Edition 31 Volume 7 - August 13, 2009
The Obama approach
The communicator's challenge -
The administration's ignorance of Israeli views enabled Netanyahu to appear as the responsible centrist.
A holistic approach -
It would seem that Washington understands the long-term interests of Israel better than Israel's own right-wing government.
An unforgivable mistake -
The rush for reconciliation with enemies or antagonists often comes at the expense of traditional friends.
Slouching toward Ramallah -
Dayton's other mission involves the US as a partner in Israel's campaign against Islamists.
The communicator's challenge
As he prepares to present his much-awaited peace plan for the Middle East, US President Barack Obama is facing a challenge: how to sell his initiative to a skeptical Israeli public.
This will not be the first time an American administration tries to promote an Israel-Arab "land for peace" deal despite the reluctance of a right-wing government in Jerusalem to negotiate or make territorial concessions. Past American efforts, however, were met with high hopes from Israelis who were seeking an alternative to the endless conflict. The political system was split along the lines of "yes or no" to the peace process.
In 2009, however, this is no longer the case. Israelis are doubtful that a peace deal with the Palestinians is possible at all, and in any event they don't see the point in another futile experiment. Scars from the recurring failures of the past 16 years--Oslo, Camp David, the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza and the Annapolis process--are fresh in the public mind. While the left and right are still debating who is to be blamed, the lesson drawn by most Israelis is one of frustration. Territories that were given away turned into terrorist bases and rocket-launching pads. The Palestinian Authority is split between hostile, Hamas-controlled Gaza and the friendlier but weaker Fateh government in the West Bank. Security and quiet were achieved through a combination of defensive measures like fences and walls along with military offensives in the West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza, rather than via negotiations.
Opinion polls have shown that while most Israelis would support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, they also believe it will not happen. Since the Camp David debacle of 2000, the Israeli mainstream has adopted Ehud Barak's argument that "we have no partner" on the Palestinian side (or in Syria, for that matter.)
This explains the policy of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Returning to the helm after a decade, Netanyahu aims to position himself at the political center. His position dovetails with the majority of public opinion: supporting the idea of Palestinian statehood in principle while overloading it with a stack of preconditions that are unacceptable to Palestinians. In other words, Palestine could be a nice idea, but in practice it's impossible.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has mirrored Netanyahu's stance with his own preconditions, unacceptable to Israelis, all but showing disinterest in negotiations. While Netanyahu prefers the territorial status quo ("economic peace"), Abbas wants an imposed settlement based on "Palestinian rights."
Against this backdrop, Obama's leadership is the key to reviving the peace process and to any successful outcome. It's his call: he alone can overcome the reluctance and intransigence on both sides and re-launch a serious diplomatic effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From an Israeli standpoint, however, Obama faces a rocky start. In many countries in the world Obama enjoys almost messianic status, rebuilding America's stance as the global leader following the unhappy years of George W. Bush. But not in Israel. Here Obama is seen as an unfriendly president who distances America from Israel in order to please "the Arabs". According to a Pew poll published in late July, Israelis are less in love with America following Obama's address to the Arab world in Cairo on June 4.
Obama's demand that Israel freeze settlement construction, meant to facilitate resurrection of the peace process, was interpreted here as a thinly veiled attempt to twist Netanyahu's arm and push him into a corner while taking little political risk at home. After all, the settlements have few friends on Capitol Hill or in the American Jewish community.
Efforts to win friends in Congress notwithstanding, Obama and his lieutenants have not bothered to make their case to the Israeli public. The president has reached out to many peoples around the world, from Russia to Ghana, but has not bothered to speak to Israelis. The Cairo address and its immediate follow-up visit to Buchenwald depicted the birth of Israel as a result of the Holocaust, in essence adopting the narrative of Israel's enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad. Israelis are taught that Zionist idealism, hard work and struggle brought about the existence of Israel, not political handouts from the guilt-ridden West at the expense of the Palestinians after WWII. Obama may have mixed up Israelis with American Jews, whose historic narrative emphasizes the Holocaust.
The administration's ignorance of Israeli views enabled Netanyahu to appear as the responsible centrist, paying no domestic price for one of the worst crises in American-Israeli relations--after 17 years of a continuous love affair. Netanyahu's refusal to freeze the settlements (he agrees only to a construction limit) enjoys the backing of the political system. No Israeli politician, not even from the left-wing opposition, has stood up to the prime minister to demand: "Say 'yes' to Obama." This stands in stark contrast with the political debates around past peace efforts. Even Meretz, at the left end of the Knesset spectrum, focuses on gay rights and government conduct rather than on "stopping the settlements" as Obama demanded in Cairo.
Obama won the presidency, and global admiration, thanks to his considerable talents as a communicator. If he wants to promote peace in the Middle East, he should communicate better with Israelis. Bill Clinton could do it with his personal charm, George W. Bush with his steadfast support for Israel's security. Most Israelis crave attention and friendship from America more than they care about the settlements. But they hate to be dupes and fear they have been misled too many times by false hopes. Obama's challenge will be to convince them that freezing settlements and creating a Palestinian state are not just another dose of snake oil.- Published 13/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Aluf Benn is editor-at-large of Haaretz.
A holistic approach
There is no doubt that the Middle East approach of the new American administration under President Barack Obama is significantly different to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
In fact, however, the change was begun during the previous administration and was instigated mainly by the failures of that administration in dealing with almost every single aspect of Middle East policy. The groundwork for change was laid in 2006 by the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.
The Baker-Hamilton report indicated, after a thorough evaluation and assessment, several shortcomings of then current US policy in the region. Coupled with the unprecedented decline in the credibility of the US government and its allies in the region in the last half decade, the report confirmed a conclusion that many politicians and analysts had already reached, namely that the US needed to change its approach to the region.
There are four main notable changes that characterize the Obama administration's approach to the region. The first and most obvious is the administration's immediate and consistent engagement with the different conflicts in the Middle East, starting with the Arab-Israel conflict. Indeed, the White House appointed George Mitchell as its special envoy almost immediately after Obama's inauguration. Since then, Mitchell has been a regular and consistent presence here.
This is important because the absence of almost any engagement until the last year of the previous administration was among the factors responsible for the deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations, the increase in violence and the radicalization that has afflicted both Israeli and Palestinian society.
Second, the Obama administration has replaced the Bush administration's exclusivist approach with an inclusive approach to the region's ills. Thus Washington has reached out to Tehran, encouraged domestic dialogue in Iraq, opened channels to Syria and called upon Egypt to try to reconcile the estranged Fateh and Hamas factions, with the implied message that any Palestinian national unity government thus established would not be shunned by the international community.
The current White House also appears to have grasped the fundamental inter-relationship between the various conflicts in the Middle East. There are linkages between Iranian-American tensions and the domestic Palestinian division as well as with the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli fronts. In other words, and as evidenced by Obama's speech in Cairo to the Arab and Muslim worlds, the new administration has adopted a holistic approach to the Middle East.
The final and most interesting change is in American-Israeli relations. Here, the new administration seems consistent in its demands on Israel even in the face of Israeli objections. For example, the American "request" for Israel to stop its expansion of settlements and the consistency with which this has been repeated, is unprecedented in the history of US-Israel relations since the beginning of the peace process, maybe even before.
That is not at all an indication that the current US administration is less friendly to Israel. Rather, it would seem that Washington understands the long-term interests of Israel better than Israel's own right-wing government. Such a conclusion may be supported by the fact that a clear majority in the American-Jewish community appears to back Obama's attempts to convince Israel to stop its settlement construction.
Certainly, there is general consensus that there is a clear contradiction between Israel's settlement construction and the international community's strategy for securing peace between Palestinians and Israeli--of a kind that can also positively impact regional stability.
However, there is one major shortcoming with the new tone from Washington: it has so far failed to yield any practical results. Perhaps it just needs more time, especially since more time is required to change Palestinian, Israeli and Arab public opinion. The public moods among both Palestinians and Israelis pose a significant obstacle to progress on a peace process.
But equally, the US must also convince Israel that failure to comply with its obligations under the roadmap, especially vis-a-vis settlements, will have consequences for Israel's relations with the international community, including the US.- Published 13/8/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
An unforgivable mistake
Israelis or Israel-supporters who think of President Barack Obama as anti-Israel are mistaken. He is not as staunchly pro-Israel as his predecessor, and he has chosen to tangle with Israel over settlements. But surely he is convinced that this is for Israel's own good.
Nonetheless, he may do Israel a good deal of harm. Indeed, he may already have begun doing so. This is not so much due to the issue of settlements but to his overarching strategy for dealing with the Middle East.
Obama seems to believe that America's problems in the world are self-inflicted, indeed that many of the world's problems were created by George W. Bush. International polls during the Bush years showed that many people believed that America was the greatest danger to world peace. Some Americans believe it too, and Obama apparently leans toward that view.
That would explain why he imagines he can solve disputes with Iran, Syria, Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Burma and Sudan by means of "diplomacy" and "engagement". In this view, if only America will show the rulers of these countries that it now has good intentions toward them (unlike during the benighted Bush years), then surely they will agree to work things out amicably.
The rush for reconciliation with enemies or antagonists often comes at the expense of traditional friends. If Washington appeases Moscow by canceling a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, then the Poles and Czechs who went out on a limb in agreeing to host such facilities will see that limb sawed off behind them. New amity with China may cost Taiwan; with Pyongyang the loser may be Seoul. With all of the target countries, warmer government-to-government relations mean handshakes, smiles and photo opportunities with bloody tyrants and muting US complaints about the sufferings they impose on their subjects, as Secretary of State Clinton made clear on her visit to China.
Jimmy Carter took a similar approach, and the result was the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Obama's apologies for the exercise of American power by his predecessors and his cuts in defense spending also mirror Carter's policies. During Carter's presidency, this projection of weakness provided a context in which anti-American revolutionaries took power in a string of Third World countries in addition to Iran and Nicaragua and in which the Soviet Union was emboldened to invade Afghanistan.
Obama's strategy in the Middle East is to reduce America's unpopularity by accelerating withdrawal from Iraq, making a display of differences with Israel and offering statements and symbolic gestures of American humility and respect for Islam. These have improved America's poll ratings, but it is doubtful they will induce the region's power-brokers to adopt policies more conducive to America's interests. After all, these potentates do not show much concern for their own poll ratings.
How does all of this affect Israel? Israel hopes one day to enjoy warm peace with its neighbors, but the path to such an idyll lies through a more prosaic type of peace, born of pragmatism. In this scenario, the Arab states may continue to resent Israel's founding but recognize that Israel has become a reality with which they are better off coming to terms. America's unmatched power and its unflinching support for Israel encourage the Arabs to reach such a conclusion and to forgo fantasies of wiping Israel off the map. An American projection of weakness and diminished support for Israel will have the opposite effect.
Of course, the perpetuation or even reinvigoration of hopes of destroying Israel does not mean Israel will be destroyed; Israel is very good at defending itself. But it may well mean more wars, more terror attacks and fewer steps toward the normalization of Israel-Arab relations.
Iran's drive for nuclear weapons and regional hegemony makes this issue far from theoretical. Iran has made itself the patron of those who continue to advocate Israel's annihilation, and nuclear power might give it the means to that goal. Obama's approach to this problem has been "diplomacy", i.e., the hope that he can somehow talk Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei into abandoning the ambition of making Iran the world's tenth nuclear weapons state with all the prestige and power this would confer.
It is doubtful that an American president has ever entertained a more quixotic idea, and it has already led the US administration to badly mishandle Iran's electoral crisis. It took a week before Obama spoke clearly in support of Iranian protestors. Then his spokesman referred to Ahmadinezhad as Iran's "elected president." And his administration has continued to insist that Iran's internal issues do not dim Washington's eagerness to "engage." The Iranian protesters don't want US funding, much less military intervention, but they have been bitterly disappointed by the failure of the US to give them unequivocal moral support.
The painful irony in this is that Obama has squandered the best hope for a solution to the Iran nuclear threat--a change of government in Tehran. Yes, a reformist regime would still want nuclear energy, but it would shift toward a more peaceful approach to the outside world and would likely be amenable to a solution that would exclude nuclear weapons. By allowing the phantom of "engagement" to deter him from doing everything that he could usefully do to back the protestors, Obama has made an unforgivable mistake. It may prove immensely harmful to the Iranian people, to the region, to the United States and, not least, to Israel.- Published 13/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Joshua Muravchik is the author of "The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East".
Slouching toward Ramallah
The salient feature of stereotypes--the thing that makes them a stereotype--is that they contain an element of truth. For a young boy growing up in America in the 1950s, the world was filled with easily identifiable heroes and villains conveniently labeled: those in white shirts were good guys, those in black shirts bad guys.
We played cowboys and Indians; the cowboys were virtuous, the Indians savages. The only joy in being an Indian was that you got to scalp your prisoner, raising a rubber tomahawk and bringing it down on your captive's forehead while he screamed in feigned pain. America was awash in toy guns, replicas of those our fathers and uncles had carried across Europe and the Pacific. They sold them downtown in the department store: metal representations of M-1 rifles and Tommy guns. Let's play war, we'd say, and we'd charge around making battle sounds.
To say that the America of the 1950s was young and innocent and convinced of its own destiny is not simply a stereotype, it happens to be true. But in thinking about those years now, I've come to the conclusion that America was suffering from what British author Douglas Adams calls an "SEP", someone else's problem. In one of his books, one of Adams' characters describes an SEP as "something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think it's somebody else's problem . . . the brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot . . ." An SEP "relies on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain."
The Obama administration is suffering from SEP in the West Bank: it is refusing to correct practices that it doesn't want to see, wasn't expecting and can't explain.
Since December of 2005, Lt. General Keith Dayton has served as the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Dayton's team has trained 1,600 members of the PA's Presidential Guard and National Security Force. Dayton is proud of his work: "Across the West Bank," he told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "these security campaigns have featured clamping down on armed gangs ... dismantling illegal militias, working against illegal Hamas activities, and focusing on the safety and security of Palestinian citizens."
No one argues that the PA shouldn't build a police presence to enforce law and order, but Dayton's other mission involves the US as a partner in Israel's campaign against Islamists. The NSF forces that Dayton has trained have shuttered charitable Islamist societies, diverted Hamas charity money to PA coffers, disrupted Hamas' political meetings, invaded mosques, broken up pro-Hamas demonstrations and arrested Hamas leaders. For those who view Hamas as a terrorist movement seeking the destruction of Israel, this is all to the good. But for Americans who believe that the key to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for the US to act as a credible mediator, Dayton's activities are decidedly counterproductive: they signal that the US has chosen sides in the political dispute between the PA and Hamas, have involved the US as a partner in Israel's occupation of the West Bank and have reversed the mandate won by Hamas at the polls in January of 2006. Dayton's mission has built the rule of law, but it has undermined democracy and poisoned the prospects for Palestinian unity.
Worse yet, Dayton's mission has been dogged by persistent reports that Palestinian security personnel whom he has trained have tortured Hamas detainees in their custody. Dayton denies these charges, saying that no one in the NSF has engaged in torture. Dayton's team has instituted a training regimen on the proper treatment of Palestinian detainees and Human Rights Watch has reported that other Palestinian security organizations--not the NSF--are responsible for most of the abuses. Still, the reports persist: including from Hamas partisans who have said they were beaten and shackled by officers in NSF uniforms.
The predicted response to all of these reports is now common: Hamas' security forces in Gaza engage in these same practices or worse. Those reports are no doubt true: but Hamas' security forces in Gaza do not patrol with the IDF and are not trained by the United States--which claims obedience to the rule of law and respect for human rights. And Hamas' security forces have not been trained by an American general who takes pride in the praise offered by a senior Israeli military officer impressed by what he has done: "How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate," this Israeli asked, "and how quickly, because they are our way to leave the West Bank." Aw shucks. How proud we Americans are to be paid such a compliment by an officer of "the most moral army in the world".
President Barack Obama has pledged his administration to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has appointed a man of stature as an emissary to help resolve that conflict. He has reached out to the Arab world. His administration has condemned Israel's policy of settlement expansion. He says he has a program and a plan. He has said he will see it to the end. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just about settlements or borders. It's about human dignity, the rule of law and respecting the vote of the people.
"You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit," then-Senator Obama said in New Orleans in 2006. "But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit--the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us--the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town."
Yes, that's right. And empathy for the Palestinian held now in Israel for winning an election, or detained in a Palestinian prison for being a member of a political movement or tortured in his cell by a security force associated with the occupier and supported by that occupier's ally. We are not universally viewed as clothed in white, those who oppose us are not savages, the screams we hear are not feigned. This is not someone else's problem.- Published 13/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mark Perry is an author and foreign policy, military and intelligence analyst based in Washington, DC.