Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Obama Administration Learns the Basic Lesson on the Israel-Palestinian Issue

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By Barry Rubin

In contrast to its refusal to change course on Iran, the Obama administration has learned something about Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, conclusions clearly expressed in the government’s new talking points.

First, President Barack Obama stated recently that his administration had overestimated its ability to get the two sides into meaningful peace talks. Blaming both parties equally, Obama said the problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians were ready to take the bold steps necessary to succeed.

This is a recognition of reality and about the best that could be expected. Of course, it maintains a determined evenhandedness, failing to hint at the easily demonstrable fact that it was the Palestinians who were not interested in making any compromises, even refusing to come to the table at all. But evenhandedness is welcome from an administration that originally seemed set to become the most anti-Israel presidency in history.

The new perspective, at least its public version, does not note the administration’s own responsibility in raising Palestinian expectations that Washington would abandon Israel and give them everything they wanted. Two key points here were the administration’s early bashing of Israel combined with the silly obsession about freezing construction on settlements. The Obama administration also has repeatedly told the Palestinians that they “deserve” a state with no indication that they would have to earn it.

But as I said, this is the best to be expected.

The words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be studied carefully on this matter as it points out the administration’s future plans. These can be summed up as: remaining active (and continually calling attention to their activity, however minor) but doing relatively little in real terms.

This new line is being framed always with the awareness of how the Obama administration blamed its predecessor for not doing enough. Ironically, the new policy is effectively an admission that the aforementioned predecessor in the White House couldn’t have achieved more if he had used greater zeal on the issue, which was precisely the same conclusion reached by that other president’s team.

Thus, Hillary takes a swipe at George Bush even while adopting his interpretation:

“We believe that this is a situation that deserves constant, persistent attention; that the absence of such attention perhaps created some of the difficulties that we are now encountering.”

It’s pretty funny to deconstruct this statement: We were too optimistic and our expectations were too high;  we tried really hard and got nothing. But the reason we didn’t get anything is because the people in office before us didn’t also set expectations too high, try really hard, and get nothing!

Ok, now let’s focus on the future. Clinton continued:

"But ultimately…this has to be between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States, the UK, the EU, the Arab League, everyone can work together to try to create the conditions for a resolution of the outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but at the end of the day, they must make that decision."

Isn’t this what the Clinton and Bush administrations concluded? Well, it’s good that the Obama administration has learned this lesson.

So what are they going to do? Clinton lays out the framework: "We are going to continue to do everything we can to create an environment in which that is possible.” In other words, have lots of talks and present ideas which continually fail but at least show they are trying.

Of course, what’s left out is the missing element which might allow at least for some minimal progress: put real pressure on the Palestinian Authority to make some compromises. But that isn’t going to happen. And so we return to business as usual.

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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