Paul Pillar

Going Over the Politicians' Heads

President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.

In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.

Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.

There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.

In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.

On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.

Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.