I remember Tom Friedman from the Madrid peace talks in Washington in the early 1990s. An up-and-coming Israeli politician named Benjamin Netanyahu was the briefer at the Israeli delegation's daily press conferences at the Madison Hotel. Dozens of reports fought to get Bibi's attention every afternoon, usually unsuccessfully, but Tom would stand in the back, seemly above the melee; the merest nod from the New York Times diplomatic correspondent would cause Netanyahu to stop what he was saying and give him the next question.
THAT'S journalistic influence.
So I wonder: what impact will Friedman's bombshell of a column yesterday have on an Obama administration that is probably shopping around for a new Middle East policy, now that its quest for a quick resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has collapsed in ruins?
Friedman wrote that the administration should adopt a policy enunciated by former Secretary of state James Baker: “It’s time for us to dust off James Baker’s line: “When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.”
Begging Israel and the Palestinians to do what neither wants to do – curbing settlements, coming back to the peace table – is a “dysfunctional 'peace process' which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility,” Friedman writes.
And more: “If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it,” a furious Friedman writes. “I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.”
That sounds like a suggestion to use economic sanctions against both sides.
So: given that Friedman is one of the most influential columnists in the world, with a receptive audience in this White House, how likely is President Obama to heed his advice?
Not very, although there is probably plenty of sympathy for the basic concept that neither Netanyahu nor the pathetic Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have any interest in moving forward at this time and plenty of frustration.
But I'm sure Obama is also being that publicly and dramatically ending active U.S. involvement would give Netanyahu and Abbas exactly what they want: an excuse to continue doing nothing.
More importantly, the last thing this administration needs or wants is an all-out political war with the pro-Israel lobby.
Obama faces a continuing uphill fight on health care reform, despite this weekend's House passage of a sweeping bill; his approval ratings have sunk, and the Democrats are facing the prospects for big losses in next year's congressional midterms; the administration faces a lose-lose crisis in Afghanistan; at home, the economy is far from fixed and the unemployment rate continues to creep up.
Will he Obama choose this moment to both walk away from Middle East peace efforts and threaten Israel with the foreign aid bludgeon? I think not. The pro-Israel would go ballistic, and the reaction in Congress would be furious on both sides of the aisle. Pro-peace process groups like J Street couldn't provide cover for lawmakers who might be inclined to support such a decision, and they might not WANT to, since active, sustained U.S. involvement in the peace process is their top goal.
Instead, it's likely we'll see a quiet ramping down of goals and expectations.
The administration will continue to say it's working actively for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Special envoy George Mitchell will continue traveling to the region, and we'll hear a lot from White House spinners about his “patience, and how he always approaches difficult peace talks by taking the long view.
Obama may get blunt in his meeting with Netanyahu this week, but I think any kind of public break is unlikely – not because the administration likes or trusts the Israeli leader, but because they won't want one more political crisis in a year that will probably make or break the Obama presidency.
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