U.S. acts as though it seeks regime change in Israel

Regime change. Generally it’s a term and tactic reserved for America’s enemies. But what if the Obama administration is developing a more nuanced version for one of the United States’ closest allies -- Israel?

As the brouhaha between Israel and the United States over settlements and Jerusalem continues to simmer, you have to wonder whether President Obama is focused on changing the behavior of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, or changing prime ministers instead. The absence of a clear strategy to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations forward, highlighted by the administration’s repeated calls for a settlements freeze -- which neither Netanyahu nor his Likud-led right-wing coalition can accept -- raises the question of whether Washington is interested in bringing about a new and more pliable Israeli government.

It wouldn’t be the first time America meddled in Israeli politics. In fact, the notion that the United States doesn’t interfere in Israeli politics is about as absurd as the proposition that the Israelis don’t meddle in ours. On at least two occasions I know well, the U.S. not only rooted for preferred candidates (always on the Labor side) but actively took steps to shape Israeli politics, and even electoral outcomes.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III purposely denied Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir housing loan guarantees because of his willful settlement policies -- a move that directly contributed to his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin, who got those same guarantees a year later.


And in another, more direct intervention, President Clinton, in an effort to shore up then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, orchestrated a summit of Middle East peacemakers at Sharm el Sheik and a high-profile visit to Israel in March 1996. Clinton not only wanted to demonstrate that the U.S. stood with Israel in the face of Hamas terror, but also to support the moderate Peres in his electoral race with Netanyahu. Peres, however, lost the election in a squeaker.

What would motivate Obama to meddle now, with the goal of undermining Netanyahu, and how would he do it? Both White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have seen the Bibi movie, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, when Emanuel was an aide to Bill Clinton and Hillary was first lady. They didn’t like it the first time, and don’t want a sequel.

There’s a widespread view -- almost a conviction in Washington these days -- that Netanyahu just isn’t capable of reaching a deal, and that the Palestinians and Arabs will never trust him. So why expend months of effort starting a process with Netanyahu that you can’t possibly conclude with him?

The remedy, if regime change is the goal, is to hang tough on settlements, create conditions for starting negotiations that are reasonable but that Netanyahu’s coalition can’t accept, and not-so-subtly suggest that Netanyahu can’t be a real partner in a peace process. The administration’s recent leak that it’s considering putting out its own peace plan will only further undermine any chance of partnership.

Sooner or later, the thinking goes, it would become clear in Israel that the prime minister can’t manage the nation’s most important relationship, and that he is putting settlements above Israeli security at a time when the Iranian threat looms large and close ties with the U.S. are more important than ever. The American hope would be that public and political pressure would mount, forcing Netanyahu to broaden his government or even impelling a change at the top.

The only problem with this line of thinking is that the odds of success are slim to none. Pressure could easily backfire, leading to a continued Israeli recalcitrance and an even more muddled political situation.

Aside from our highly questionable capacity to play deftly in an ally’s politics, it’s not at all clear that a new government or Israeli leader would fix anything.

Israel’s dysfunction is only one of the myriad problems that stand in the way of meaningful negotiations and peace with the Palestinians. Big gaps in agreement about what to do on core issues, such as Jerusalem, stand in the way, along with fundamental divisions between Hamas and Fatah on the Palestinian side and a regional situation framed by Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran that doesn’t create an auspicious environment for big decisions.


More to the point, the history of peacemaking on the Israeli side is a story of transformed hawks, not impassioned doves. Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (Egyptian-Israeli peace), Rabin (Oslo), Ariel Sharon (Gaza disengagement) and even Netanyahu himself (as the first Likud prime minister to withdraw from any West Bank territory) were right and right-of-center leaders who didn’t start out as peacemakers, to be sure. Indeed, in his government, Netanyahu is the center.

The fact is that in 1998, Netanyahu’s government fell not because the Clinton administration plotted against him but because it had worked with him and Yasser Arafat for almost a year to reach the Wye River accord. His coalition collapsed in December because it couldn’t accommodate that peace process.

Wye River was never implemented; but it brought the Israeli government to a key decision point, and it created an important precedent: Likud could endorse withdrawal from the West Bank. And like every other positive step in Middle East peacemaking, it required what the Obama administration needs now -- a strategy.

Work with, not against the current Israeli government and the Palestinians, and see how far you can get. Then if you reach an impasse or an agreement, let the natural ebb and flow of Israeli politics (and for that matter Palestinian politics) take its course.


That would be better than where the administration seems to be headed: a no-win fight over settlements, the threat of pushing its own peace plan -- or worse: too-clever-by-half meddling in Israeli politics. Such an approach will only waste time and energy the United States doesn’t have, and risk failure at a time when America is trying to protect its own interests in an angry, complex and turbulent region.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of State on the Arab-Israeli negotiations. His book “Can America Have Another Great President?” is to be published in 2012.