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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Obama's Middle East crash and burn

The Obama administration's 'peacemaking' efforts in the Middle East are on their way to a massive crash and burn. Unless he changes course and abandons his emphasis on 'settlements,' the President will do nothing but churn water for the next four years. This article by Michael Doran is spot-on.
Obama is now on the horns of a dilemma. If he backs down on natural growth, he lays himself open to Arab claims that he is a hypocrite. On the other hand, if he sticks to his guns, he will become Israel’s senior city planner, rejecting building permits for a school one day, and a new home addition the next. The president can certainly win the fight over building permits, but he must already be asking himself whether it is really worth the prize. Victory will eat up at least a year of precious time, and it will not have a strategic impact.

If Obama found Netanyahu difficult to coerce, he failed to charm the Israeli Left. Israeli pundits have noted the conspicuous absence of a pro-Obama coalition on the Israeli political scene—this, despite the fact that the Israeli Left detests the settlements as much as or more than Obama himself. Many Israelis simply do not understand how the country’s security dilemmas fit into Obama’s larger scheme. With respect to the issue of gravest concern, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama’s strategy remains worryingly opaque. And with respect to the Palestinian question, many Israelis are skeptical about the power of any American president to overcome the Hamas-Fatah split, and to create conditions on the Palestinian side that will achieve a two-state solution capable of guaranteeing Israeli security. In a context fraught with uncertainty, Obama is inviting the Israeli Left to join with him in a fight against Netanyahu in order to achieve… well, what precisely?

In addition to the vagueness of his goals, Obama’s body language has dealt the Israeli Left a weak hand. The Cairo speech cast Israel as a bit player in a U.S.-Muslim drama. The President, stressing his Muslim ancestry, did not take the time to fly to Jerusalem, where he might have reasoned with the Israeli public about the value to it of abandoning the Bush-Sharon agreement. Instead, his advisers denied flatly (and falsely) that such an agreement had ever existed. As a consequence of this disingenuousness, many Israelis fear that the administration aims to buy goodwill from the Muslim world by distancing itself from Israel, and they wonder whether settlements are not simply the first of many concessions that will be demanded. With such doubts swirling in the air, it is difficult for the Israeli Left to trumpet the Obama agenda.

The White House has sacrificed some credibility on the Israeli side, but it surely must have recouped its losses by garnering Arab goodwill. Think again. Today, the peace process is on hold until the settlement question is resolved. Mahmoud Abbas has refused to sit down with Netanyahu in direct negotiations, insisting instead that the Israelis must first implement the total settlement freeze that Obama himself has demanded. This is a wise tactic. Were Abbas to negotiate with the Israelis today, they would simply demand reciprocal concessions. The Americans, however, have already made a public commitment on settlements, so why not pocket it, and hold Washington to its word?

Meanwhile, Washington has simultaneously been attempting to mobilize the Arab states—particularly the Saudis. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have exhorted King Abdullah to take public steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. So far, this effort has registered no successes. The president’s interest in involving the Saudis arises from his realization that the Hamas-Fatah split means that Abbas does not have the power to deliver on an agreement that would guarantee the legitimate security concerns of the Israelis. Hamas controls Gaza, and it will not submit to Abbas’ authority, especially with respect to the key issue of abandoning terrorism.


Obama’s problem with the Saudis runs deeper than the settlement question. There is a larger, strategic question at play. It’s worth asking whether Riyadh can really offset Hamas in a meaningful way, and whether, in its own view, it stands to gain from diving headlong into the midst of an intractable dispute that has persisted for more than sixty years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tar baby. No sober Arab leader could relish the idea of taking responsibility for developments in such an unpredictable and unmanageable arena—particularly now, when peace is hardly in the offing. Quite understandably, the Saudis much prefer to occupy the politically safe position of Arab umpire: they sit on the sidelines and critique the Americans. They quietly help out here and there to keep the game from falling apart, but they don’t want to be players.

The President’s advisers promised him that taking a principled stand on settlements would generate goodwill in the Arab world. There is no doubt that the Cairo speech struck a chord with many Arabs. But goodwill of that sort is not a strategic commodity. Even a popular honest broker cannot reshape the iron interests of the parties on the ground, none of whom see much benefit in taking risks to achieve a goal that they do not really believe in. Many Western diplomats tell themselves that peace is nearly at hand, but the parties on the ground—Arab and Jewish alike—are highly skeptical. And for good reason. The power of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, supported by Iran, looms in the background. It is highly unlikely that, in the next four years, a major breakthrough will take place. In order to maintain good relations with Washington, the leaders in the region will certainly play along with the Obama administration. But the name of their game is not “Peacemaking” but, rather, “Shift the Blame.” Its object is to take positions that paint one’s rivals as the real obstructionists in the eyes of Washington.

The central strategic challenge for the United States in the Middle East is diminishing the power of the Iranian-led alliance. The peace process is not as effective a tool for addressing this challenge as the administration believes, because the disarray of Fatah and the power of Hamas (not to mention the other rejectionists in the region) will not allow significant, forward movement. Everyone in the region knows this, though few will say so openly. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates are today focused on one key question: Is Washington going to go the distance with the Iranians, and thwart their nuclear program? Obama’s Cairo speech did not provide an answer. It bought a modicum of goodwill from Arab publics on the settlement question, but it did not address the crucial strategic question that is keeping Middle Eastern leaders awake at night.
I urge you to read the whole thing.


At 6:16 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Barry Rubin has made similar observations about Obama's Middle East policy. Its run into quicksand and is futilely spinning its wheels to nowhere. Without a change of course, Obama is not going to find any breakthroughs in the region for the rest of his term in office.

What could go wrong indeed


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