Engel: Obama Is Just About Out of Slack on Israel

As Israeli complaints about the Obama administration grow louder, Representative Eliot Engel says that the slack he's cutting the president is about to run out.

"We have a new president and a new administration and we have to give them leeway to do the things that they think they need to do," said Engel, reaffirming a position that marked something of a sea change in the way Jewish Democratic politicians approached criticism of Israeli policy. But when asked when that leeway would expire, he said, "Frankly, I think we are rapidly approaching that point."

The concern of Engel and other Democratic Israel hawks has always been that demands not be made on Israel alone, but that renewed American pressure on the freezing of settlement growth be matched with significant demands on Israel's Arab neighbors.

Engel, and other Democratic leaders, heard that balance in Obama's Cairo speech, and as a result, mitigated their usually staunch, blanket support of Israel—which Benjamin Netanyahu has counted on in Washington to apply pressure on the White House—to allow for a harder U.S. line against settlement growth. Influential columnists like Tom Friedman have reinforced Obama's argument.  

But in recent weeks, the complaints from within Israel for Obama to offer direct reassurance to the Israeli people about American support have intensified, applying more pressure on the Democratic supporters of Israel who have provided cover to Obama's new policy.

Engel, for one, wants a pressure-relieving meeting to happen.

"I'm hoping that the two of them will be able to sit down and talk," said Engel, referring to Obama and Netanyahu. "Netanyahu can only move if public opinion in Israel allows him to move. Right now, public opinion is very unhappy with the things the administration is saying to them on settlements and natural growth. The image of the United States is getting worse in Israel."

The Obama administration may be willing to endure an erosion of popularity in Israel, where the president has been less exuberantly received than in most other places, if it wins him a perception across the region that the U.S. is an honest broker. Israel supporters like Engel understand that calibration, and the fact that they have been willing to go along with it until now is testament to Obama's changing the terms of the Israel debate here.

But there is also consternation among some Israel supporters, including Engel, that if Obama is criticizing that bad Israel policy because he believes it will win him reciprocal concessions from Arab states, he is being, to borrow the term Hillary Clinton once used, naïve.

"I think there has been intransigence among the Arabs," he said, adding, "The Arabs need to be pushed more and if they were pushed more, then Israel wouldn't feel like it was being singled out. If the U.S. and Israel are arguing, the Arabs are just going to sit back and enjoy the show. When the Israel and the U.S. are working in tandem, that's when the Arab countries make concessions."

Engel added that he thought "Obama is a very, very smart guy and he thinks he can achieve his goals," but he reiterated his caution that his breaking point was "rapidly approaching."

In an editorial last week, even The Times, which has largely supported the new Obama policy, argued, "Now he needs to explain to Israelis why freezing settlements and reviving peace talks is clearly in their interest."