Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Obama to Israel and Palestinians: Make Peace Right Now Cause I Said So!

By Barry Rubin

It is difficult to overstate the absurdity in context of President Barack Obama’s performance during the Israeli-Palestinian photo opportunity he organized at the UN. The outstanding theme is his commandist style.

We will reverse man-made global warming, he has said. We will have a health-care bill. This is like the style of an Arab dictator, proclaiming that his will is all and that uttering words make something so. It is not the style of someone helping two parties solve a problem or of a mediator .

But let’s allow William Shakespeare to explain it:

“Why, man, he stands on top of the narrow world
Like the Colossus of Rhodes, and we little men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves disgraceful graves.”

Yet this thundering, you-will-do-this style is combined with an extraordinary weakness, equally self-willed. Giving orders when you are tough is scary; giving orders when you are weak provokes derision. If America won’t use force or be tough or face confrontations or define enemies as such, then the gap between such arrogance and weakness is a chasm into which U.S. foreign policy will fall.

This might wow them in elite salons of the United States but in lots of other countries, people have to lean against the wall to try to stop themselves from laughing.

Personal note: I don’t want to keep bashing Obama, it’s simply that he keeps saying and doing things that defy satire and beg for the harsh criticism and exposure of absurdities that he is not getting in the mainstream media.

But how can one do otherwise when confronted with these statements by him:

“It is past time to stop talking about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward.”

Arab-Israeli negotiations have been going on for sixty years but Obama really seems to believe they have just been waiting for him to give the go-ahead signal.

As I keep stressing the ONLY reason there have been no negotiations for six months—a point the media never points out—is that Obama introduced the demand that Israel freeze all construction on settlements. This issue had never prevented talks before but once Obama raised the ante, well the Palestinians couldn’t be less militant than America’s president.

Instead, the New York Times tells us rather vaguely: “[Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas has in the past refused to return to peace talks unless Israel freezes settlement growth in Palestinian territories.” Really? In the past like before January 20, 2009?

"There is a way, I think,” said Obama in an interview with ABC, “to relaunch the peace process and not get bogged down with this question, because we've just wasted six months on this issue. We could waste another six months. I think that's not good. I want to move on to peace."

This could be called the stamping my little foot strategy. And incidentally I’d wager that Obama has no idea of any way to resolve the conflict quickly. Those questions he doesn’t want to get bogged down with are basic and existential ones. And, again, it is his fault that six months have been wasted (he’s also wasted six months on confronting Iran, but that’s another issue).

Instead, Obama wants to leap to permanent status. When was the last time that happened? Think back to 2000 when President Bill Clinton advanced to final status talks and that only after more than six years of preparation called the Oslo peace process. At Camp David the talks quickly fell apart and the Palestinians launched massive violence. And for the last nine years those involved have been saying that it was a mistake to go to final status talks when the foundation for an agreement didn't exist.

The best way to deal with the Israel-Palestinian issue is to get the limited progress possible, not through grandstanding and demagoguery but by finding solutions on small things that can strengthen the status quo and limit violence for the decades stillneeded by the Palestinians to decide they are ready to make real peace with Israel.

Yet perhaps Obama thinks he’s Alexander the Great who, when faced with the Gordian Knot, rather than untie it merely cut through it with his sword. Obama, who carries no sword, can’t do that with a dozen issues that could be listed at this point.

The fact that this man has no real experience in international relations is beginning to tell. No matter how good (or bad) advisors are cannot fully make up for a president who hasn’t a clue of how to deal with an issue like this. I don’t want to be unfair but this seems literally to be true.

And then there’s his style. Obama makes it sound as if countries must do things not because it is in their interest to do so (with American help, pressure, and even threats being part of that interest) but because he wants it and it will benefit him.

"We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back," Obama said. "It is absolutely critical that we get this issue resolved."

But a man who knows more about these issues, Nahum Barnea, the left-leaning Israeli columnist, put it this way: "The Americans discovered that they want an Israeli-Palestinian agreement more than the leaders of both sides desire one.”

Barnea might have more accurately written, “Should have discovered” because evidently the president hasn’t yet found this out.

Instead, Obama stated, “It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that’s necessary to achieve our goals.”

Flexibility? Common sense? Sense of compromise? What place is he talking about?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .


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