Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reality Raises Its Head and the Media Wakes Up About The Obama Administration’s Middle East Failure

[Please subscribe for serious original analysis and real-time information on the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, and other questions. What the Washington Post is reporting now--see below--is precisely what I wrote months ago.]

By Barry Rubin

There’s something big happening in the air regarding American media coverage of the Obama Administration. With the Washington Post in advance, the New York Times waking up the tiniest bit, the Los Angeles Times trailing far behind, and a lot of other newspapers getting tough, reality is seeping into their coverage. Even the Boston Globe, America's most liberal newspaper, is strongly criticizing Obama.

The Globe remarks:

"It takes more than scripted eloquence for presidents to connect with their fellow Americans. It requires a visceral ability to grasp the scope of tragedy, calculate its impact on the national psyche, and react swiftly to it. Ronald Reagan did it after the Challenger explosion....So did Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City bombings."

After all, the president didn't go to the celebrations commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall; or the christening of the USS New York with steel from the World Trade Center and families of those murdered in that building attending; or visit the Fort Hood wounded; or even treat the latest attack with due seriousness. And of course his Arab-Israeli policy in his ruins while the Iran issue is making a fool out of the administration.t

On foreign policy, more and more things are becoming harder to deny:

--The Obama Administration has failed to charm any Arab states or Iran into changing their policy, even to a tiny extent.

--Iran doesn’t want to make a deal over its rush to get nuclear weapons.

--Engagement with Syria is going nowhere while Damascus continues to help murder American soldiers in Iraq without any Administration criticism or protest.

--Despite its over-ambitious goals and arrogant boasts, the administration has failed completely to advance any Israel-Palestinian peace process.

--Israel is proving flexible while the Palestinian Authority refuses even to talk no matter how much the Administration panders to and coddles it.

--The administration has no strategy in Afghanistan and can't make up its mind.

As the Obama Administration’s first year in office comes toward an end, it has failed, failed, failed, in the Middle East.

Then there's the Washington Post which strongly criticized his policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process one daybashed his peace process policy and today they go after his Iran policy. The alarm clock is going off.

On November 6, the Washington Post ran a critical editorial on Obama's Iran policy--under the subheadline "How much longer should the Obama administration tolerate the regime's intransigence?--warning that the administration is helping the Tehran regime's strategy of stalling for time and avoiding more sanctions while crushing the opposition. "And each day Iran's known centrifuges produce another six pounds of enriched uranium."

And the editorial has a devastating conclusion:

“The Obama administration and European governments have set the end of the year as a deadline for the transfer of the uranium out of Iran and for progress in the overall negotiations. But the administration must consider whether it makes sense to grant the regime two more months of grace. On Tuesday, after all, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly rejected the overtures he said he had received from President Obama, declaring that negotiating with the United States was ‘naive and perverted.’ On Wednesday, the opposition protesters chanted: `Obama, Obama -- either you're with them, or with us.’ Sooner rather than later, Mr. Obama ought to respond to those messages.”

Just 48 hours earlier, the Washington Post looked at the peace process issue in an article and an editorial. Both reflect this new thinking, breaking from a slavish regard from the inexperienced Obama as the closest thing on the planet to a diplomatic deity.

The writer, Glenn Kessler, does a good job with an article tellingly entitled, “Administration missteps hamper Mideast efforts.” Let me first get out of the way my criticisms as they show some consistent problems in coverage of the Middle East, then talk about all the good things in the article.

Kessler first interviews one Daniel Levy. Mr. Levy has no serious training on Middle East politics and is merely just another left-wing activist who never utters a word of anything except criticism of Israel and never has anything particularly insightful to say. Is this really the best expert that the Post can come up with? True, Levy—who is rather generously described as “a veteran Israeli peace negotiator”—worked a while as a low-level assistant for Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel’s far left-wing—but his emergence into being what sometimes seems like the media’s favorite pundit on these issues in Washington is rather ludicrous.

Mr. Levy’s only "accomplishment" in recent years is reportedly to have co-founded—along with a former Arab lobbyist--J Street, the new anti-Israel but pretending-to-be pro-Israel lobby.

Having said that, what Kessler actually published of his remarks isn’t so bad, which probably reflects more credit on Kessler.

The second interviewee is Ghaith al-Omari, a former advisor to Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas. Omani is listed as “advocacy director,” a title which makes him sound like something less than a scholarly expert, for the American Task Force on Palestine. This is an interesting group since it seems to be the PA's semi-official voice in Washington. As such, it might be slightly more moderate than J Street. Watch what this group says closely.

[Pairing an anti-Israel person who can be portrayed as an Israeli with an official Palestinian spokesman is the kind of phony "balance" too often employed in the media.]

Nevertheless, with Omari, too, Kessler gets reasonable quotes, though he lets him get away with one outright falsehood. Quoting the article:

“He [Omari] said that things have improved in the past nine months, including getting a reluctant Israeli government to embrace the idea of talks.”

Funny, the truth is the exact opposite. The Israeli government has never said anything but that it is ready to negotiate right away and without preconditions with the PA. This kind of outright and demonstrable lie should not be presented without being questioned.

Having said all that, however, Kessler has written a very good article. In fact, I think that his account of what has happened so far this year is worth quoting at length. [But don’t stop reading here because I’m going to get to the Post’s editorial afterward. So skip this section if you think you know all these points already]:

“The administration's key error, many analysts say, was to insist that Israel immediately freeze all settlement growth in Palestinian-occupied territories. The United States has never accepted the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, but the Obama administration took an unusually tough stance. It refused to acknowledge an unwritten agreement between Israel and Bush to limit growth in settlements, with Clinton leading the charge to demand a full settlement freeze.

“U.S. officials say that in the wake of the war in the Gaza Strip in the winter, they wanted to send a signal of toughness and push both sides to take positive steps to build an atmosphere for talks. By that measure, there has been some progress: Israelis and Palestinians have been deep in conversations trying to set the parameters for negotiations.

“But Abbas, emboldened by the U.S. rhetoric, announced that he would not begin negotiations until settlements were frozen. Facing Israeli opposition, the administration appeared to back off the demand for a full settlement freeze, first exempting East Jerusalem and then signaling approval of an Israeli plan to exempt nearly 3,000 housing units on the West Bank.

“Meanwhile, Abbas got into political trouble at home when he succumbed to U.S. pressure to delay U.N. consideration of a report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza; he later reversed himself. When Clinton met him Saturday and pressed him to accept the limited Israeli settlement plan as a basis for talks, he refused.”

What makes this analysis especially interesting is that it shows how the administration itself has messed up. I’d like to add though that while the administration has agreed to let Israel finish ongoing construction, the agreement seems to be for an absolute freeze on the West Bank. The only difference is that instead of the freeze taking effect on, say, January 1, it will take place—just to pick a date—around May 1 or so. In fact, then, it is a “full settlement freeze,” just one that is delayed a bit.

So to imply that the United States made some huge concession to Israel or that Israel is getting away with anything is misleading. Obama wanted a full freeze. He got one. And if nothing happens to advance negotiations--though we don't know this--it's possible that the agreement includes Israel's reservation that it will restart in the future. But it's not clear whether that's true and no one seems to be saying so.

The article’s end is a bit more typical of what’s wrong with the usual coverage, in which only Palestinian complaints and demands are highlighted:

“Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, mused…about the end of the dream of a Palestinian state and scoffed at the Obama administration's notion of baby steps to talks. `As to the baby steps, we begun taking them in 1990-1991, and we have been crawling for 19 years,’ he said. `We need youthful steps to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state.’"

How about a balancing quote pointing out that the Palestinians could have had a state in the late 1970s (Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's initiative), the early 1980s (Reagan Plan), the early 1990s (U.S.-PLO dialogue), and the mid-1990s or right after 2000 ("Oslo" process) if they didn’t keep rejecting all offers and instead choosing the path of intransigence and violence?

Or how about a balancing quote saying that there should be faster action to get rid of Hamas and end terrorist attacks as well as demonization of Israel? Why is it we only hear about what the Palestinians want (or demand) and never about Israel's desire for full recognition as a Jewish state, territorial swaps on the West Bank, ample security guarantees, an end to the conflict, and resettlement of all Palestinians in Palestine?

Someone please do a count of how many times key media outlets mention the Palestinian list and the Israeli list of what should be in a peace agreement. I wouldn't be surprised if the first outran the second by a ten-to-one margin.

Now for the Post’s editorial whose title, “The Mideast Impasse” could have been used at any time in the last 60 years! In contrast to Omari, it makes clear who is to blame for the impasse:

“Palestinian President [sic] Mahmoud Abbas has participated in peace negotiations with five Israeli governments that refused to halt Jewish settlement construction. Yet Mr. Abbas has rejected an appeal from the Obama administration to start talks with the center-right coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu, putting one of the administration's primary foreign policy goals on indefinite hold. The reason: `America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze,’ a statement said.

“Has Mr. Abbas suddenly realized that settlements are the key obstacle to a Palestinian state? Hardly: In private, senior Palestinian officials readily concede that the issue is secondary. Instead, the Palestinian pose is a product of the Obama administration's missteps -- and also of the fact that the opportunity Mr. Obama said he perceived to broker a two-state settlement is not so visible to leaders in the region.”

Here we have the two key themes I keep trying to get across: peace is very distant and everyone in the region (but not in the West) knows it, and the Palestinians are the ones mainly at fault. It also includes the Obama administration’s responsibility.

The editorial continues that neither Abbas nor Arab leaders “seems to share Mr. Obama's notion that the time is ripe for a deal.” It also sagely adds: “The Obama administration's working assumption has been that energetic diplomacy by the United States could induce both sides to move quickly toward peace. In fact, progress in the Middle East has always begun with initiatives by Israelis or Arabs themselves.”

But then, since it is impermissible not to end with anything but an optimistic conclusion that there is an easy way out, the editorial goes on:

“At the moment, the most promising idea comes from Mr. Abbas's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who has vowed to build the institutions of a Palestinian state within the next two years, with or without peace talks. Negotiations between the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders could provide indirect support for that initiative, even if there is little progress. But the administration would do well to refocus its efforts on supporting Mr. Fayyad.”

So we still have some "Old Think," as Russians called Communism in the Perestroika era. It is not quite permissible to suggest the administration might “refocus its efforts” on supporting Israel. And of course the Fayyad solution is an illusion. He has no power, might get kicked out at any moment except that his remaining in office is a condition for continued Western aid, the violent tendencies in the Fatah leadership could launch warfare and wipe out progress at any moment, and the PA has failed to build institutions for 15 years so what leads anyone to believe they will change now?

Still, at least this kind of analysis is on the same planet as the real Middle East, which is a step forward.

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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