Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What’s Unsettling about Obama’s Policy Toward Settlements

By Barry Rubin

Whether construction continues on Jewish settlements in the West Bank or not right now is, in my opinion, a very secondary question. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to say that he would suspend new building starts for three months this might be a reasonable way to prove his eagerness for peace and to establish cooperation with the new U.S. administration.

But that’s not quite the situation. There are four factors which really define the problem right now and which are generally ignored in media coverage and public debate.

1. What does it say about the administration’s understanding of the region that this issue has become its main foreign policy initiative?

There is definitely a ridiculous dimension here. The United States is directly facing radical Islamist forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s top-speed drive for nuclear weapons, an imminent takeover of Lebanon by Washington’s enemies, rising radical Islamist revolutionary movements seeking to take over every Arabic-speaking country, a Turkish regime that increasingly seems headed toward Islamism, continually high levels of terrorism aimed at U.S. targets, and an ongoing lack of cooperation from European states in dealing with all these issues.

Of course, it has proposed policies, though not necessarily appropriate ones, to deal with some of these questions. But why this passion on the settlements’ issue, indeed this is arguably the only question on which the administration is playing “hard ball.” There are few signs of toughness really toward a wide range of enemies, including ones in Latin America or North Korea.

Obviously, Israel is a soft target against which to play hard ball. Israel isn’t going to do anything mean to the United States. And that’s precisely the point. It shows the administration's tendency toward being intimidated by real hostile forces. The administration knows that if it gets tough with Iran or various others they’ll hit back, even if only with words. There is no more dangerous tendency in U.S. policy than to punish friends and reward enemies.

In addition, there is a firm belief on the administration's part that pressing Israel on settlements will help deal with all the other problems, or at least many of them. This, however, is an illusion. It just won’t be enough for those who want Israel wiped out altogether or, at a minimum, forced to make huge concessions and get little or nothing in return.

Even those regimes that do want a stable peace—say, Egypt and Jordan, perhaps even Saudi Arabia now—will do little or nothing to bring it about.

Thanks very much, they would say (actually, they wouldn’t even say thanks) but you still owe us big time so what will you do for us now? This policy won’t have any big material effect and what’s worrisome is that

President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to know this.

Finally, he doesn’t understand something that any would-be peacemaker must comprehend. The very presence of the settlements constitutes pressure on the PA to make the compromises necessary for peace.

They don’t like the settlements? Good. Let them do something about it—make peace, get their state, and get rid of them.

When people don’t like a situation—and that means they don’t like you—that can be an incentive to change their ways. It has been an argument that time is on Israel’s side. The Palestinians better make peace sooner or—at least the way people like the late King Hussein of Jordan argued it—the territories will be irretrievably lost.

Now the argument in the Arabic-speaking world will be that time is on the Palestinian side: do nothing and the Americans will give you everything without you giving anything. It is not an accurate argument but it will govern their behavior.

2. What does it tell us about the administration’s respect for previous promises and, by extension, how much its own promises can be depended on in future situations?

Let us remember that in the past, Israel has made huge concessions and taken big risks on the basis of promises made to it by the United States. The basic, semi-public deal with the Clinton and Bush administrations was that Israel would continue building within settlements but not expand them outward or start new ones. The Israeli government that announced this interpretation was not headed by Netanyahu but by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 16 years ago.

One noticeable factor in the administration’s behavior is its lack of respect for a previous American commitment which was part of the motive for Israel agreeing to the Oslo agreement, the return of the PLO, the migration of 200,000 Palestinians into the territories, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the arming of its security forces, and various Israeli withdrawals.

Obama has no appreciation of these things partly due to his world view and partly due to his massive ignorance about the history of the conflict and attempts to solve it. And, no, briefings don’t make up for that.
But the message this sends is this: why should Israel have any confidence in promises that Obama might make?

And by the way, that applies to every other country in the world.

3. Why is there no reciprocity being offered in terms of Palestinian commitments.

It is quite true that Obama spoke of Palestinian commitments during the visits of Netanyahu and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to Washington. The language is that the Palestinians must also provide better security against terrorism attacks on Israel and stop incitement to murder Israelis.

Yet—and this is huge—these commitments were not linked to pressure. Nothing could be easier, for example, then for the United States to announce it is monitoring the media, schools, sermons, and statements by PA officials and that there will be severe consequences if improvements don’t take place.

The administration could start with cases of incitement where the PA has broken U.S. law and used American taxpayer money to glorify terrorists who have murdered civilians.

Nothing like this is happening. And, of course, what we know will happen is that the PA will do nothing to deal with incitement. Providing better security is in its self-interest only to the extent that such behavior contributes to defeating its Hamas rival. Here too, then, the PA is not meeting commitments fully. It doesn't act to stop specific planned attacks, nor does it sentence terrorists to prison and keep them there.

4. What expectation can there be that after three or six months when the administration finds out it has been wrong its policy will change.

Finally, suppose construction was frozen but the PA did not fulfill its commitments, peace did not advance, and this action was otherwise shown to be ineffective. Will there be a change in policy.

After all, the critical issue in the longer run is going to be: Will the Obama administration ever be able to admit—as its two predecessors basically did—that Israel’s assessment was correct? That the PA was incapable and unwilling to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement? That Israel’s security required border changes in the pre-1967 frontiers? That Arab states gave lip service to peace but did not help bring it about? That America’s enemies—Iran, Syria, radical Islamist groups—irreversibly sought Israel’s extinction and that this U.S. ally required strong backing to preserve its safety and help America in this struggle?

My view is that if and when there is a peace agreement ending the conflict, creating a stable two-state solution, and providing for the resettling of Palestinians in Palestine, Jewish settlements should be removed. But, as the United States agreed in 1993 and for 15 years thereafter, this last issue is one that should only be resolved at that time.

Some have speculated that this policy is part of a strategy to get rid of Netanyahu. If he agrees to the freeze, his coalition will shatter; if he doesn't, he will somehow fall because he couldn't get along with the Americans.

I don't think this is at all true. If he wanted to do so, Netanyahu could figure out how to have a freeze and survive with an altered coalition. I don't think he wants to do so but it is not a political impossibility. If he refuses, the vast majority of the country will stand behind him and it will enhance his popularity.

Why will the country rally around him? Not necessarily because people support the settlements or continued building there but because they understand what's at stake (see above). And that's another reason why the Obama policy is foolish. If Israelis were offered something for the freeze, a lot of people would support it, even if just as a gesture for a fixed period of time to show good will.

Imagine, if Obama could actually deliver something from the Arab side in exchange for this freeze it would have a huge effect on Israeli public opinion and promote a conciliatory position. If Netanyahu stood in the way of what people thought was a real opportunity for peace, the government would fall. But that isn't the path he's chosen, or the PA either for that matter.

I think a far more likely explanation for what's happening is that the Obama administration doing this precisely because it is a relatively small issue on which they think they can win a quick victory. Then they can say to the Iranians, Arabs, and Muslims: You see, we aren't just pro-Israel, we're balanced and we are working hard to give you what you want. So cooperate with us.

And they will say: Well, if you can do that then you can do a lot more. Come back when you're ready to bring us Israel's head on a plate, so to speak.

In addition, for the Obama administration there is a U.S. domestic political aspect: We have a foreign policy victory! See how tough we are! Things are really moving and changing!

Actually, despite media cooperation their foreign policy has not achieved any success, except for his popularity-seeking exercises and even they work mainly not because he's a great statesman but because foreigners know he's not George Bush.

If this interpretation is so it is a sign of profound irresponsibility on the administration's part. To make matters worse, they're wrong. And it won't work.

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