Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Will the Palestinians get Obama’s attention?

Will the Palestinians get Obama’s attention?

Richard Baehr

Israel does not yet have a new governing coalition. While the machinations of creating the next government are underway, the Palestinians apparently have decided on a new strategy to ramp up protests and violencein the West Bank . A good guess as to why is that, in a little over three weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama is coming to Israel for the first time since he became president. While in the region, he will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry will not precede the president to Israel, while making other stops in the region. Presumably, this is not a sign of lack of interest, but concern that Israel may not have a new government with a foreign minister to meet with much before the date of the president's visit. The new protests, prisoners' strikes and the Palestinian media campaign accompanying both events are of a different nature. While they have already led to Israel's release and transfer of $100 million in funds to the perpetually broke PA, they are almost certainly aimed at getting Obama's attention.

Right now, the focus of the president's efforts are almost entirely domestic U.S. issues. As a lame duck unable to run for a third term, the president probably has about a year to advance his agenda, before the serious campaigning begins again for the 2014 midterm Congressional elections. The Republicans still have control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2012 elections, and this factor plus the Republicans' ability to filibuster (delay a vote) on measures in the Senate, has served to slow the momentum for a president who was re-elected by a solid margin to a second term. The president has launched a new effort, including a $50 million fundraising campaign, designed to utilize the campaign organization and millions of online supporters that helped him win re-election to apply pressure on members of Congress to support the president's initiatives.

For now, those initiatives include gun control, immigration reform, and climate change legislation. In the next week, the president's biggest effort will be to try to head off the imposition of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to take place in both military and discretionary spending programs (but not hit any of the entitlements, such as Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security). The president is using his large megaphone that gets him media coverage anytime he speaks, to hammer the Republicans for not agreeing to replace the cuts with a mix of tax increases for wealthier Americans, and more modest spending cuts. This battle over addressing the nation's soaring deficits ($5 trillion total over four years in Obama's first term) has been a constant feature of the last three years in the nation's capitol. Republicans have argued for spending cuts, given that federal spending under Obama has increased to near 25 percent of total gross domestic product. Obama and his Democratic allies want to use federal spending to reduce inequality and expand the safety net. They want the wealthy to pay higher taxes to support this. Deficits have not been and are not a big concern of the Left.

Lost in all of this has been almost any debate over foreign policy. The confirmation battle over Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary has galvanized official Washington, and some pro-Israel and anti-Israel groups, but has made almost no dent on the public consciousness. Most Americans could sooner identify the winning quarterback in the Super Bowl, or socialite Kim Kardashian than Hagel. Hagel will likely win his confirmation battle this week, but he has been badly scarred from his weakness under questioning from a Senate committee, and from revelations about his past statements on Israel and Iran, and some of his financial and political affiliations. He will either take out his anger over the rough treatment by being exactly what the pro-Israel opponents of his nomination feared, or shrink from public view and stick to managing the Pentagon's decline, as troop levels are reduced in Afghanistan, and budget cuts are applied.

Syria has become a 15-second nightly news detail, with some double figure death count read somberly by the anchor person. But there is no public sentiment for U.S. involvement in that ugly conflict. Iran is closer to a nuclear bomb every day, and that is a concern of most people, but the assumption in most circles is that Israel will address it, which is better than the U.S. getting involved. In general, after an eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, which focused on fighting terrorism and foreign wars, Obama has made domestic policy, primarily redistribution of wealth and income, his principal focus.

This is all disappointing and disturbing for the Palestinians. Their cause has largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers or the major news programs. They are still a privileged group in academia, where their cause is the politically correct one, and more and more colleges are seeing boycott, divestment and sanction efforts, and anti-apartheid weeks aimed at Israel. The Palestinians are still a favored group for The New York Times, though the paper obsesses more about how bad Israel is, than about the Palestinians themselves. There has been an unquestionable shift among many in the mainstream media away from Israel over the years, which has accelerated since Obama became president. Since many pro-Israel Jews are critical of Obama, it is easy for the liberal media to be critical of Israel, since that is the place where their allies on the Left on all other issues are more at home.

To seep into the broader public consciousness, the Palestinians have always needed to play the victim card, which means provoking Israeli soldiers into tear gassing or shooting at "civilians," or committing horrific terrorist acts, which generate stronger and deadlier Israeli retaliation. The last week has suggested a pattern of stepped up activity, perhaps to culminate in the week before the president arrives. Obama may be going to Israel for nothing more than a great photo opportunity which will end the criticism that he never visited Israel, while visiting many of its neighbors, during his first term. The award that he will be presented by Israeli President Shimon Peres will be used to show how close U.S.-Israel relations remain. It is hard to imagine that, with his full plate in domestic matters, the president has a stomach or inclination for entering the no-win battle to get negotiations going between Israel and the Palestinians, or more miraculously, achieve a resolution of the conflict.

The president tried the predictable approach of pressuring Israel over the settlements during his first year in office, and achieved nothing from it, other than frosty relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel understandably wants to talk about Iran with the president. The Palestinians want their cause to top the agenda. Making both the president and prime minister uncomfortable about what is going on in the territories is part of that process. What is less clear is if either man will fall for the bait. The peace process is going nowhere at the moment, exactly where it has been headed for two decades, despite many starts, stops and much effort along the way. If Obama wants to get things done in his second term in office, it is unlikely he will find peace processing the place to make his mark.