Friday, February 12, 2010

Obama Administration Whispers its Total Turnaround on the Israel-Palestinian Issue

Read the "PS" at the end of this article and you'll see why you should subscribe.

By Barry Rubin

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued a nominally routine communiqué after her meeting with Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain and now messenger of the Quartet on matters Israel-Palestinian. Does this two-paragraph document of February 11, 2010, indicate the new direction of U.S. policy on Israel-Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict issues?

First paragraph:

“This Administration has, from the beginning, worked to bring about comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On that issue our approach has been three-fold: (1) to help build the economy and capacity to govern of a Palestinian state; (2) to renew political negotiations to enable the earliest possible establishment of that state; and (3) to achieve these in a manner that ensures the security of Israel and of the Palestinians.”

Wait a minute. Note the shift in priorities, very subtle but very important. Up until now, in every statement made by the Obama administration, item 2 has been in the top position. Last September, the president of the United States announced that intensive talks to reach a comprehensive peace agreement would start in early November! Three months later they aren’t even in sight. So now the administration has shifted gears and the main priority is a process of state-building and community organizing among the Palestinians to get them ready for the grand opening ceremonies. That makes sense as far as it goes.

Notice it doesn't even say the "earliest possible" renewal of political negotiations but implies that the economic and infrastructure change--not talks--will achieve the "earliest possible establishment" of a Palestinian state.

In light of this shift, the second paragraph reads:

“Consistent with Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan for a future Palestinian state, Tony Blair, as the Quartet representative, will intensify his partnership with Senator Mitchell in support of the political negotiations. In his role as Quartet Representative Tony Blair will continue, with full support by and coordination with Senator Mitchell, to mobilize the efforts of the international community: (1) to build support for the institutional capacity and governance of a future Palestinian State, including on the rule of law; (2) to improve freedom of movement and access for Palestinians; (3) to encourage further private sector investment; and (4) to bring change in the living conditions of the people in Gaza.”

The mission of Blair and Senator Mitchell, the U.S. envoy, is defined as being, “Consistent with Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan for a future Palestinian state.” That means, despite the mention of “political negotiations,” the Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister’s two-year plan to build the Palestinian state economically and institutionally so it can be launched in 2012.

The implications of the Fayyad approach are that negotiations with Israel will be required only when everything is already prepared. This gives the administration the rationale to get nothing done in the meantime on the diplomatic level. It is thus—despite some boiler-plate language—a complete reversal in practice of the administration’s previous policy. The U.S. government can “look busy” while doing precisely what its predecessor did: realize nothing much is possible at the present while awaiting some future opportunity.

The emphasis is on helping the Palestinians and not pressing them to give Israel anything. At the same time, however, there is not going to be a big emphasis on pressuring Israel except on two points. One is the “freedom of movement” issue, which means asking Israel to dismantle more roadblocks. That will depend, of course, on the security situation.

The other is the phrase, “To bring change in the living conditions of the people in Gaza.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean overthrowing Hamas and freeing Gazans from that dictatorship of genocidal-minded terrorists. Rather, it implies more pressure on Israel to reduce embargos on the Gaza Strip without removing Hamas, blocking arms-smuggling, or forcing any change in Hamas’s plan for future attacks on Israel and indeed the extermination of that country and its people. In other words, still another Israeli concession, though Israel will keep it to a minimum.

Meanwhile, the United States won’t push the PA to come to the negotiating table, or reduce incitement, or really convey to its people the need to give up hope of wiping out Israel and taking all the land, or punish terrorists. Trying to do these things would make the PA unhappy; stir up Arab and Muslim complaints, and not work anyway. Of course, failing to do these things will also make any real progress on peace impossible as well.

Fayyad is only kept in office because the United States and European donors, not the Fatah leaders, want him there. His two-year plan will fail completely. Fayyad is too weak to strengthen Palestinian institutions; the regime is too corrupt and incompetent (and massive violence could break out at any moment) to attract foreign investment. Any serious examination of the, albeit welcome, Palestinian economic boom shows it is based on two ultimately unproductive pillars--the aid money and real estate speculation.

In this context, the administration has made its choice, though it would never admit to that fact: maximum popularity, minimum friction, no real change. That is a reasonable choice under the circumstances. It is also in real terms the same policy as the Bush administration adopted.

All this greater recognition of reality—whatever the rhetoric employed--should be accompanied with a corresponding shift in the wider public understanding. Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the key to the Middle East. There isn’t going to be any peace or even diplomatic advances in that direction. The reason is internal Palestinian politics. The leadership is still radical, more eager to reconcile with Hamas than to make peace with Israel. The world view is extremist and geared toward total victory. PA media and clerics encourage violence and teach that Israel is temporary and illegitimate.

Overall, the picture is not so bad, especially given what one might have expected from the administration’s first months in office. It does seem as if the administration has reached some realization of the fecklessness of the PA, the difficulty of making peace, and is thus reluctant to commit too much effort and political capital to the issue.

Instead, it will try to prove that it loves the Palestinians while trying to keep things quiet as it deals with other things, ranging from domestic issues to Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been turned on this issue from self-proclaimed pouncing lion to a lounging pussycat though it still tries to make its meow sound like a roar.

PS: Note that the response to this story of the Associated Press is precisely the opposite of my analysis. The AP dispatch did not mention a single one of the points made in this article (which is why you should be reading this blog, by the way). Here's their lead:

"Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is going to play a bigger role in efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians back to peace talks by intensifying his partnership with special U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell."

The communique's key phrase is a description of what U.S. policy is, not the request for Blair to work with Mitchell, which means nothing in practice.

In other words, they view this as just a further intensification of the peace-process-as-usual drive for negotiations. Much of the media and public debate has the peace process so much on the brain that the cliche about not seeing the forest for the trees is inadequate. One should rather say that they look at the Sahara desert and see a forest.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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