Saturday, March 27, 2010

Has the Obama Administration, against U.S. interests, declared diplomatic war on Israel?

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By Barry Rubin

Has the Obama Administration, against U.S. interests, declared diplomatic war on Israel?

Up to now my view has been that the U.S. government didn’t want a crisis but merely sought to get indirect negotiations going between Israel and Palestinians in order to look good.

Even assuming this limited goal, the technique was to keep getting concessions from Israel without asking the PA to do or give anything has been foolish, but at least it was a generally rational strategy.

But now it has become reasonable to ask whether the Obama White House is running amuck on Israel, whether it is pushing friction so far out of proportion that it is starting to seem a vendetta based on hostility and ideology. And if that's true, there is little Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any Israeli leader can do to fix the problem.

A partial explanation of such behavior can be called, to borrow a phrase from the health law debate, a "single-payer option" as its Middle East strategy. That is, the administration seems to envision Israel paying for everything: supposedly to get the Palestinian Authority (PA) to talks, do away with any Islamist desire to carry out terrorism or revolution, keep Iraq quiet, make Afghanistan stable, and solve just about any other global problem.

What makes this U.S. tactic even more absurd is doing so at the very moment when it is coddling Syria and losing the battle for anything but the most minimal sanctions on Iran.

During his visit to Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to defuse the tension. His partners in government, we should never forget, are Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Labour Party, and President Shimon Peres, who has done more to promote Middle East peace than any other living Israeli leader.

But according to reliable sources, Obama went out of his way to be personally hostile, treating Netanyahu like some colonial minion who could be ordered around.

It is not entirely clear what demands the White House has made on Israel. Those most often mentioned are the release of more Palestinian prisoners, the permanent end of construction in the West Bank, and the permanent end to construction in parts of Jerusalem over the pre-1967 border.

Palestinian prisoners: It is ironic, given U.S. statements that Israel must "prove" its commitment to peace, that there have been so many prisoner releases in the past. Thus, Washington is not giving Israel credit for these. Moreover, many of those arrested have committed terrorism against Israeli civilians in the past and may well do so in future. Finally, releasing prisoners will not bring any gratitude from the PA or increased willingness to negotiate. If such a release is forced, the PA will merely assume that it doesn't matter if Palestinians attrack or kill Israelis because Washington will secure the release of those captured in future without the PA having to do anything.

West Bank and Jerusalem Construction: Only five months ago, the U.S. government agreed to a temporary halt to construction and Israel's government agreed. If this did not prove Israel's commitment to peace--and the White House broke the deal--why should Israel assume that it will get any credit for this step either? What is its incentive for such a big concession? Such construction should give the PA an incentive to make a deal faster. But, again, if this goal is achieved by U.S. pressure, why shouldn't the PA presume that all settlements will be removed in future by a similar mechanism without its having to make full peace and any concessions?

I won't take space here to restate all the arguments regarding Israel's claims to areas of Jerusalem under Jordanian rule before 1967.  Note that President Clinton, in the Camp David and Clinton plan proposals in 2000, supported Israeli rule over much--though definitely not all--of east Jerusalem.
Why should the administration believe that it can press Israel to make big concessions, a: with no PA concessions; b. with its U.S. ally showing itself so unreliable that it is unlikely to credit Israel with concessions it does make or to keep agreements based on Israeli concessions; and c. at a time when the U.S. government is not workin very hard to stop Iran's nuclear weapons campaign?

The one answer the administration gives is so factually inaccurate as to call into question--if I may coin a phrase--its analytical sanity.

Judging from the evidence, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s AIPAC speech, the administration thinks it can force Israel's government to give in because it knows better what Israelis want than do Netanyahu, Barak, and Peres.

Actually, a poll by the highly respected Smith Research company for the Jerusalem Post, found that only 9 percent of Israeli Jews considered the administration pro-Israel, while 48 percent said it was more pro-Palestinian. To understand these figures, you have to know that most Israelis are very reluctant to say anything critical of the United States, out of genuine respect, concern not to damage relations, and speaking on the basis of their hopes.

So does the administration want to resolve this issue or to break Israel's willpower? Is it going to keep piling on demands in hope of giving the PA so much that it will agree to talk about getting itself even more unilateral Israeli concessions? Is the goal to overthrow Netanyahu—which isn’t going to happen—or turn him into a servant who will follow orders in future—which also isn’t going to happen?

Doesn’t this U.S. government understand that if it proves itself hostile that will destroy any incentive Israel has to enter negotiations with Obama as the mediator? If he's this much acting solely based on PA interests now, does any Israeli government want to make him the arbitor of the country's future, deciding on its borders, security guarantees, and other existential issues? Of course not.

By the same token, can't he comprehend that he is giving the PA every incentive to keep raising the price, especially since it doesn't want to talk any way?

Is there no real sense--probably not--that if this administration undermines Israel's trust in Washington it will push the whole country further to the right. If the U.S. government politely asks to stop building in east Jerusalem in exchange for some tangible benefit and for a limited time, lots of Israelis would be willing to agree. But if this happens in a framework of enmity and threat, with the "reward" being no benefit and even more concessions to follow, even doves will grow sharp beaks.

It seems as if the Obama Administration has chosen just one country in the world to try to pressure and intimidate. And it has picked the worst possible target in this respect, both because of how Israelis think and also given very strong domestic U.S. support for Israel (especially strong in Congress).

Won’t it see that if it bashes Israel while ignoring the PA’s commemoration of a major square in honor of a terrorist who murdered a score of Israeli civilians, with Clinton even claiming this was done by Hamas and not the PA? And as the administration betrays Israel’s main priority—failing to put serious pressure on Iran to stop building nuclear weapons—why should Israel want to do big favors and take big risks for this president?

Finally, since this administration has already unilaterally abrogated two major U.S. promises—the previous president’s recognition that settlement blocs could be absorbed by Israel as part of a peace agreement, and the Obama administration’s own pledge to let Israel build in east Jerusalem if it stopped on the West Bank—why should it put its faith in some new set of promises?

So the Obama Administration will have to decide, and do so in the coming days.

Does it want to try to get some limited concessions from Israel to use as capital in trying to get talks started, using these to brag--futilely, of course--to Arabs and Muslims how they should be nicer to the administration in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Or does it want to live up to the negative stereotypes held by its worst enemies while simultaneously committing political suicide and destroying U.S. credibility in the Middle East. We will know the answer pretty soon.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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