Hints have begun trickling out of Washington D.C. that the Obama administration has realized that it went too far in attacking Israel, and may now be looking to take a step back. With general opposition from Israelis, street protests, and a forceful rejection from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the failure of Obama's approach is fairly obvious. But that doesn't mean that Israel's Obama problem is over. Not by a long shot.
The Obama administration's hard line on Israel was a show of arrogance by people who assumed that they owned the American Jewish community and that Netanyahu would quickly knuckle under. They proved to be wrong on both counts. But that initial setback only means that a new administration plan will rely less on an overt frontal attack.
In their first engagement, Netanyahu succeeded in tangling Obama in ambiguities, while letting the administration's own aggressiveness blunder into making Jerusalem an issue up front. That disastrous approach helped unify Israelis and even the American Jewish leadership into taking a stand against Obama. Obama's own overt thuggishness hurt him badly, with all but the Israeli far left backing away from him.
Obama hoped to leverage Israel's political rivalries to undermine Netanyahu. Instead Netanyahu leveraged Obama's thuggishness to overturn Livni who had become Obama's main Two State Solution proponent in Israel. Now with her Kadima party headed for a split, Obama's pressure on Netanyahu will have actually helped to strengthen the ruling Likud-Labor coalition.
Obama had brought a club, while Netanyahu had brought Judo lessons. And the outcome left Obama shaking his head and wondering what happened.
Meanwhile the American Jewish leadership has not proven nearly as tractable as expected. Obama's attempt to include the Soros funded Anti-Israel group, J-Street, on a par with real Jewish American organization was a bust, because all the weight Obama throws behind J Street cannot transform it into a valid representative of the Jewish community. Meanwhile his marginalization of non-left wing groups in his Roosevelt room meeting only fed the backlash against him within the American Jewish leadership, leading to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issuing a strong statement in support of Israel's right to Jerusalem.
Obama's promoters had worked very hard to create the illusory consensus of mass Jewish support for Obama, particularly by bandying about the phony 78 percent figure. In the real world though Obama's "base" within the Jewish community skews young, unaffiliated and unconcerned with Israel. Meanwhile the actual American Jewish communal and organizational leadership tends to skew older, more affiliated and very concerned about Israel.
But while Obama may have lost the opening round at home and in Israel, that only sets the stage for the next phase of the engagement. Obama is almost certain to lead with another high profile speech, this time perhaps in Israel. While Hillary Clinton and Gates build up some credibility on Iran, a subject that last time around Obama and his minions bluntly ignored, Obama will have a carrot to offer along with the stick, the promise that Israeli concessions will lead to American action on Iran. While Netanyahu is smart enough to know that Obama will do nothing about Iran, it's a lifeline that may prove too big to ignore.
A big part of the Jewish and Israeli backlash to Obama originated from the administration blatantly ignoring Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program and Hamas terrorism, as well as the refusal to hold Fatah to any actual terms. This time around it's fairly certain that the Obama administration will pay some lip service on at least 2 out of 3 of these, with Fatah likeliest to get a pass. Backed by a high profile speech to the Knesset that will be big on moving rhetoric of the "Some of my best friends are Jews" and "A good life for all the children of Abraham" variety, and short on substance, the next Two State Solution bid will pay more attention to PR and be less blatantly hostile than Obama's first shot across Israel's bow.
But essentially Israel's Obama problem comes down to this. While Israel has strong support in Congress because of the Jewish vote and general American sentiments in favor of Israel, Saudi Arabia has far more support among the foreign policy and defense establishment that actually make policy. It is why Congress passes pro-Israel resolutions, while the administration and the state department tends to ignore them. The Obama Administration is the most strongly Saudi influenced administration in American history, and considering that the other contenders are FDR, Carter and Bush Sr, that is saying a great deal indeed.
While the much ballyhooed AIPAC spent time meeting and greeting congressmen, the Saudis much more profitably spent that time working with diplomats and policy wonks where the real power in foreign policy lies. The likes of Chas Freeman, who but for an ugly statement in Tienanmen Square missed playing a key role in the Obama Administration, are their creatures. So is James L Jones, who unofficially is the second most powerful man in the Obama Administration, cracking the whip in all directions. As in part is Obama himself.
Obama's key foreign policy agenda is to win the love of the Muslim world. He has few counters left, having already sacrificed his own dignity and America's self-respect. Trying to pay off the Muslim world using Israeli territory is hardly a new idea in American or Israeli politics, but it's one that Obama intends to push to the limit. And backed by a Saudi allied foreign policy establishment that has no moral commitment to democracy or human rights, and sees Israeli as the primary destabilizing obstacle in the region-- there is no limit to how far Obama will push Israel, if Israel allows itself to be pushed.
And the conflict is far from over. The Obama Administration has yet to really go after Netanyahu and American Jewish leaders, particularly through the media. That is likely being reserved for phase three. It has casually undermined Israel's defense contracts, but so far has not brought out the open economic blackmail. It has struck out at AIPAC only by way of going after conservative Democrats. It has not made a serious push to force a no confidence vote on Netanyahu and then rig a new election, the way Clinton did to get rid of Netanyahu the first time around. Netanyahu knows all this, which is why he's playing for time.
The Obama Administration would prefer to use those as the clinchers, not as their opening cards. But they already overplayed their hand by targeting Jerusalem. Obama could bring out his inner Chavez, deliver a speech lambasting Jews and AIPAC. He is however more likely to leave clownish theatrics like that to Biden, who along with Hillary Clinton has been the administration's fall guy for communicating the hard line on Israel.
The Obama Administration will have to choose between open antagonism or a soft shoe approach, and for now the next phase is likely to be led off by a soft shoe opening, with a dagger safely tucked away where it can be quickly put to use.