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Quo Vadis President Obama?

Written by Yoram Ettinger

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Dec. 26, 2008
by Yoram Ettinger, Makor Rishon
The ties with the US constitute Israel's backbone militarily, diplomatically, financially, commercially and technologically.  These ties are not shaped exclusively by the President, even when the President's own party enjoys overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress. Much is shaped by the House and the Senate, sometimes in defiance of the White House.

Moreover, Israel is not a classic-foreign-policy-issue.  Israel benefits from a unique foundation of mutual-values, which precedes its own establishment in 1948 and even 1776. US-Israel relations have constituted a win-win two-way street. How will they be impacted by the incoming Obama Administration?

The Wider Context

President Obama will, supposedly, enjoy nearly-automatic support of a Democratically-controlled Capitol Hill.  However, US legislators are loyal - primarily - to their constituents and to the Constitution.  Adherence to the principles of Separation of Powers, independence of the Legislature, checks and balances and Federalism (which prevent Executive tyranny), is stronger than party loyalty.  Moreover, the Clinton-precedent suggests that the president is not almighty, even when his own party controls Congress.  In 1992, Clinton was elected on the coattail of the yearning for "Change", along with a resounding Democratic majority in both chambers.  But, his attempt to force his domestic agenda upon Congress - ignoring the fact that congressional political life expectancy was different than his - paved the road to the Republican revolution/majority in 1994.

While not all US presidents have supported the enhancement of US-Israel ties, Congress has been a systematic, powerful ally of the bilateral mutually-beneficial relations.  Congress possesses the "Power of the Purse" and it is empowered to change, suspend and initiate policy. In fact, Congress has expanded its involvement in foreign policy since the Vietnam War, Watergate, Irangate and globalization.  It was Congress that stopped US military involvement in Vietnam, Angola and Nicaragua (Eagleton, Clark and Boland Amendments), altered US policy toward South Africa, coerced the USSR to allow massive Jewish Aliya (immigration) to Israel, forced the Bush (41st) Administration to extend emergency assistance to Israel during the First Iraq War, nurtured the joint development of the anti-ballistic missile Arrow Project, etc. A bi-partisan congressional leadership opposed US pressure for an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, but Israel outflanked Congress from left field....

The special US-Israel ties survived non-supportive presidents, primarily due to a covenant, which was established in the 17th century by the Pilgrims, who turned their back on "Modern day Egypt-Pharaoh," crossed the "Modern day Red Sea" and reached the "Modern day promised land."  The Founding Fathers and the Thirteen Colonies were inspired by the Bible, the autonomy of the Twelve Tribes, the Legislature of the 70 Elders, the Separation of Powers between Moses, Aaron and Joshua, Samuel and Gideon and the revolt of the Maccabees. The statutes of Moses are featured at the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court in Washington and the Two Tablets welcome visitors to the Capitol Building in Austin, Texas.

The potency of the US-Israel connection is derived, also, from its Win-Win aspect, which transcends the narrow context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Former Secretary of State, and Supreme Commander of NATO, Alexander Haig, refers to Israel as the largest, most battle-tested, most cost-effective US aircraft carrier, which does not require single US personnel and is located in an area, which is most critical to vital US national security interests.  If Israel did not exist, the US would have to deploy a few aircraft carriers, and tens of thousands of US soldiers, to the eastern flank of the Mediterranean, at a mega-billion dollar annual cost.

The Impact Of The Incoming Obama Administration

President Obama's formal and informal network of foreign policy and national security advisors consists, largely, of Carter and (mostly) Clinton Administrations' graduates. A chief national security legacy of Carter has been the betrayal of the Shah and the facilitation of the Khomeini Revolution, which still haunts the Middle East and beyond. The Clinton Administration was known for its vacillation in the face of Islamic terrorism, beginning with the February 26, 1993 "Twin Towers," through the 1998 destruction of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the terror attack against the USS Cole in 2000, which paved the road to 9/11.

President Obama and his advisors view the UN - which has been a hostile arena toward the US and Israel - as a chief formulator of international relations.  They consider the top State Department bureaucracy - which has been the chief critic of Israel in Washington, DC - as the luminaries on global affairs.  They hold the world view of Western Europe - which has usually sided with Israel's enemies - in high esteem, and they assess Western World (Israel)-Third World (Arabs) relations through the lenses of Goliath-David relations.

According to Obama, there is a cultural, ideological wedge between Western democracies and non-democratic regimes.  The wedge should be addressed diplomatically, with increased foreign aid and cultural and scientific ties, while lowering the military profile. The added-value of the "Israeli Aircraft Carrier" is demoted accordingly.  Obama assumes that Islamic terrorism represents a radical minority, driven by economic despair and - to an extent - by erroneous US policy.  He maintains that Islamic terrorism constitutes a challenge to law enforcement agencies and to the international community, rather than a challenge to the armed services and to the US alone.

Obama sees the Arab-Israeli conflict - more than shared values, joint interests and mutual threats - as a key determinant of US-Israel relations.  In his opinion, the Palestinian issue is the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict (although not a single Arab-Israeli war has erupted due to the Palestinian issue), the core cause of Middle East turbulence (although the turbulence is 1,400 year old), the crown jewel of Arab policy (although Arabs shower Palestinians with rhetoric rather than resources) and a root cause of Islamic terrorism (which was launched in the 7th century...).  Therefore, Obama is likely to increase US involvement in pressuring Israel back to the 1949 Lines, including the repartitioning of Jerusalem.  The more intense US involvement grows, the heavier the pressure on Israel. The more neutral is the US, the less of a special ally is the US for Israel. 

However, President Obama's capability to tend to the Arab-Israeli conflict will be reduced due to his expected pre-occupation with the economic meltdown, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the threats/challenges of Islamic terrorism, Iran, Russia, China, etc. He will also be constrained by the constitutional limits to presidential power and by the unique US-Israel Covenant.  Will the Jewish State leverage the geo-political reality, in order to avoid reckless concessions, or will it entice Obama and his advisors to an intensified 1949 Lines-driven involvement?
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Previous OpEds and other documents on national security and overseas investments are posted at The Ettinger Report: . Your constructive criticism would be highly appreciated.
Happy Chanukah and Happy New Year,

Yoram

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