifically, American Jews, a key democratic base of support, and non-Jewish democratic and independent voters--a visceral sense of fidelity to Washington's political, economic, and security ties to Israel, a longstanding friend and ally in an extremely tumultuous region.

It's certainly plausible that electoral concerns played a role in this case, maybe even a big one, but they didn't tie Obama's hands. They didn't determine his seemingly hard shift toward Israel. There's still a sense of agency involved here. After all, he is the president: as the most powerful singular political actor in the world, he has enough freedom to act rather than let himself be overcome by events. Obama could have chosen a different path, a different speech had he felt strongly enough to do so, but he didn't. So let's not operate under the assumption that the words he spoke were out of his control. In the end, what electoral concerns did was to make it more politically costly for Obama to maintain overt sympathies for the Palestinians at the expense of Israel. Should he go that route, pursuing policies consistent with his speeches in 2009, then he runs the risk of alienating a wide swath of voters. But it's up to him to determine whether he wants to make this gamble.

Moreover, in trying to account for what moved Obama to shift toward Israel, keep in mind that there are a host of other possible variables, such as other domestic and international political factors, that could have been in play here. As examples, Obama might be genuinely concerned about the safety of Israel, Iran's future moves, resurgent Arab nationalism, the cohesion of his governing coalition (in a policy rather than electoral sense), and any and all of these (as well as a number of other hypotheticals I haven't mentioned) could have led him to take a more pro-Israel position in his speech than was anticipated.

And don't forget about individual level characteristics and beliefs specific to Obama, such as his policy preferences, political ideology, and whether he's generally risk averse or acceptant. We know from research on political psychology that they are important in leadership decision-making, and it's plausible they were crucial in this situation.

At bottom, some of these individual, domestic, and international level variables might have mattered, some might not. But that's not the point, though. The point is that without a full investigation of the various forces that impinged on Obama, we really don't know what pushed him in one direction over another. My guess is that it's not a monocausal explanation (not just electoral politics, that is), but instead a complex story consisting of multiple consequential causal and intervening variables. Indeed, the social sciences tell us that rarely do we find political events, no matter how large and important or small and trivial, that can be explained by only one observable variable.

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