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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where Obama failed in the Middle East

The Washington Post has a lengthy feature in the weekend magazine entitled Where Obama Failed on Forging Peace in the Middle East (Hat Tip: Republican Jewish Coalition via Twitter). Some highlights.
“If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the president.

Obama politely but firmly disagreed.

“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

Obama’s Muslim middle name, former anti-Zionist pastor in Chicago and past friendships with prominent Palestinians had shadowed his presidential campaign. He wanted to restore the United States’ reputation as a credible mediator. To do so, he believed that he needed to regain Arab trust — and talk tough to Israel, publicly and privately.

This was the change that Obama had promised — a new approach to old problems. But the stunned silence of Jewish leaders around the table that day suggested the political peril he would face along the way.

“We believed from that point that we were in for problems,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the meeting. “And we were right.”

The way Obama managed the Israeli-Palestinian issue exhibited many of the hallmarks that have defined his first term. It began with a bid for historic change. But it foundered ultimately on his political and tactical misjudgments, on a lack of trusted relationships and on an outdated view of a conflict that many of his closest advisers imparted to him. And those advisers — veterans of the Middle East peace issue — clashed among themselves over tactics and turf.


Within a week of his appointment, Mitchell was on a plane to Europe and the Middle East for a “listening tour.”

To Obama and Mitchell, it was a propitious time, despite the recent Gaza war. Never before had the governments of the Sunni Muslim kingdoms, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, shared more strategic interests with Israel. The reason was the common threat of Shiite Muslim Iran, which leaders in Riyadh and Jerusalem held in near-equal disdain.

In the words of one senior administration official, Mitchell’s plan was to “expand the chess board” — that is, to ask Israel and the Palestinians to return to direct talks and to ask the Arab states to make symbolic gestures to show Israel it was serious about a wider peace.

The approach captured the essence of Obama’s view of foreign policy: everyone gives a little, everyone gets a little. And several senior administration officials believed that Obama, after a historic election at home and rock-star popularity abroad, would be able to persuade traditionally recalcitrant Middle East leaders to agree.

But no Arab leader showed an interest in helping Obama with Israel. Mitchell did hear something else on his trip — that a freeze on Israeli settlement construction would send a strong signal that the new president wanted to make a difference.
In other words, the Arabs saw an opportunity to get something for nothing, and Obama fell right into the trap.
Hillary Clinton, Mitchell, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Dennis B. Ross — a Middle East adviser to Obama during the 2008 campaign who joined his administration as a State Department adviser on Iran — were veterans of the Clinton years.

According to former administration officials and outside advisers briefed on some White House meetings, Emanuel, in particular, thought Netanyahu could be pressured to make concessions, just as he had in the 1990s.

Emanuel’s father was born in Jerusalem and, before the state of Israel was created in 1948, belonged to the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary movement classified as a terrorist group by the British forces it fought. Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

He often told others that he believed his view was consistent with that of the Israeli political center, which had traditionally disliked the settlement project because of its cost and security risks and the moral questions it raised about the occupation of Palestinian land. He also had an outsize say in the Obama administration about Israel policy.

“I have some very smart people advising me on this,” Obama told the Jewish leaders in that first meeting at the White House in July 2009, turning to Emanuel.

“We understand there is a profound political edge to Israeli politics. Rahm understands the politics there and he explains them to me.”

To many in the administration, Emanuel’s instinct was one of “tough love” toward Israel.

“But his depth may not have been as grounded in the realities of the current conflict as it should have been,” said a senior administration official, who worked on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Netanyahu had changed since the 1990s, and so had the Israeli public. From his experience with Clinton, Netanyahu learned that he could not afford to lose his base. For him, a fight with a U.S. president pressuring Israel was a safer political bet than it once had been.


On the eve of Abbas’s arrival in Washington in late May 2009 for his first meeting with Obama, Hillary Clinton provided an unscripted push to the Palestinian leader’s position.

At a State Department appearance with the Egyptian foreign minister, Clinton, speaking for Obama, said, “He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.’

“That is our position,” she said, outlining a demand publicly stronger than any to date. “That is what we have communicated very clearly.”

White House officials acknowledged recently that her comments were a mistake. But the president declined to soften that position when he had a chance.


Around midnight, after touring the Sphinx and pyramids, Obama headed to Dresden, Germany, for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The U.S. delegation did not stop in Jerusalem, as some Israeli officials had hoped it would. The trip had a planned symmetry, as White House aides recently described, that a few days in Israel would have disrupted.

After a quick meeting with Merkel, Obama headed for the hilltop camp of Buchenwald, an iconic element of the genocidal Nazi network. He met the Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel on his arrival. Wiesel spent time at the camp as a child. His father died there.

Of the horrified liberators who arrived at the camp decades earlier, Obama said, “They could not have known how the nation of Israel could rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust and the strong, enduring bonds between that great nation and my own.”

For the small number of people who witnessed that still afternoon, the memory was indelible. It was also a miscalculation, a sign that the president knew less about the historic shape of the Israeli-Palestinian story than he thought. Some prominent Israelis and Jewish supporters said Obama, in his somber remarks at the gates of the camp, suggested that the state of Israel emerged as a moral response to the Holocaust. But most Israelis believe the state’s legitimacy is rooted in the Bible and Hebrew texts of its people, a central tenet of Zionist thought.

“What you saw, at several turns during Obama’s management of this, was a complete lack of an emotion-based relationship with Israel,” said a former Palestinian political adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid view.

“The Cairo speech was excellent, important,” the adviser said. “But it didn’t preclude a Jerusalem speech. It didn’t show any emotional smarts.”


In their meeting, Obama informed Ross that he wanted him to “quarterback” all Middle East policy, including that involving Iran.

Ross was inheriting a policy that he considered politically unfeasible. He believed the haggling over the freeze was wasting Obama’s political capital in a region that once had high hopes for his presidency.

“We had adopted a hard and firm position on this by then,” Ross said in an interview, echoing what he told the president. “The problem was that it put the emphasis on one issue when it wasn’t the only, or even most important, issue and, in any case, needed to be put in context.”

Ross arrived in the West Wing in July 2009, the same month Obama held his first meeting with Jewish leaders. The initial question Ross wanted answered was: Who developed the settlement-freeze idea and was it possible to alter it? What he got was finger-pointing and no clear reply, even among senior officials.

With Mitchell in the region or at his home in Maine, Ross accumulated more influence on the issue as the weeks wore on and progress remained elusive.

“What’s the strategy here?” Obama asked constantly in meetings with Mitchell, Emanuel and others pushing for the settlement freeze, according to participants. “I see you want the moratorium, but how does it get us where we want to be? Tell me the relationship between what we are doing and our objective.”

The senior staff rivalry intensified as the questions persisted.

Administration officials said Mitchell and Ross clashed over responsibilities and policy approach, and Israel appeared to see its influence rise within the West Wing.

To those on Mitchell’s staff, there was confusion about how he could be so inept at the internal White House politics. He had been a skilled Senate majority leader, adept at political infighting.

“So it surprised me that it so surprised him that you have to do that in the job he was in,” said one administration official involved in Middle East policy.


Biden soon received disturbing news.

Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in northern East Jerusalem — a community called Ramat Shlomo — that undermined Mitchell’s success at bringing the two sides closer together.

“It may have been a coincidence, but if so, it was an extraordinary and unfortunate coincidence,” Mitchell said in an interview.

For Biden, who was scheduled to dine with Netanyahu that evening, this was a diplomatic embarrassment. The vice president wanted to issue a statement from Jerusalem, but its wording was the subject of intense debate among his advisers and those back at the White House. Biden showed up for dinner at Netanyahu’s residence more than an hour late, and the statement he finally issued used the term “condemn,” the most severe under consideration. As Ross put it later, according to officials familiar with the debate, he believes that term should be used only to describe events related to terrorism.

Referring days later to the settlement announcement in his speech at Tel Aviv University, Biden noted that he had “condemned it immediately and unequivocally” at “the request of President Obama.”

As Biden flew home that day, his aides believed the episode was over. Some joked that the new Israeli settlement should be renamed “Biden Towers.”

While the vice president was in the air, Obama had breakfast with Secretary Clinton at the White House. By the end of the meal, Clinton returned to the State Department, where she got Netanyahu on the phone.

For about 45 minutes, according to senior State Department and White House officials, some of whom witnessed the call, Clinton sharply criticized the prime minister, calling what had happened a humiliation to the United States.

“She told him that this had created a problematic atmosphere and that we’re looking to you, as a friend, to take some concrete steps to make it right,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Clinton had several items that Obama wanted Netanyahu to address. While they have not been made public, Israeli and U.S. officials acknowledged recently that Netanyahu effectively froze new building in East Jerusalem after the Clinton call [emphasis mine. CiJ].
Read the whole thing (it's much longer). Bottom line: Whether Obama is anti-Israel or not (I believe he is), he screwed up royally. I shudder to think what he might do in another four years (God forbid).

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