Obama: Surrendered Wife?

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Institute for Policy Studies

Obama: Surrendered Wife?

It's time for the United States to change its submissive relationship with Israel.

For some people, there’s nothing President Obama can do to prove his love for Israel. He could pull a Sammy Davis, Jr. and convert to Judaism. He could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a big kiss on the lips. He could personally expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem. And still Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin would kvetch. "Yes, but what have you done for us today?" the ultra-Zionist would say. "Did you call this morning? Where are the fresh flowers? What, you don’t love Israel anymore?"

In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, President Obama did practically everything he could to prove his love. "Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority," the president said. "It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels.  It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. It's why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels."

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. We’re cutting our budgets here at home in order to send advanced military weaponry to a country that built a secret nuclear program, has continued to expand settlements in Palestinian land in violation of international law and common decency, and, under the leadership of the ever-intransigent Netanyahu, has refused to negotiate in good faith a deal with the Palestinian authorities. This is, in other words, a rogue state. We should be suspending military cooperation with this country, not rewarding it, at least until it mends its ways. We should be pushing for a region-wide nuclear weapons-free zone, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Kevin Martin argues in Zoning Out Nukes in the Middle East, and not treating Israel's nuclear status as an immutable fact.

Given the resolutely pro-Israel policies of the current administration, it’s no surprise that the AIPAC audience enthusiastically embraced the president’s speech. According to the White House transcript, the audience applauded about 50 times. In a speech that contained only around 150 sentences, that qualifies as a lovefest.

You would think that the AIPAC seal of approval would be enough. But no: Jennifer Rubin reserved her affection for the real Israel supporter at AIPAC — Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD): "Hoyer was the un-Obama — clear, unequivocally supportive of Israel and entirely within the mainstream, bipartisan pro-Israel tradition." Obama was, contra Rubin, clear and unequivocal. But he did something that Rubin did not like. He displayed the slightest hint of gumption by challenging not Israel but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the other right-wing yahoos in his administration.

In his Middle East speech last week and then again at AIPAC, Obama said that any deal should involve “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” In other words, any deal to establish a Palestinian state — the "two-state solution" — must turn the clock back before the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel seized control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, among other territories. The "swap" part is an acknowledgement that Israeli settlers have changed the "facts on the ground" in the West Bank so that Palestinians should be compensated with different territory in exchange.

This is hardly a new position: The 1967-plus-swaps deal was at the heart of Bill Clinton's efforts in 2000. Previous Israeli administrations have accepted this approach. It is an uncontroversial approach among many Israelis. "The new world envisioned by Obama has no place for endless military occupation, for scenes like Operation Cast Lead, for shooting at protesters and for checkpoints," writes Gideon Levy in Haaretz. "There is no agreement without a Palestinian state, and there is no Palestinian state without the 1967 borders."

Netanyahu, however, believes otherwise. When they appeared together at a press conference at the White House on Friday, the Israeli prime minister dismissed Obama's plan as "peace based on illusions." Basically, Netanyahu has been treating the U.S. president like a surrendered wife. According to the surrendered wife doctrine, the wife relinquishes all control — and illusions of control — over her husband's life. Obama's temerity was the functional equivalent of a wife saying to her husband "I love you, but could you please take out the garbage once in a while?" Netanyahu, the domineering husband, blows up when he hears a "but."

"Unfortunately, despite Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to such reciprocal territorial swaps — even though it would leave the Palestinian state with a bare 22 percent of Palestine — Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has refused to consider trading any land within Israel while simultaneously insisting on annexing large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory," writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Obama's Mideast Speech. "How such 'mutually agreed-upon' swaps will take place without the United States exerting enormous leverage — such as withholding some of the annual $3 billion in unconditional aid provided annually, which Obama has already ruled out — is hard to imagine."

One of the interesting words in Obama's AIPAC speech was "contiguous," as in the "Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state." Right now, obviously, the West Bank and Gaza are not territorially contiguous. In 2000, Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat at Camp David a large portion of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and a strip of connecting land. The problem was – and still is – that Israel has used walls and checkpoints to divide the West Bank into all manner of non-contiguous areas. At some point, if negotiations actually happen, the U.S. president should clarify that contiguous applies between as well within the occupied territories.

Before that point, of course, Obama has to abandon the surrendered wife role and show a bit more tough love. As FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams writes at our Focal Points blog, the president "should stop equivocating and come out plainly with a declaration that if Netanyahu continues to refuse to come to terms with reality in the region, then he cannot take a U.S. veto in the Security Council against Palestinian membership for granted nor even a nay vote in the General Assembly against a declaration of statehood."

In other words, the United States has some real leverage over Israel. And the Arab Spring is altering the political geography of the region. Netanyahu had better wake up and smell the democracy. "Israel must avoid its typical government paralysis and act quickly to advance its position in the emerging, more democratic Middle East," writes FPIF contributor Benjamin Tua in Winners and Losers in the New Middle East. "Israel remains militarily strong, but its ties with its main supporters are fraying. Time is not on its side. Israel must act posthaste to align its actions with its rhetoric."

The Obama administration is still in surrendered wife mode. It's time to make clear to Netanyahu that if he doesn't change his ways, he'll be waking up in an empty bed.

John Feffer

 John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003) among other books.

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