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The Squeeze That Wasn’t

I challenge the increasingly marginal number of pundits, pols and bloggers who are blaming this incident on the Obama administration to explain to me exactly where and how Obama has changed U.S. policy on Israel in any material or substantive fashion. ~Kevin Sullivan

Of course, he has not, which is what I argue was the mistake that makes this quarrel over this particular settlement expansion ultimately so unimportant. Obama has been facing something of a no-win situation on Israel policy (is there any other kind?). He cannot make material or substantive changes to U.S. policy without calling down ten times the condemnation from Congress and assorted pundits he already has, and if he effectively tolerates the status quo, as he has been doing for the last year, he is declared a foreign policy failure and a weak leader. Because there was no “or else” to the call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu called Obama’s bluff, and even now that there is a deterioration in relations there is no “or else.” It isn’t hard to guess what will follow. Netanyahu will press ahead, Obama will be made to look foolish, and the hawks who absolutely do not want him to pressure Israel in any way will nonetheless seize on the incident to declare him weak and ineffectual.

One of the most irritating memes in conservative commentary these days is the idea that Obama subverts allies and aids rivals. They have been pushing this one right from the beginning. This is a pretty blatant accusation of treachery and/or naivete, and it isn’t true. Naturally, this latest quarrel with Israel has become another entry on the indictment against Obama for the supposed “squeeze” he puts on allies. The only trouble with this argument is that there is no real squeeze. There is a lot of talk that I assume everyone involved knows will lead to nothing. It’s as if all of the parties know that the entire quarrel is a charade, but now that it has started it has to be played out.

Incredibly, despite the absence of any meaningful consequences for Netanyahu’s government from Washington, the administration is supposedly being very “hard” on Israel while it is being equally “soft” on Iran. There is an Iran gasoline embargo bill pending in Congress, where it has overwhelming support, and it seems unlikely that Obama would veto it if the bill came to his desk. On the other hand, the administration is throwing a public fit over the treatment of the Vice President during his visit to Israel and not doing much more than that. No honest person could conclude from this that it is Israel that has been getting the squeeze.

One thing that I have been noticing over the last few days is how readily foreign policy hawks have been adopting arguments that are normally made by opponents of Iran sanctions but have been applying them to the U.S.-Israel relationship instead. All of a sudden, the hawks have realized that public condemnation and political pressure might backfire and cause the population of another country to rally around the government Washington is trying to pressure. At last they have discovered that hectoring rhetoric and attempts to push a government into doing something it believes it has every right to do are counterproductive! Of course, this insight disappears the minute it might actually be useful in improving our Iran policy.

There are also a few crucial things that the hawks are missing that make these arguments a poor fit for Israel policy. Israeli settlement policy really does violate international law, Israel really is “flouting the will of the world” (to the extent that such a thing exists), and Israel really is more isolated today than it has been in decades. All of the things that the administration has falsely claimed about Iran’s nuclear program and its diplomatic and economic position in the world are far more true of Israel’s international position in the wake of Lebanon, Gaza, Dubai, the latest settlement announcement, and the serial incompetence of Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry. Unlike in Iran, the U.S. actually has leverage and influence in Israel, but while Washington strives mightily to conjure up some way to punish Iran it refuses to use the means available to it to try to make Israel stop doing what Washington has called on it to stop doing for decades.

It’s quite possible that the “pressure track” wouldn’t work on Israel any better than it would work on any other state, but it isn’t even part of the discussion. One reason for this is because the U.S.-Israel relationship is similar to the relationship between Russia and Iran or China and Iran. The major power patron doesn’t really believe that there is anything wrong with the client’s controversial policy, and will never bring itself to pressure the client to change the policy. Some elements within the major power’s political class may even seen the client’s policy as a desirable or useful thing. The client relies on support from the major power to shield it from the opprobrium and opposition of hostile and unsympathetic states, and the major power is invested enough in supporting the client that it isn’t really ever going to jeopardize the relationship over an issue that ultimately makes no real difference to the major power’s interests.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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