Obama and Netanyahu: Idealism vs. Pragmatism

By March 18, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 72

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Clashes are inevitable between the idealist and pragmatic proclivities of the new Obama administration in foreign affairs. In fashioning Middle East policy, especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iran, Obama’s idealism will face harsh realities that limit his policy options. Obama and Netanyahu may subscribe to different values and principles, but they are both pragmatic leaders capable of adjusting to realities; and thus can be expected to make efforts to avoid a major confrontation.

US President Obama wants to fix the international system and to effectively combat global terrorism, and he wants to accomplish these goals by means opposite those utilized by his predecessor. He wants to replace Bush’s exclusionary foreign policy, unilateralism, use of force and reliance on preventive war, with multilateral diplomacy, close cooperation with allies and international organizations (including the UN), negotiations with adversaries such as Iran and Syria, and conflict resolution in international hotspots such as the Palestinian-Israeli arena. Obama also has placed the wider Middle East at the top of his foreign policy agenda.

Every new American administration, especially one that wishes to completely overhaul foreign policy, begins the formulation of a new approach by probing foreign leaders and gathering information about conditions on the ground. The main purpose of this initial effort is to discover whether visions can be translated into concrete policies and actions. Indeed, a plethora of American officials and politicians, including the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, already have visited the Middle East seeking first-hand information and have consulted with local leaders. Obama is expected to soon announce a new American strategy for the region.

Idealism and good intentions often meet harsh realities. An early case of such a clash can be seen in Obama’s emerging policy towards China. The idealistic approach calls for criticism of China’s abuses of human rights at home and its anti-American policies abroad. China cooperates with Iran and has undermined American and European attempts to stop the Iranian nuclear program via harsher and more effective UN sanctions. The US also opposes Chinese threats against Taiwan, its fierce crackdown in Tibet, and Chinese support for the rogue regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Yet, during her first visit to China, Clinton ignored these issues and concentrated mostly on the global financial and economic crisis. China, which has foreign exchange reserves worth around $2 trillion, is the world’s largest holder of US government debt. Apparently, the White House thought that criticism of China at this juncture would be counterproductive to the economic recovery effort.

Another example of a collision between idealism and reality can be seen in Obama’s policy towards the second UN conference against racism (“Durban II”) that is scheduled for next month in Geneva. The 2001 Durban conference in South Africa was hijacked by Arabs and Muslims who adopted extreme anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic resolutions. In response, the US withdrew from the conference. Obama had planned to participate in the second 2009 conference as part of his desire to alter the US policy towards the UN.

The problem was that “champions of human rights” such as Iran, Libya, Cuba and Russia led the preparations for the second conference, and prepared extreme draft resolutions that again single out Israel for demonization and delegitimization. The resolutions were also very critical of the US and the West.

Obama sent officials to the UN to examine whether these draft resolutions could be modified. The American officials returned empty handed and Obama determined that under these conditions the US would not participate.

Good intentions are likely to meet harsh realities also in the Middle East.

Obama has described Israel as the most important US ally in the Middle East, but also has made clear his concern for the plight of Palestinians. Like all American presidents, Obama wants to facilitate Arab-Israeli peace. Several officials in his government even think that such a peace is a prerequisite for building an effective Arab coalition against Iranian hegemonic ambitions and Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Some also believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace will erase decades of Arab and Muslim hostility towards the US and the West.

However, hostility towards the US is deeply rooted in the Middle East and only partially linked to US-Israeli relations. Furthermore, the Arab-Israeli arena is not ripe for peacemaking. The Iranian threat has to be removed before Israel can be expected to consider withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and to countenance emergence of a Palestinian state in these areas. In the current situation, with Iran still on the rise, such a state would quickly become another “Hamastan.”

Superpower mediation in protracted and difficult international conflicts has a better chance to succeed in situations of opportunity or extreme threat. Often wars create opportunities for resolution. Yet contrary to popular belief, the two recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza have not created opportunities for conflict resolution.

Even if the next government in Israel will be based on a center-right coalition under Benjamin Netanyahu, it will not be the main obstacle for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, despite the reluctance of Netanyahu to adhere to the two-state formula. Clinton’s reaffirmation of the US commitment to the two-state formula and promise to implement it, led commentators to conclude that the gap on this issue will inevitably lead to a confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu. Similarly, the declared US intention to begin official negotiations with Iran and Syria could be a source of conflict between Washington and Jerusalem.

Yet, the outgoing government negotiated with the Palestinian Authority for over a year and even invented with Condoleezza Rice the innovative but hollow concept of the “shelf agreement.” Thus far, all negotiation efforts have failed. Unfortunately, Hamas – which has power, is not interested in peace and accommodation; while the PA – which says it is interested in peace, is impotent.

Certainly, Iran is the key factor in the region. The US, Israel, and many states, even Arab and Muslim, agree that nuclear Iran represents the major threat to security and stability in the world. Obama stated on several occasions that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, but his approach to the problem is based on a false assumption. In theory, it is pragmatic to negotiate with enemies. The problem with Iran however, has never been the lack of negotiations. For several years, with American blessing and support, the UK, Germany and France (the EU3) conducted intensive negotiations with Iran aiming at halting the Iranian nuclear arms program. These negotiations have failed because Iran is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Iran wants negotiations with the US for three reasons: to earn more time to complete its nuclear arms project, to acquire legitimacy for its Islamic fundamentalist regime, especially in a presidential election year, and to prevent a potential American or Israeli military strike. Israel calls for much wider and tougher sanctions against Iran and on a moral basis opposes negotiations with a regime that has repeatedly called for its destruction. Israel has suggested that if Obama begins negotiations, he should set a short deadline, and in case of failure take harsh actions such as sanctions and military blockade of the Persian Gulf.

Netanyahu has demonstrated that he can be a pragmatic leader. During his first term as Prime Minister (1996-1999), Netanyahu transferred control over Hebron to the PA. In October 1998, he signed the Wye River memorandum, which required Israeli transfer of additional territory in the West Bank to the PA. He even secretly negotiated with Syria. While serving as Minister of Finance in the Ariel Sharon Government (2001-2005) he first voted for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and only later changed his mind. More recently he stated that he would honor all previous agreements Israel signed with the Palestinians.

The US and Israel have developed a “special relationship” that is independent of the specific leaders serving at specific periods in Washington and Jerusalem. The special relationship is based on similar history and values, similar strategic interests and strong and continuing support for Israel in American public opinion. American support for Israel is a critical component in policy deliberations held in both countries.

In general, and more so in recent years, Democratic administrations have cooperated better with Left-led governments in Israel, and Republican administrations preferred Right-led governments. Obama and Netanyahu may subscribe to different values and ideological preferences, but they are nevertheless both pragmatic leaders capable of adjusting beliefs to realities. Thus, they can be expected to make every effort to coordinate policies and to avoid a major confrontation.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Eytan Gilboa
Prof. Eytan Gilboa

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.