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Facing Israel's diplomatic "Price Tag" strategy: lessons for Obama

Since Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell's appearance on Charlie Rose, the Israeli press has been full of reports of official indignation and outrage.  The running theme is: how dare Mitchell threaten Israel with cutting aid if it does not play ball on the peace process?  

And in a gift to Israeli hasbara-niks, this weekend's visit to Jerusalem by two of Obama's chief opponents in Congress, defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-AZ) and his lackey, Joe Lieberman (I-CT) spent most of Sunday telling the Israeli media how they would never allow such a thing to happen.

What Mitchell actually said, after Rose pressed him on whether the US has any sticks to use in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, was this

"Well, both sides make the same argument to me in reverse, that the real problem, they say, is you haven't pressured the other side.   ...Cut them off, tell them you won't help them anymore, you won't do anything, you'll walk away.  I say, use, would you like us to do that to you?  Oh, no, not to us, but you should do it to the other side.   The reality is that, yes, of course the United States has both carrots and sticks.  You have to be very careful about how and when you use them and apply them...Under American law, the United States can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel.  President George W. Bush did so...on one occasion...That's one mechanism that's been publicly discussed.  There are others, and you have to keep open whatever options.  But our view is that we think the way to approach this is to try to persuade the parties what is in their self-interest.  And we think that we are making some progress in that regard and we're going to continue in that effort, and we think the way to do it is to get them into negotiations."  

Not exactly a threat to cut aid.  Not even a threat to withhold loan guarantees - just an observation that this is the one "stick" that has been used in the past (a stick that APN was instrumental in getting into place).

But some Israel officials and right-wing Israel supporters in the US went ballistic, acting as if the Obama Administration was an enemy of Israel.  The same Obama Administration that, despite getting the middle finger from Israel on pretty much everything it has asked since coming to office (settlement freeze, East Jerusalem settlement activity, Gaza crossings), has thus far not imposed any cost - financial or diplomatic - on Israel.  To the contrary.

So why the over-reaction to Mitchell's comments?  The obvious answer: right-wingers in Israel and their US supporters are taking a page out of the settlers' playbook and implementing a "price tag" strategy of their own.

"Price Tag," for those who don't know, is the settler strategy of imposing a high cost for any actions - even insignificant ones - against outposts.  This means that when Israeli forces come to tear down an illegal settler shack erected on Palestinian land, the settlers try to block them, rampaging through the area, attacking Palestinians and their property (including recently a mosque), and harassing and increasingly attacking Israeli security personnel.  The logic is that if the settlers can make Israel suffer enough for taking even insignificant actions against outposts, they can deter any significant action against outposts ever being taken -  making Israeli authorities believe that the costs of such action would be prohibitive.

A similar strategy of deterrence is being used now in the diplomatic arena.  Here, too, the logic is clear: by forcing Washington to pay a high cost in political capital for Mitchell's innocuous comments about hypothetical sticks that the US could use with Israel, it will be deterred from ever actually using sticks of any kind.  If the cost for mere words is so high, the logic goes, the price of actual action would be unbearable.

At least that is the lesson the people engaging in this "Price Tag" strategy hope Washington will take from this experience.

For those of us who advocate strong US leadership to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, we have to hope that President Obama will see through this strategy and draw two very different lessons from this experience.  

The first lesson is that Israeli right-wingers and their US allies are terrified that Washington will play hardball with Israel.  They recognize that given Israeli intransigence on settlements, Jerusalem, the Arab peace initiative, Gaza, etc, the US would likely find support for some stronger-armed tactics.  And they recognize that there may be far more willingness in Congress to let the President lead on this - especially if any US arm-twisting is aimed at things that clearly do not in any way impact Israeli security (as no doubt would be the case).

The second lesson, bolstered by virtually every US diplomatic encounter with Israel over the past year, is this:  President Obama, you are going to take a hit from right-wing Israelis and their US supporters, whether you try to play nice or not.  Whatever you do, Israeli right-wingers will portray your efforts as a threat to Israel.  Whatever you do, their US supporters will try to use your efforts in the next election to say that you - and Democrats in general - are too tough on Israel.  By playing nice, you take a political hit even if you accomplish far less than you had intended (or might have gotten).  

Based on this lesson, one has to ask: is it time to stop playing so nice?  By sticking to your guns you will take the same hit politically but you will almost certainly accomplish more in terms of promoting your Middle East agenda.  You may even earn the grudging respect of the Israeli right-wingers and their allies in the US in the process.   

And then, when right-wingers accuse you and the Democrats of being too tough on Israel during the next election campaign (which they will do either way) you can switch from defense to offense -- proudly standing by your tough, serious, fundamentally pro-Israel policy, rather than trying to explain why their accusations aren't true.