Has Obama’s Israel gambit already backfired by dividing the left and uniting the right?
It didn’t occur to me yesterday in my own consideration of Kerry’s speech, as we tend to be more sensitive to divisions on our own side. But various liberals have made the point today that the UN resolution last week and Kerry’s subsequent defense of it are arguably worse than useless. It’s not just that the resolution will no longer represent U.S. policy three weeks from now, and may very well end up poisoning American relations with the UN. It’s that the subject of pressuring Israel to make peace is far more fraught for the left than it is for the right. It’s one thing for Obama and Kerry to apply that pressure if they think it’ll produce tangible results — but what the hell is the point of doing it when they have one foot out the door, knowing that Netanyahu won’t listen, and further knowing that this is destined to put pro- and anti-Israel liberals in the U.S. at each other’s throats?
Matt Yglesias doesn’t get it. I don’t either. I joked yesterday that Kerry gave the speech because he’s been giving it in the mirror for years and wanted to seize his last shot at doing it on a stage, but that really might be the most plausible explanation. If you’re going to toss a foreign-policy grenade, why toss it at your own party?
Most Democrats — broadly in line with Obama — have a liberal-ish view on Israel that emphasizes support for a two-state solution, a democratic version of Zionism, and support of Israel’s hard security needs but not its expansive claims for territory. Most Democrats also simply don’t see this as a particularly pressing issue.
But there is a substantial minority of Democrats — including a number of important elected leaders — who line up with conservatives in steadfastly supporting an aggressive vision of Israeli nationalism. Meanwhile, on a grassroots level many rank-and-file liberals thirst for a more critical line on the conflict than Obama or other party leaders have been willing to take. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer condemned the UN resolution and criticized Obama for allowing it through. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, pushed (unsuccessfully) to change the Democratic Party platform to condemn Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
On the Republican side, by contrast, support for Israel generally and the Netanyahu government specifically is now an essentially unanimous position. The growth of Christian Zionism, the small but noticeable shift of Orthodox Jews into the GOP, the increasing influence of Islamophobia on grassroots conservative politics, the Persian Gulf states’ growing rapprochement with Israel over shared fear of Iran, and the near extinction of left-wing politics in Israel all serve to make an uncomplicated pro-Israel stance a comfortable position for Republicans of all stripes.
As if to illustrate his point, Schumer issued a statement last night attacking Kerry for his speech, specifically how he “seems to have forgotten the history of the settlements in Gaza, where the Israeli government forced settlers to withdraw from all settlements and the Palestinians responded by sending rockets into Israel.” I think Yglesias slightly overstates the unanimity of support for Israel on the right, as there are doubtless reactionaries and isolationists within the party who are dismayed to see Trump loudly supportive of one side in the interminable Middle East “peace process.” (The topic of how strongly to support a Jewish state surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbors must be especially complicated for the alt-right.) But I think that wing is marginal enough — and some within it are loyal enough to Trump that they’ll go along with whatever — that Yglesias is basically correct, particularly in contrast to the much deeper rift between Republican hawks and doves on Russia. That’s his core objection, in fact. Why, he wonders, with the GOP headed for a knife fight over whether to punish Putin for Russia’s hackings during the campaign, would Obama hand them an issue like Israel that might bring them together and avert that knife fight, or at least make it less bitter? Now it’s Democrats who are going to have a knife fight over Israeli settlements, and for what? Because John Kerry had a speech in his desk drawer that he’s been itching to give since 2012 and just couldn’t say no to the opportunity? What is Obama thinking?
Even weirder, given the available evidence that the U.S. was secretly considering a resolution for months and the claim from Netanyahu that more evidence is on the way, the Democratic knife fight looks likely to persist for weeks or months. The best I can do to spitball an explanation is that, perhaps, Obama expected Clinton to win but knew that she wouldn’t want to begin her presidency by abstaining from a UN resolution that’s critical of Israel, so the plan was for his administration to spearhead the resolution before she took office. Then she could denounce it and get the benefits of the new UN policy pressuring Israel to halt its settlements while also distancing herself from the policy to please pro-Israel hawks. But none of that makes much sense: Even if O thought Hillary would win, why would either of them want her presidency to begin with a Democratic civil war over Israel triggered by a resolution like the one that passed last week? Why wouldn’t Obama simply scrap his plans for a resolution and let Hillary’s administration decide to put one together if they like? The fact that he went ahead with the resolution despite her defeat makes it seem instead like this was designed as a parting middle finger to his old frenemy Bibi. Or his new frenemy Trump.
And perhaps it was:
But then came the Trump victory. The President-elect’s appointment of David Friedman, a pro-settlement bankruptcy lawyer, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel “had a lot of weight in the President’s thinking” about what to do next, one senior Administration official told me. The official told me that the Administration had been “alarmed” by many of Trump’s appointments to his national-security team—notably the appointment of Michael Flynn as national-security adviser—but the selection of Friedman was “over the top.”
“The last thing you want to do as you leave office is to pick a fight with the organized Jewish community, but Friedman is so beyond the pale,” the adviser said. “He put his political and charitable support directly into the settlements; he compares Jews on the left to the kapos in the concentration camps—it just put it over the top.”
Friedman is so passionate a backer of settlements that some Israel supporters are reportedly worried he’ll end up pushing Netanyahu further to the right. Reacting to Friedman’s appointment, Obama may have decided to do what little he still could to “box Trump in” on Israel at the UN by letting an anti-settlements resolution pass. But that may backfire too: You would think that O, who shares the views of the “international community” on most things, would want that community to have as much influence over Trump’s presidency as possible. Instead, by setting Trump at odds with the UN over Israel from day one, he’s all but ensured the opposite, laying the groundwork for a more decisive break by Trump with international institutions. Some Republicans are calling for defunding the UN over the resolution; others at the grassroots level want Trump to seize this as an opportunity to withdraw from the organization entirely. A standoff with the Trump administration could end with the UN losing leverage over international developments rather than gaining it. How does that help Obama’s world view?
But then, look who we’re talking about here. This is the same master strategist who’s been outmaneuvered by Russia at every turn, who barely tried to formulate a policy on Syria, and who’s presided over massive Democratic electoral losses at every level. He and Kerry probably thought that if they just made their good intentions plain as they headed for the exits, good things would flow from that. Instead they’ve got the Democratic Senate minority leader slamming them and Republicans on all sides cheering for Trump. Way to go.