Obama’s Foreign Policy Towards Israel: The Failure to Use Smart Power

The United States is in need for a paradigm shift in the conduct of its foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prolonging of the conflict compromises American national security interest and tarnishes its credibility and prestige.
It is time for a paradigm shift in American Israeli relations [AP]

This paper discusses the foreign policy of the Obama administration toward Israel. The paper suggests that President Obama failed to use smart power effectively to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore diminished American credibility and prestige around the world. Furthermore, the paper argues that President Obama made little effort to translate the vision in his Cairo speech into a coherent strategy to end the occupation and revamp the poor image of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds. After the speech, expectations were very high and many hoped for a genuine change in the United States’ attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the majority were surprised after the administration opted for stability at the expense of democracy, and resorted to rhetoric instead of real change to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama administration was unable to stand behind its own policy commitments on the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; blinked when its especial envoy, George Mitchell, suggested linking economic aid to Israel’s behavior on the peace process; retreated when the Israeli government refused to honor its agreements on releasing prisoners; and caved in to Israel’s demands by voting against several resolutions at the United Nations. The paper posits that an effective use of smart power would have helped in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with American national security interests and would have helped the US maintain its global prestige and credibility around the world.


The United States’ unwavering support for the State of Israel continues to be one of the largest sources of contention in the most dangerous region on the globe, and there is very little evidence that this will change anytime soon. Therefore, solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on United Nations (UN) resolutions stands in accordance with American national security interests. Since the 1970s, American officials have been professing their disapproval of the occupation; many of them have been insisting that a compromise be found between the Israelis and Palestinians based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 242 and 338: the Land for Peace formula. Among all these officials, President Obama was the first to talk publicly about a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. On May 19, 2011, he said, “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”(1) But the president did not follow his speech with a coherent strategy to fulfill his vision and build on his previous Cairo commitments to the Arab and Muslim worlds to solve one of the thorniest issues between the West and the majority of the rest.

The disconnect between Obama’s speeches and his strategies was observed by two former American national security advisors: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. Both said, “He makes dramatic speeches,” but “it never translated into a process in which good ideas become strategies.”(2) The two men cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Obama’s most important unfinished business.

President Obama came to office in 2009 with a democratic majority in both Congressional houses; unprecedented American public support for his vision of ending wars and conflicts around the world, especially in the Middle East; and a distinguished team of special envoys to help the administration shape events in its own image. Therefore, the president came to office with enough tools to effect serious change on the ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the behavior of the Israeli government regarding the peace process. The president should have capitalized on all of these assets to enhance the United States’ smart power capabilities and fulfill his promise of change by utilizing them. Smart power implies that a country uses its diplomatic, cultural, military, economic, legal, and moral authority as tools to achieve its desired goals and preferred outcomes in foreign policy.(3) Smart power combines hard power (use of force) and soft power (the power to convince and lead by example). Had the Obama administration constructed a policy in which economic, legal, moral, cultural, and diplomatic leverages were put together, the outcome in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been much better.

American Foreign Policy toward Israel

According to the two main theories of international relations, realism-neo-realism, and liberalism-neo-liberalism, states pursue foreign policy to accomplish four goals: protecting national security; achieving economic prosperity; spreading and protecting their own values; and increasing their political leverage and prestige.(4) A deep analysis of American foreign policy toward Israel reveals that the US has been harming itself by prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through constantly protecting Israel at the United Nations and other international forums; financing Israeli colonial projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; not preventing Israel from invading its neighbors; not insisting that Israel abide by the Arms Exports Control Act, which requires using American weapons for legitimate self-defense; and not taking serious economic, diplomatic, and political measures to end the occupation. American lack of action on the Israeli front leads to frustration and anger against the United States around the world. According to Stephen Van Evera, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses a major threat to U.S. national security interests.”(5) Van Evera argues that “the conflict facilitates and eases al-Qaeda’s recruiting efforts, it helps al-Qaeda terrorists find safe haven in Arab and Islamic societies, making Arabs and non-Arab Muslims less willing to cooperate with U.S. efforts to destroy al-Qaeda networks.”(6)

Also, the correlation between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anger, frustration, and violence against the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds was echoed by two top military and security officers: General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen. Both have linked favoring Israel over its neighbors to damage to US interests and the possible loss of American lives. They said, “Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.” It’s rather difficult to maintain the fiction that only fringe Israel-haters see the connection between our support for Israel and Muslim hatred toward the US.”(7) Their message was reiterated by Vice President Joseph Biden during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden said, “Israel’s actions are endangering US troops in the region.”(8) Opinion polls in the US agree with Biden and the two generals on the link between Muslim anger and frustration and violence against the United States.

For instance, many American opinion polls in the Arab and Islamic worlds have linked American policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict to the anger and the frustration Arabs and Muslims feel toward the U.S.(9) Furthermore, according to Zogby polls, “More than four-in-five Americans (81%) agree the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a negative impact on US interests, including a majority of both Democrats (88%) and Republicans (77%).”(10) "Americans have made clear that ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict is important and negatively impacts US interests, but the growing partisan divide over policy is worrisome," said Arab American Institute President James Zogby.(11)

President Obama and the Israeli Occupation

On June 4, 2009, President Obama gave a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. In the speech, the president laid the foundation of his vision for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The President reiterated his vision at the United Nations General Assembly in another speech he delivered on September 23, 2009. In both speeches the president spoke about his desire to see an end to the occupation and an end to building settlements; and he committed to an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. In his Cairo speech, the president was absolutely clear about US opposition to Israel building settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: he said, “ The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”(12) However, the Obama administration did not take any political, economic, or legal measures to prevent Israel from building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nor did the Obama administration heed the political recommendations of its peace envoy, George Mitchell, regarding American financial assistance to Israel. Mitchell suggested that “under American law, the United States can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel.”(13) Had the Obama administration contemplated doing that, and followed in the footsteps of several previous administrations, many believe the outcome between the Israelis and the Palestinians would have been different. Several administrations have used money (economic aid) as a leverage to compel Israel to change its behavior on settlements and other aggressive policies.

For instance, the George H.W. Bush administration asked Congress to delay a $10 billion loan guarantee request by the government of Israel to settle Soviet Jews in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. In 1992, Secretary of State James Baker said, “The president would not approve the loan guarantees unless Israel promised to halt settlement expansion.”(14) Similarly, in 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, “The U.S. was suspending foreign assistance to Israel unless Israel stops its canal project on the Jordan River.”(15) Israel stopped and the aid resumed. Finally, the Eisenhower administration threatened to cut off US government aid to Israel and take legislative action to block private aid by US citizens to the Jewish state if Israel did not return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Israel heeded the call and withdrew from the Sinai and other conquered territories in the Spring of 1957.(16) The president has at his disposal many tools to encourage change in the behavior of many countries around the world, let alone a country that receives and fully relies on American financial, military, diplomatic, and economic help. Therefore, President Obama should have used financial and economic assistance in accordance with American law based on the recommendations given to him by his peace envoy, George Mitchell, just as President George H.W. Bush did to prevent Israel from continuing settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

President Obama did not have to reinvent the wheel to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His predecessors provided him with many formulas and precedents to facilitate a paradigm shift in American Israel relations. For instance, the president could have used the Clinton parameters, agreed upon in Taba, Egypt in 2001, to rally the American and Israeli people behind US interests and start serious negotiations for two states solutions. In addition, he could have used United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1397 and the Road Map as legal precedents to compel Israel to accept a two-state solution. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration authored and passed UNSCR 1397 that clearly stated the following: “The council affirmed a vision of a region where two States, Israel and Palestine, lived side by side within secure and recognized borders.”(17) It also called upon the Israeli and Palestinian sides and their leaders to cooperate in the implementation of the Tenet work plan and Mitchell Report recommendations with the aim of resuming negotiations on a political settlement.”(18) Finally, Obama could have empowered the Quartet, a committee of four global actors that includes the United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation and the United Nations, by granting it the necessary authority to author and implement an international framework without any US threats or vetoes.

Therefore, the Obama administration did not employ American smart power effectively enough in its foreign policy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reluctance of the Obama administration to use the diplomatic, cultural, legal, economic, moral, tools at its disposal continues to endanger American national security interests, compromises American values, threatens its prestige and credibility and negatively impacts its economy.

American National Security and the Illegal Israeli Occupation

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates anger, frustration, and humiliation that feeds the enemies of peace and moderation in the region and beyond. The perpetuation of the conflict has negatively affected the public opinion of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds against the United States and has legitimized/justified targeting American interests in the Middle East and beyond. For instance, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of the American embassy in Dar-e-Salam, Tanzania in 1998, the attack of the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen, and the 9/11 attack in New York are but a few examples of what the U.S. has suffered because of its policies on the Israeli-Palestinian, and larger Arab-Israeli, conflicts.

The al-Qaeda leadership has been using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the suffering of the Palestinians to justify many of its attacks against the United States. For instance, Osama bin Laden gave a speech on the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel that stated unequivocally the motivations that drive Al-Qaeda to attack America: “The main root of the conflict between our civilization and your civilization is the Palestine question. I stress that the Palestine question is my country’s central issue. Since childhood it has provided me and the free 19, a reference to the hijackers of September 11, with an overwhelming feeling of the need to punish Jews and those supporting them.”(19) In addition, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed justified the terrorist attacks against the United States based on American relations with Israel. He said, “My animosity towards the United States stems from my violent disagreement with the US foreign policy favoring Israel.”(20)

On many occasions the United States has found itself suffering from the same global isolation the Israeli government has been experiencing. For instance, the United States had to withdraw its financial support from the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after UNESCO admitted the State of Palestine as a member. The United States lost its membership after it failed to pay its annual dues as an objection to the Palestinian admission. Many American diplomats feared that the U.S. would become “a toothless UNESCO member with a weakened voice in international programs fighting extremism through education and promoting gender equality and press freedom.”(21) Phyllis Magrab, the Washington-based US National Commissioner for UNESCO, said, "We won't be able to have the same clout. . . . In effect, we [now won't] have a full tool box. We're missing our hammer."(22) The experience at UNESCO is not unique for many American diplomats. American officials had to withdraw or suspend their participation on other UN councils to protect Israeli behavior. Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has asked the US to quit the UN Human Rights Council after the council condemned Israeli behavior in the Gaza Strip.(23) The US was the only country to vote against the resolution.

In addition, the thorough and authoritative study of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer demonstrates the overwhelming political and economic cost the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands has had on American national security interests. The study argues that “Israel is a strategic liability because Israel does not act like a loyal ally.”(24) For instance, the study shows that Israel provided sensitive military technology to China and is willing to authorize aggressive espionage operations against the United States. According to the study, the US State Department defined such aggressive actions as “ a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers.”(25) Israeli actions and behavior and its constant interferences in American policies prompted former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to define Israel as an “ungrateful ally.”(26) Gates made these comments after Israel attempted to block an arms sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The defense secretary, like other American commanders on the ground, believes that the “Israeli ill-conceived convections for peace ends up hurting US national security interests and harms American credibility and prestige around the world.”(27)

American Prestige and Credibility and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

President Obama has failed to live up to the expectations he created in the Arab World. His first foreign interview was granted to the al-Arabiya news channel; among his first phone calls was one to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority; and his speech in Cairo sent signals of hope and a serious intention for change to many in the region and the world. The president’s decision to appoint George Mitchell (author of the Mitchell report) to be his peace envoy to the region solidified this hope; people were looking for a new beginning, given Mitchell’s vast experience in negotiating a peace agreement between the Ulster Unionists and the Sinn Fein movement in the United Kingdom.

However, to the dismay of many in the region, President Obama did not deploy any of the United States’ smart power tools to compel Israel to change its behavior and in retrospect protect American national security, credibility, and prestige around the world. In fact, the Obama administration changed its values and behavior to accommodate the State of Israel: the Obama administration vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution that declared Israeli settlements illegal.