J.J. Goldberg

Obama, the Double-edged Nobel Sword and that Little Blue Dress

By J.J. Goldberg

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The Nobel committee may not have done President Obama much of a favor in awarding him the Peace Prize. At best it’s a double-edged sword. As Yediot Ahronot’s Washington correspondent Yitzhak Ben-Horin points out in a smart news analysis on the paper’s Ynet Web site (in Hebrew — not yet translated into English as I post this), the prize is apparently intended to encourage Obama’s efforts on the international scene. But it could very well boomerang on him back home by sparking ridicule and deepening public skepticism toward him.

Most of the ridicule of the prize is off-base. As admirers and critics alike are pointing out, the peace prize has been used over time in two different ways, sometimes to honor achievements and sometimes to recognize efforts in hopes of encouraging them and moving them along. The mere fact of Obama’s winning the presidency on a platform of multilateralism abroad and a stronger welfare state at home has changed the nature of discussion around the world. America came to be viewed during the Bush years as an obstacle to human progress in countless areas where it very much counts, particularly reducing tensions between the West and Islam and addressing climate change. America is now part of the game. There’s hope once again for progress on basic global crises. That itself is an accomplishment.

Still, it’s at home that his legacy will ultimately be determined. The American right tends to take the Nobel Peace Prize as a badge of shame, in line with its general views of Europe, the United Nations, multilateralism and the rest. Will ridicule of Obama’s prize hurt him politically and slow his legislative agenda? That’s the core question right now. He needs to pass credible health reform or he’ll lose momentum and credibility on every other front. He needs to find a way to get the economy moving on the ground, where it counts, in employment and access to credit. He needs to pass climate change legislation, or the whole Kyoto-Copenhagen will stall once again.

Speaking of Obama’s credibility, it’s worth checking out this essential analysis of the current moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn. Among other things, Benn argues that the administration’s efforts to deflect the Goldstone report effectively touched off the latest rioting in Jerusalem. The administration bluntly pressured Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority not to push for action on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. That badly weakened Abbas politically. The Jerusalem riots are the response, the Palestinian Authority’s way of showing its public that it still knows how to stand up to Israel.

It ought to be noted that as much as Obama’s people might have underestimated the damage they were doing to Abbas by forcing him back on the Goldstone report, he and the Palestinian leadership ignored America’s own stake in minimizing the report because of its implications for American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (and God knows where else in the coming months and years). This sort of international accountability for military actions is the last thing Washington needs as it tries to sort out the mess it’s in over there in central Asia.

One of Benn’s important points is that, whether intended or not, humiliating and discredting Abbas was right in line with the new diplomatic direction of the Netanyahu government in Israel. Past governments might have viewed Abbas as a positive force because he favors a permanent peace agreement with Israel on terms that are widely viewed as reasonable. Netanyahu views Abbas as a threat because Netanyahu has no intention of signing an agreement on any terms Abbas might accept, and as long as Abbas has the authority to lead, the Palestinians into negotiations, Netanyahu has to explain why he doesn’t want to compromise.

Benn’s most important point, though, is the subtle observation that the Palestinians use their influence on world public opinion — among European unions and academics, on American campuses, in the United Nations and anywhere else they can stir outrage—to counter Israel’s solid military control on the ground.

In trying to formulate a structure for renewing diplomatic talks, Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians commit themselves not to act against Israel in international forums and courts; if they have complaints, they should present them in direct talks. This is hard for the Palestinians to swallow: Their clear advantage in international organizations and world public opinion serves to counterbalance Israel’s military superiority and its control on the ground. In the conference room, Israel enjoys a structural advantage.

Another useful analysis in Haaretz, this one by Akiva Eldar, claims that the Obama administration officials believe Netanyahu is quietly promoting anti-Obama sentiment in America, and they’re “furious” about it.

We’ve been in this movie before. Recall Netanyahu’s visit to Washington as prime minister, way back in January 1998, just as Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress was erupting into a crisis for Bill Clinton. Netanyahu held a highly publicized meeting with the Christian right during the visit, humiliating Clinton, infuriating the White House and successfully stalling the threat of peace negotiations.

Eldar isn’t the only one noticing the problem in Obama-Netanyahu relations. It appears that Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, is worried about the same thing, according to a Jerusalem Post news report today that’s headlined “Oren: Obama approval in Israel must improve.” It’s about a talk Oren gave yesterday (October 8) at the very conservative Hudson Institute, arguing that the Israeli public’s hostility toward the president threatens peace negotiations and needs to be addressed. If diplomacy is to move forward, Oren is quoted as saying, Israelis “need to be able to trust the administration.” He cited recent polls showing that a bare 4% of Israelis trust Obama’s stance on the Middle East.

“We have to get this number up,” Oren stressed, noting that the White House and Congress were well aware of that need. “If we’re going to move forward, it is a sine qua non for progress in the peace process.”

One might suppose that Oren is thinking only of things Washington needs to do to ease suspicions in Jerusalem rather than the other way around. But there’s no evidence that he said that. If he had, surely the Post, of all papers, would have reported it.

Speaking of Post coverage, there’s an astonishing, highly creative opinion piece today by Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University and NGO Monitor, which is Steinberg’s own non-governmental organization. He argues that it’s Palestinian refusal to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem that is holding up progress. Israel, he says, is willing to entertain reasonable compromise. Now, maybe I’m wrong on this, but the usual perception, constantly encouraged in Israeli and pro-Israel media, is that Jerusalem is the issue on which Israel simply can’t compromise. One can disagree, but it’s an understandable position. The notion that it’s Palestinian unwillingness to compromise on Jerusalem is a new one on me.

Hey — we report. You decide.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Nobel Peace Prize, Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama

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