Conventional wisdom holds that President Obama, whose second term will be rent by partisan strife, must shape his legacy abroad. And right on cue, off he goes to Israel and Palestine next week. Unhappily, leaders there are further than ever from any kind of peace deal, and Obama is in no position to induce confidence-building measures. Hamas, which bombs Jews from inside Gaza and doesn’t recognize Israel, won’t listen to American blandishments; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has so little power that he can’t trade anything for progress from the Jewish state.
Israel, however, should be another story. Hawkish American Jews and their allies—including, some would say, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—tried to paint Obama as a fickle friend. Mitt Romney accused him of throwing Israel “under the bus.” But Obama survived any domestic political reprisal and won 69 percent of the Jewish vote in November (only 5 points below his 2008 showing). Netanyahu, meanwhile, lost power in Israel’s recent election. Presumably, an emboldened president could get some concessions and, who knows, maybe bring Hamas to the negotiating table. But even with his legacy on the line, he won’t. The truth is, Obama doesn’t actually have much leverage over Israel. And what capital he has is best spent elsewhere.
The United States has plenty that Israel wants. No president would retract the nuclear umbrella or declare the alliance obsolete. But Obama could (at least temporarily) cut off the $3 billion in annual security aid, curtail military-to-military cooperation, or even abstain from the next U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood. In the past four years alone, Washington has spent $925 million on missile-defense systems for Israel. It’s a moral and national security imperative for America, Obama could tell Netanyahu, that you work toward a peace deal. Hint, hint.
This approach is rarely tried, but it has a modest record of success. In 1991, after his victory in the Persian Gulf War, President Bush suspended $10 billion in loan guarantees until the conservative prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, appeared at a peace conference in Madrid. Shamir asked American Jews to protest the move, but Bush was popular and dissent was muted, so the premier had to attend, setting in motion a process that led to the Oslo Accords. Shamir’s obduracy also looked bad at home: Israeli voters replaced him a few months later with Yitzhak Rabin, who vowed to revise his country’s settlement policy. “The president stood tall and put his own persona behind a quest for direct negotiations,” says Edward Djerejian, an aide to Bush’s secretary of State who now runs the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
A similar dynamic played out during Netanyahu’s previous stint as premier. As a skeptic of Palestinian good faith, he had slowed the Oslo process. So in 1998, President Clinton pressed him into signing the Wye River agreement with Yasir Arafat, which committed him to pick up the pace. Clinton never made any direct threats, but the president was immensely popular in Israel for his emotional reaction to Rabin’s assassination a few years earlier, and he made it known that he expected Netanyahu to act boldly. “It requires a willingness to sustain a standoff with an Israeli prime minister that could last a period of time,” says Daniel Levy, the Middle East director at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an aide to Ehud Barak, whom Israeli voters—siding with Clinton—chose to replace Netanyahu the following year.
The problem is that those victories are not replicable today. One reason: Unlike after the first Gulf War, America no longer has the standing to boss allies around. When Obama said that negotiators should use the 1967 borders as rough guidelines for a deal—the framework accepted by Netanyahu’s predecessors—the premier scoffed publicly. Once, “people took saying ‘no’ to America seriously,” says Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of State on the Middle East and is now a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. “We’ve come a long way.” Another reason is that Obama won’t use sticks. When he demanded that Netanyahu halt settlement construction (the key Israeli impediment to peace progress), the prime minister simply ignored him. The message: Washington can be disobeyed with impunity.
Ultimately, it’s not clear that sticks would even help. On the political side, although Obama will never face another election, Democrats in Congress have one next year, and they won’t want an extended public break with Israel when legislative control—and the fundraising needed to contest it—is at stake. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, possible presidential candidates, would likely undermine Obama’s hard line. This time, American pressure wouldn’t help in Israeli politics, either. Voters, who watched the peace process crumble, now feel besieged by Hezbollah, Hamas, Egypt, and Iran. One of Netanyahu’s possible coalition partners opposes a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; the other rejects any kind of Palestinian state.
On the strategic side, unlike Clinton’s relatively placid second term, today’s Middle East agenda is packed with urgent problems—Iranian nukes, Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring. The costs of tampering with the alliance right now (say, a disunified front against Tehran) may outweigh the costs of inaction. Perhaps that’s why Obama, who mentioned Middle East peace often during the 2008 campaign, ignored it in his 2012 convention speech, the debates, his election-night speech, his inaugural, and his State of the Union address. It is now, as Biden put it last week, in our “naked self-interest” to help Israel.
Which is why Obama and Netanyahu won’t spend their time together bickering about borders or settlements. “It’s not focused on specific Middle East peace-process proposals,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last month. “That is not the purpose of this visit.” In other words, enjoy the photo op.
This article appears in the March 9, 2013, edition of National Journal as The Leverage Myth.