Obama takes a softer tone on Israel, but why?

Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post finds that President Obama has recently adopted a softer tone towards Israel. For example, over the weekend, Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, a reporter for a Saudi-owned pan-Arab television network, asked Obama who bears responsibility for him not having reached a deal that would usher in a Palestinian state.

Obama’s answer was uncharacteristically balanced. He responded that “the politics inside of Israel and the politics among the Palestinians, as well, made it very difficult for each side to trust each other enough to make that leap.”

A better answer would have been that the politics, and the core ideological beliefs, of the Palestinians made it very difficult for Israelis to make the leap. Nonetheless, the Obama we have come to know might very well have used Bilbassy-Charters’ question as a vehicle for bashing Benjamin Netanyahu and blaming Israel’s settlements. But Obama didn’t.

Obama also made it clear in the interview that he’s no longer going to push Israel for territorial concessions. “A big overarching deal. . .I don’t think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas,” he said.

An overarching deal has never been possible during the time of the Obama administration, and the president must have realized this several years ago. Why, then, is Obama finally acknowledging reality? And why is he no longer assigning primary blame for reality on Israel?

The answer, I think, lies in the fact that Netanyahu, for the first time, has the upper hand in the relationship with Obama. Earlier this year, Obama swung for the fences, attempting to tilt the Israeli election in favor of Netanyahu’s opponents. He struck out.

Now, although there is some doubt as to how long Netanyahu’s slim ruling coalition will hold power, it seems very likely that Obama’s nemesis will still be in power when the American president leaves office. Moreover, with Obama’s deal with Iran virtually done, there is little more Obama can do in the next year and half to hurt Israel or Netanyahu. And anything Obama might attempt along these lines is likely to backfire, as his attempts to influence the Israeli election did.

By contrast, Netanyahu is in a position to hurt Obama. He is almost certain loudly to oppose the Iran deal, but there are different ways in which he might do so. Obama will be hoping that the Prime Minister’s statements of opposition are temperate.

In theory, Netanyahu could also order an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Obama’s deal notwithstanding. This scenario is very unlikely, but it’s not absolutely out of the question.

Finally, Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians is up for grabs to a degree. In his interview with Bilbassy-Charters, Obama spoke of “relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year.” He also talked about “do[ing] more to create business opportunities and jobs inside the territories.” Obama will be hoping that Netanyahu signs off on measures that will advance these goals.

Obama also realizes that Netanyahu will be under pressure from his coalition to take a hard line on Palestinian issues. Because Yitzhak Herzog of the left-leaning Zionist Union party and big loser in the election opportunistically refused to join Netanyahu’s government, the Prime Minister had to form a right-wing coalition.

Thus, Obama has reason to believe that Netanyahu lacks flexibility on Palestinian issues, and reason to fear that a continuation of America’s tilt against Israel would undermine whatever flexibility Netanyahu retains. This, I believe, explains why Obama is striking a softer tone on Israel.

Whether, given his ideological antipathy towards the Jewish state, Obama will sustain this tone for long is another question.