Will victory at home boost Obama's Mideast peace push?
The approval of Barack Obama’s key healthcare reform has given a jolt to the US president's international standing. But that won’t be enough to break the diplomatic deadlock on the Middle East, says Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institution.
Justin Vaïsse is a senior fellow in foreign policy and director of research at the Washington-based Brookings Center on the United States and Europe.
FRANCE 24: Foreign policy analysts have long argued that US President Barack Obama was saving his political capital for crucial domestic reforms, putting on hold some of his boldest foreign policy initiatives. Will the approval of the healthcare legislation allow the US President to pursue his foreign policy agenda more vigorously?
Justin Vaïsse: There is no doubt that Obama’s position has been strengthened; there is no longer the same weakness that was attached to him before the passing of the healthcare reform. And there is always a link between leadership at home and abroad… Obama now looks more forceful and that will allow him to be more assertive than a week ago. At the same time, I don’t expect any major new foreign policy initiative as a result of his domestic strength.
F24: The Obama administration has come under fire from pro-Israel lobbies in the US for slamming the latest Jewish settlement plan in East Jerusalem. Will an emboldened Obama be able to obtain a settlement freeze?
JV: Well, Obama’s position has been strengthened but it’s certainly not sufficient. It doesn’t improve anything on the ground and I really doubt Netanyahu will agree to a complete settlement freeze. Obama has decided to send subtle diplomatic signals to show the United States’s displeasure at the Israeli government’s policy.
One such signal came last week when the Mideast Quartet used unusually strong words to condemn the continued settlement activity in East Jerusalem. But he’s not going to use heavy-handed tactics, he’s not going to recall the US ambassador in Israel! It’s a very complicated situation politically, one that could see Netanyahu casting himself as the victim of a US bully.
F24: What kind of leverage does the Obama administration have over the Israeli government?
JV: Obama is actually engaging the Israeli public opinion, raising the temperature and subtly sending the message that they need to choose between the US alliance and the policies of the Netanyahu government.
The Israeli public was very unhappy about the humiliation of US Vice President Joe Biden and Netanyahu's government took the hit. The deterioration in US-Israeli relations has been largely blamed on Netanyahu. The Israelis don’t want to see the government of their most powerful ally humiliated like that.
It would be a caricature to say that the US is trying to bring down the Netanyahu government, but there is no doubt that Obama would prefer to deal with another Israeli prime minister.
F24: Respected military figures like US General David Petraeus have recently said that the perception of US favouritism for Israel complicated efforts to advance American interests in the region. Are such statements likely to have an impact on the public’s support for Israel?
JV: No, at the moment it’s not affecting the public mood. In fact, support for Israel has never been as high -- the latest polls say that about 63% of Americans have a positive opinion of the Jewish state.
But among the elite, there has been a change of perception, a realisation that US and Israeli interests are not necessarily aligned. There is a concrete demographic reality and a part of the elite realises that within 10 or 15 years, the question will be whether Israel can remain both a democracy and a Jewish state.
Nobody advocates the abandonment of Israel but many policy-makers realise that unconditional support of Israel is not in the best interest of Israel… you can see this in the creation of pressure groups like J-street, which represents a slice of the elite’s opinion.