Obama Plays the Fox

On Saturday, 20 November a State Department spokesperson announced that the United States government is actively negotiating with Israel the price of a proposed 90 day cessation of settlement activity on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). It is reported that the Israelis are demanding two things be given them free of charge: twenty stealth fighters (worth $3 billion dollars)and the release of the spy, Jonathan Pollard. On this latter demand it is to be noted that in a letter to President Obama, 39 Democratic members of Congress asked that the President grant Pollard clemency. These are the things that Israel has asked for. Then there are the things that the White House has offered voluntarily: among them is a promise to veto any Security Council resolutions hostile to Israel which is, after all, standard operating procedure for Washington and, more significantly, not to ask the Israelis for any further settlement freezes.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, if the U.S. has not been able to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace in the past 43 years (counting from 1967), what does this president think he can get done in 90 days? A lot of observers think that his offer to Israel is just another craven act of submission by a weak president. But I am not so sure. So here is my take on the situation.

The official line set down by the Palestinian “leader” Mahmud Abbas is that the Palestinian National Authority will not renew negotiations with Israel until there is a halt to settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Obama is obviously gambling that he can get Abbas back to the table without a freeze in East Jerusalem and that 90 days is enough time for the two parties to set down a preliminary border that would then smooth the way to a final settlement. How does he plan to do this?

Playing the Fox

It is not to hard to see what is going on here. The President of the United States (playing Machiavelli’s fox) is setting out to ensnare the ersatz President of Palestine who, as usual, has been completely cut out of the present discussions between the U.S. and Israel. As to the near future, here is scenario for which Obama may aim:

First: The price of this brief settlement moratorium will be finalized in a written document. The Israelis will probably get their stealth fighters but are unlikely to get Pollard. The aircraft are traditional, if expensive, give aways. But giving up Pollard has always been adamantly opposed by the American intelligence services and no previous president has risked the serious demoralization of those agencies by doing so. Obama will probably not take that risk either, but then, I would be hesitant to bet on this.

Second: Netanyahu will get his security cabinet to approve the U.S. incentive package by negotiating abstentions from those, such as the representatives of Shas, who do not want to vote for the deal.

Third: The Americans will go to Abbas (who is already feeling the walls closing in on him) and demand that he come back to the table. Abbas is so dependent on Washington for everything from the salaries of his bureaucrats to the guns used by his militia that he would have to dig pretty deep into his soul to find any principle to stand on. Maybe he too will ask for an incentive package to ease the way around a principled stand, and perhaps he will be thrown some sort of bone.

Fourth: Having been dragged kicking and screaming (at least for public appearance sake) back to the table, Abbas and his negotiators will then be trapped. They will be officially tied to a 90 day clock. They will agree to a deal within that time period or, having seriously embarrassed President of the United States (who has pledged himself to seek no further delays in settlement activity), they will be abandoned, which has always been the threat from Washington. It is a lose-lose deal and Abbas probably knows it. But he is not Yasser Arafat and, in the end, despite loud protests, he is unlikely to have the courage to just walk away.


In this scenario President Obama is motivated by an obsessive drive to be the man who settles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, if accomplished, it will be a very messy sort of settlement considering that Hamas is out of the loop and Abbas really does not represent most of the Palestinians. Indeed, Abbas’s probable fate is not to die in bed. Nonetheless, the settlement, such as it is, will be Obama’s legacy and simultaneously it may allow him, as Juan Cole has suggested, to outmaneuver the unscrupulous Republican opposition in the House. Also, he certainly believes it will help him become a two term president.

If Obama can accomplish this (and many things can go wrong with this scenario) there will be an “official agreement” under cover of which the United States and Europe can abandon those Palestinians not confined to the Palestinian “state.” They will declare the problem solved and treat in a ferocious manner any party, such as Hamas and Palestinian refugee groups, who say otherwise. Thus, the West Bank Palestinians will “officially” get bantustans which the West will call a state. And then a long war of attrition will be waged against the “terrorists” and “spoilers” who would upset the “peace” settlement. This too will be part of Obama’s legacy.

Who Am I?

What are we to make of this possible strategy? Well, it is a testimony to where political “realism” can take you. And, that is most likely how President Obama sees himself, as a realist. The New York Times editorial writer Paul Krugman has quoted Obama’s political adviser, David Axelrod, as describing the president’s present state of mind, “We have to deal with the world as we find it.” This, of course, is a mask behind which stands a president who has never really been a fighter. Rather, he has always been a “realist” following on the maxim that politics is the art of the possible. Obama seems not to realize that what is possible has something to do with where he decides to draw the line, lay down a principled stand beyond which he will not go. As Krugman observed, the president has always believed in the magical possibilities of consensus building. Alas, he does not seem to care very much with whom he builds consensus or what it gives us once arrived at.

So President Obama is not a visionary. That sort of rhetoric he leaves to his speech writers. He is a rather naive fox. He sets snares for others and perhaps he senses the snares laid out for him by his adversaries. However, he does not have the lion-like qualities that Machiavelli tells us a leader must have to fend off the wolves. Rather than fight wolves he prefers to bargain with them. The wolves in this case are the Israelis and those who now lead the Republican party. So this is Obama’s problem, he is an articulate and clever man, but not a courageous one. Such men do not usually win against the wolves. They do not achieve real answers to our problems. They only produce feeble, short-lived consensus. That is a road that can only circle back upon itself.

LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.


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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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