Sunday, June 7, 2009

When Middle East policy doesn’t make sense it shows those who make it lack sense

By Barry Rubin

Leaving aside the merits of the issue which I discussed here and here, the fact that U.S. Middle East policy seems to hinge on whether or not Israel builds around 4000 apartments this year in West Bank settlements is bizarre in a number of respects.

First, let’s assume that after six months or so of back and forth, the Israeli government refuses to freeze construction. What is the United States going to do about it?

The problem is that the administration has already foreclosed the most obvious “punishments” since it isn’t going to do these things any way. After all, the biggest leverage the U.S. government has would be, for example, not to take a tough anti-Iran policy on nuclear weapons, not to intensify the isolation of Syria, not to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority unless it fulfilled its commitments more, and—well you get the picture.

So since it is already clear that Washington isn’t going to give Israel more help regardless of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, this gives Israel less incentive to freeze construction. Indeed, since the administration has made it amply clear that there will be no reward or what Netanyahu has called reciprocity for an Israeli unilateral concession this further reduces any motivation for complying.

This brings us, then, to the possibility that there will be punishments for not giving the administration what it wants. But what is the U.S. government going to do? The most talked about possibility is that the United States won’t veto UN anti-Israel resolutions.

Yet the problem with this approach is that the more the United States does against Israel the more it undermines its leverage in advancing any peace process. After all, the construction issue is only one of many things—borders, east Jerusalem, dismantlement of settlements, etc.—on which the U.S. government seems likely to want Israel to give ground (literally) during negotiations or as part of a final agreement.

If the United States sacrifices Israel’s trust, how could it possibly achieve this goal? Already, by showing a brutal disregard for previous commitments, the administration has made it far less likely that Israel will take risks on the basis of new promises.

And, really, how far is the administration willing to go to harm Israel? Not all that far. If the administration really wanted to bash Israel, why pick such a minor issue? It could have applied equal effort to demand a return to 1967 borders, or instant agreement to a Palestinian state, or dismantling all settlements, and so on.

Finally, suppose the administration wins a total victory? It’s gained nothing. Will the Saudis or Palestinians or anyone else like America more or be more accommodating to its interests and requests? Of course not.

President Obama has already begun to discover this reality during his meetings with the Palestinian Authority and Saudi leaderships.

The Arabs will say the concession is too small; only the beginning; just proves America can deliver Israel to do anything it wants; and so on.

Since the strategy is so obviously silly, there have been numerous attempts to find some subtle or secret logic in it: the first step in throwing Israel under the bus, a clever way of getting Arab help over Iran’s nuclear drive or Iraqi withdrawal, a campaign to bring down the Netanyahu government, and various other explanations.

None of these are persuasive. The simple answer is probably this: the administration—or at least those in the driver’s seat--is inexperienced, inept, and ignorant. That’s hardly comforting but it is accurate.

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