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Lara Friedman Headshot

Obama: Time to Call in Bill Clinton and Jim Baker

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On the historic day that was November 29th, 2012, the Obama Administration stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Netanyahu government at the United Nations, voting against a UN resolution that was broadly consistent with U.S. policy. President Obama then went a step further, unleashing his UN ambassador to punctuate the U.S. "no" vote with a speech that seemed to be the textbook example of the "no-daylight-between-the-U.S.-and-Israel" policy that pro-Netanyahu forces have long demanded.

What did this "no daylight" get the Obama Administration? As expected, it left the U.S. isolated (alongside Israel and a grand total of seven other countries, four of which are tiny islands), against Europe and the entire world. It further discredited President Obama's Middle East policy and diminished his stature in the international arena.

What did it get from Netanyahu? A thank you? A demonstration of the Netanyahu government's readiness to enter meaningful, serious negotiations, without preconditions, as demanded of the Palestinians?

No. What it got was a slap in President Obama's face from the Israeli prime minister. It got the announcement of massive settlement expansion, including plans to go ahead with construction of the ultimate two-state-solution killer, E1. The latter, notwithstanding the fact that the Obama Administration had publicly asked Netanyahu, before the UN vote, not to take this very step.

In response to the settlement announcements, some EU states have begun taking tougher-than-normal diplomatic steps. The Obama administration, for its part, has issued several mild statements of concern -- the kind of statements that are routinely ignored by Netanyahu, without repercussions.

What did this mild response get Obama? It got him leaks from Israel officials saying the new settlement announcements were his own fault -- payback, it was suggested, for his refusal reconfirm unofficial Bush "commitments" to Israel on settlements. And it got him leaks from the Netanyahu government blaming him, too, for the EU's tough diplomatic response to the Israeli moves.

When will Obama and his political and policy advisors finally understand that no step taken to placate or pander to Netanyahu will produce even a pretense of respect for this U.S. president? At best, Obama's gestures of friendship and support for Israel are pocketed with an insincere "thanks" and immediately transformed into entitlements (i.e., Iron Dome); at worst, they are treated as entitlements and responded to with conspicuous ingratitude (i.e., this UN vote).

It's hard to believe that four years of serial humiliations from Netanyahu haven't already driven this message home. Will this latest UN debacle finally teach the Obama Administration that even when it rolls over and sits up on command, it won't get a treat or even a pat on the head from Netanyahu or his fellow travelers in the U.S. and Israel? More likely, it will get this president the political and diplomatic equivalent of a smack on the nose with a rolled up copy of Israel Hayom (the free, mass circulation Israeli newspaper fondly called by Israelis "Bibiton," and owned by Sheldon Adelson, who famously spent millions trying to defeat Obama) and shoved out the door.

It's time to face facts. Netanyahu by all appearances interfered in U.S. elections to try to defeat Obama (also here). Now, with Obama newly re-elected, Netanyahu has chosen this moment to try, once and for all, to put this president -- whom he appears to loathe and deeply disrespect, and whom, in a second term, he apparently deeply fears -- firmly in his place.

In choosing this course, Netanyahu isn't just sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. He is giving the middle finger to every American who voted for Obama. He is telling all Americans, regardless of how they voted, that he cares not a whit for U.S. standing in the world or about the effect that his constant undermining of Obama has on this American president's ability to promote and protect vital U.S. national interests across the globe.

Will President Obama now, finally, recognize that this is what he is dealing with? Will he finally understand that appeasing a bully only guarantees more bullying? Will he finally be ready to start standing up for his policy and standing with the vital U.S. interests that policy protects?

If he is, there are things he can do. There are also people around, from both parties, to whom he can look for solidarity and wise counsel. People like President Bill Clinton, who has a lot of experience herding cats on this issue. People like former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who certainly knows what it means to get tough with an Israeli leader who appears determined to thwart U.S. policy and to make the U.S. president look like a fool. No doubt the White House switchboard can find their numbers.