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Obama Has Power but Risks Republican Wrath Gaining Mideast Peace

Like so many presidents before him, Obama is afraid to say or do anything in public that might be labeled as anti-Israel.

If anyone wondered who calls the shots on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, the recent conflict in Gaza should end the discussion. Now “it is clear who is boss.” The highly respected Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote those words in the first days of the fighting, when, as he put it, there was “a clear American green light for Israel’s operation.” Israel could not have started its onslaught without permission from Barack Obama.

With startling suddenness, though, the light from Washington turned red. A cease-fire was announced much faster than anyone expected, and Israel maintained it despite rockets fired from Gaza just hours after it took effect, which once would have quickly triggered another Israeli onslaught. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi is getting most of the public credit for the lasting cease fire.

But insiders know better. Essam el-Haddad, Morsi’s foreign policy adviser, confirmed that the US stepped in “whenever there was a point at which there would be a need for further encouragement and a push to get it across. . . . trying to send clear signals to the Israeli side that there should not be a waste of time and an agreement must be reached. They have really been very helpful in pushing the Israeli side.”

Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported how it worked:

“[Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton activated her power of persuasion in order to make clear to the Israeli premier that adopting the Egyptian draft was the best course of action. US President Barack Obama also pushed the issue in a few telephone calls with the Israeli prime minister. The American message was clear: Adopting Egypt’s cease-fire draft was much the preferred choice.”

Netanyahu’s office pretty much confirmed this account when it issued an official announcement saying that the prime minister “acceded to his [Obama’s] recommendation to give the Egyptian cease-fire proposal a chance.” Obama apparently “extracted Israeli concessions without an ounce of public pressure,” as Jewish American journalist Ron Kampeas noted.

In fact, Obama’s public face seemed totally “pro-Israel.” He told the world that missiles flying into Israel from Gaza were the one and only cause of the conflict. He repeated the words that the US mass media turned into an almost sacred mantra: “There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders” – as if that alone explained why Gazans were dying once again. Never once did the president mention the root cause of the tragic situation: Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza.

And when he acted swiftly to bring the Israelis to heel, he used the Egyptian president as his front man, hiding his own hand quite successfully.

Why would the public Obama be so different from the private one? The obvious answer is that his public words and actions are for consumption back home. Like so many presidents before him, he’s afraid to say or do anything in public that might be labeled as “anti-Israel.”

Look what happened in 2009. Obama briefly tried to force Israel to stop expanding its settlements in the West Bank; when the Israelis refused, the POTUS quickly backed down. A progressive chorus of dismay chanted that Netanyahu controlled US policy, that Obama was a mere puppet of the Israelis.

There was plenty of evidence to the contrary at the time. Now the sudden cease-fire in Gaza clinches the case: Obama was never forced to back down by the Israelis. The president changed his tune and acceded to Netanyahu in ’09 because of political pressure on the home front.

It seems he is still very sensitive to such pressure, at least in his public persona. Who brings the pressure?

The traditional answer is “the Jewish vote.” But we know from Election Day exit polls that 73 percent of Jews support Obama’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and nearly as many want him to propose a specific plan for a two-state solution, even if it means publicly disagreeing with Israel. These findings are consistent with other polls during Obama’s presidency. So he does not have to worry much about Jewish support.

Nor does he have to worry much about Jewish money, since most Jewish contributors to the Democrats are liberals who are pro-Israel but also pro-peace.

Is it the Christian Zionists? I doubt it. As an organized group they get little press and make little splash. They do have some clout in Washington, but not enough to make Obama fear them.

Some say it’s just the general tide of public opinion. The mass media constantly promote the myth of Israel’s insecurity: Israel is an innocent victim surrounded by vicious Arabs who are all eager to destroy the Jewish state. When violence breaks out, the president ritually recites the myth, too. It’s not surprising that so many Americans believe it.

Polling during the latest conflict confirmed the power of this myth: Americans who took sides favored Israel by a wide margin. In a CNN poll, respondents supported Israel by a margin of 4.5 to 1. More than twice as many saw Israel’s attack on Gaza as justified, compared with those who found it unjustified. In a Huffington Post poll Israel won out by a 4 to 1 margin. Nearly twice as many supported Israel’s latest attack as opposed it.

Nothing new there – except that for the first time, as far as I know, the polls broke down their results into demographic groups. So now we have statistical evidence of something else that observers of the US political scene have known for a very long time: Republicans are far more likely than others to favor Israel and support its violence against Palestine.

Averaging the two polls, we find that 73 percent of Republicans, 43 percent of independents and only 37 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel. Seventeen percent of Democrats, 10 percent of independents and only 3.5 percent of Republicans sympathize with the Palestinians. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans, 52 percent of independents and only 35 percent of Democrats supported the Israeli attack on Gaza or saw it as justified. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats, 21 percent of independents, and only 12 percent of Republicans opposed it or thought it unjustified.

The rest of the demographic data tells the same story. Men, whites, and older people (dare I say “Romney voters”?) are most likely, by far, to take Israel’s side.

Why Republicans tilt so strong toward Israel’s anti-Palestinian stance is a long story. For now, let’s just say that birds of a right-wing feather stick together.

This leaves Obama in a bind. His demand for a Gaza cease-fire is a signal that he still wants to be the president who finally forges an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. With Israeli elections coming up, he may have more leverage than ever. Israelis know how much their nation depends on the US, for military aid but even more for diplomatic support; without US backing, Israel would be isolated in the international community.

Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner, a perceptive observer of US – Israel relations, once wrote that if Obama “signaled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic support would quickly evaporate.” The US president may now demand, in private, real conditions for his public display of unconditional support.

But this public-private split is a fine line to walk; it’s awfully easy to fall off. If Obama aims to force the Israelis to make peace, he’ll eventually have to put public pressure on them. He’ll have to start saying that the Israelis bear at least some of the blame for the conflict.

The one thing blocking that move is Obama’s political standing at home. As his whole foreign policy record shows, his number one priority is to protect his right flank on national security, where Democrats have long been most vulnerable. If he has to sacrifice the Palestinians to save his political hide and get some domestic programs passed, he’ll surely do it, as he proved back in 2009.

So the question of justice for Palestine may hinge, to a large extent, on another set of questions: Will those of us here in the US who care about a just peace allow Republicans to continue blocking the path to that long-sought goal? Or will we build enough political strength to give Obama a free hand?

Now that we know how powerful his hand can be when he feels free to use it, wouldn’t it be tragic if we let that hand be tied, just because we failed to stand up to the right-wing anti-Palestinian militarists in our midst? The place to start is to name the Republicans as the principal roadblock to peace.

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