Monday, July 27, 2009

Obama’s Love Letters in the Sand; Big Strategy: Ask Arab Leaders to Make Peace with Israel

By Barry Rubin

“How you laughed when I cried,
Each time we saw the tide,
Take our love letters from the sand.”

So went the 1931 song made famous by Pat Boone in 1957. And that’s what President Barack Obama’s been writing. Talking about his respect for Islam and distancing himself a bit from Israel and hoping that his love will be requited by relatively moderate Arab states.

It does have an amusing side. A very large part of the big U.S. strategy for the Middle East is that while demanding publicly Israel makes a unilateral concession about construction on existing settlements, he’s also politely privately asking Arab states to offer confidence-building measures toward Israel.

They won’t. Then what?

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years back with a former deputy assistant secretary of state. She’s spent much of the Bill Clinton years travelling to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arab states trying to get them to help the peace process. Even, she begged, to give some money to Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. They did virtually nothing.

The message was (and is): it’s the job of the United States to deliver to us the diplomatic outcome we want, including forcing Israel to meet our demands; it’s our job to complain about it.

So Obama himself went to Saudi Arabia and got…nothing. Hillary Clinton went to the Gulf Arab states and got…nothing. U.S. envoy George Mitchell went to the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt and got…nothing.

And Obama, reportedly, wrote at least seven Arab states—including Morocco--asking them to show they wanted to make peace with Israel. He, too, will get nothing. Indeed, even if settlement construction were to freeze over he will get nothing.

The Saudis have already said they aren’t inclined to give anything.

Doesn’t everyone know this?

But consider how this is being carried out. First, the United States bashes Israel and demands a concession. Only then does it ask for some Arab quid pro quo. Why should they give anything when they would rather maintain a U.S.-Israel rift?

Of course, the pretense is that Israel hasn’t given enough, the same line that was used all through the 10-year-long 1990’s peace process era. But if Israel’s prime minister were to stand on his head and sing Um Kalthoum hits would that change anything? No.

Why? Well it’s called political analysis, a craft not much in favor in Western policymaking circles these days. Arab regimes need the conflict with Israel to stay in power, using it as diversion and excuse. Moreover, they know that any peace moves would provide ammunition to their Islamist foes and upset their masses who have been fed an anti-Israel diet for decades.

The main reported confidence-building gestures being asked of the Saudis is to let Israeli commercial airliners ly in Saudi airspace. Saudi Arabia is in a state of war with Israel. Can you imagine how the Saudi clerics and public would react to an announcement of such permission being granted?

Well, the regime can do so. Anybody who could make such a request has no comprehension of Middle East politics. Anyone who thinks that this would be possible if only Israel stopped building a few apartments on the West Bank has no comprehension of reality in general.

And why on top of that should Arab states do anything when Western criticism of Israel is at all-time high levels? They are, endless grumbling aside, rather pleased with that status quo.

Moreover, why do the other Arab states—outside of Egypt and Jordan which have benefitted from a signed document since they are immediate neighbors of Israel--need formal peace any way when the current no war, no peace suits them fine?

As for Syria, it’s doing just fine with its “resistance” philosophy, allied with Iran and trying to gobble up Lebanon once again. Conflict with Israel, at least in theory and through Lebanon, is one of the main assets of the Syrian regime.

So far, Obama has little to show for six months of effort: some sycophantic remarks by King Abdallah of Jordan, probably the least effective of Arab leaders and an op-ed piece by Bahrain's Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Let’s take another look at that op-ed piece. It has been made to sound good by Western media reporting but if you read it closely the text shows how unlikely Obama is to get anywhere. He wrote: "The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning--patiently and repeatedly targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel.

In other words, the Arabs haven’t done a good enough job propagandizing Israelis. There is no mention of negotiations. But if the Arab side has nothing much to offer what is it going to communicate? True, he added, “All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."

But he has no intention of doing so. And neither does anyone else.

What’s really interesting here is what Obama will do as the months pass and nobody in the Arab world seems willing to help him. He might say: Guess I was wrong. Not everyone’s so eager for peace as I thought.

Or he might say: If only those Israelis had stopped construction on settlements I’d have the Nobel Peace Prize by now.

But this is an old game, played repeatedly in the 1990s: if only Israel recognizes the PLO, turns over territory to it, lets 200,000 Palestinians return, stops expanding settlements, let’s the Palestinian regime have guns, gives free access to its workers, pulls out of southern Lebanon, pulls out of the Gaza Strip, etc., etc., etc., than everything will be fine.

And since so much evidence has disproven that the Arab states are yearning for peace and just need some gesture from Israel or invitation by the United States, why go on believing it?

Or as the song about writing letters like Obama’s put it:

“You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you.”

Can someone in this government please study the history of the issue they are purporting to solve?

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