Friday, April 23, 2010

The U.S.-Israel Crisis May Be Over and We Can "Celebrate" the Achievement of Nothing?

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By Barry Rubin

Something very interesting is happening very quietly. The Obama Administration appears to have forgotten about its quarrel with Israel, in part because it is being reported with increasing reliability that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has quietly agreed to suspend all construction in eastern or northern Jerusalem outside the 1967 lines. .

Goodness, gracious! This administration's great achievement isn't going to be making peace in the Middle East but succeeding in achieving Israel-PA negotiations! I can practically hear the 2012 presidential election ads now: President Obama Got the Israelis and Palestinians Talking!

Sometimes this administration's foreign policy seems like a man who wants a glass of water, exits the building instead of going to the water cooler, gets lost, falls into several holes, narrowly escapes being hit by some cars, and finally arrives home after a very long time. He takes a look at the empty glass in his hand, looks into the camera, and then confidentally announces to the audience: "Now, I am going to get a glass of water!"

A large, albeit diminishing, portion of the audience cheers, while pundits announce that he is really working hard on getting that glass of water, has a terrific strategy, doubt he will soon be sipping away, and everyone sure likes him!

I'm not in the audience booing. I'm shouting: Please, for goodness sakes, pull yourself together and do better!

But I digress. Clearly, for the moment, the White House has realized that it has gone too far. Three different polls show large numbers of Jewish voters saying they are very unhappy with Obama and that Americans as a whole regard the bash-Israel behavior as the most negative aspect of the president's foreign policy. Members of his own party in Congress are revolting against it, as well as against his strategies on Iran and Syria.

Obama no longer "owns" the Democratic party and November elections are looming up to reinforce that lesson by showing Democrats the cost of his mistakes for themselves personally.

And, of course, once again the administration has painted itself into a corner on the "peace process" issue and has nothing to gain.

So now there is talk about all sorts of gimmicks to get negotiations going between Israel and the Paleestinian Authority (PA). I won't go into these since none matter unless actually offered formally. What is important, however, is going to be whether the PA wants to talk, directly or indirectly, as well as whether the administration is going to do anything to push them. Israel has been, and for the last year made it clear, ready and eager to talk.

Perhaps you've heard the expression, "We can do this the hard way or the easy way." The implication is that if the person spoken to decides to cooperate all will be fine but if they don't things can get unpleasant. Despite very occasional exceptions--which usually seem directed at Israel--the Obama Administration does this to itself, chooses the hard way, and still doesn't get anywhere.

Things could have been quite different. A year ago, the White House could have played it smart and been playing host and facilitator for Israel-PA negotiations all this time. Sure they wouldn't produce a lot but would gain a little, kept things peaceful, and make the White House look good. Instead, there's been one mess after another.

For the moment, the government seems to want to move out of Mess Mode. It has Iran to deal with, growing domestic discontent, and an economy that is responding far worse than the media cheerleaders claim. So it needs to back off confrontation with Israel.

Here's what I think, is an extraordinarily important point. The Obama Administration is neither radical satanic nor moderately pragmatic in doing foreign policy. It is rather fettered by a set of ideas, lack of skills, and close-mindedness to criticism that make for an inept approach which is not meeting the needs of U.S. interests. Through action, the Obama administration has not done one big bad thing internationally. The problem stems from its frustrating inactions, misleading words, and dangerous ideas.

What might be called the administration's glamor masks the fact that Obama is in the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter-George W. Bush class of president regarding competence. He is not in the Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, etc., category.

Adherents can boast that Obama kept us out of war and unpopularity, though perhaps he is laying the basis for such things in future, as tends to happen when international affairs are not well conducted.

So the great Jerusalem construction affair seems to be over. But where does that leave us? After a lot of shouting and wandering around, right back at the beginning.

Thanks for reading this far. Since this is a long article, you can stop now or continue on to:

Optional satirical section with clever ending:

Or, in the words best sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford (albeit slightly altered here) in that great coal-mining song, "Sixteen Tons":

You wait sixteen months
an' what do you get?
Another month wasted, enemies stronger yet.
Ahmadinejad don't you get nukes cause I can't do,
Anything effective to prevent you!

There is another verse which, left in the original words of the song, give some good advice about an important part of conducting foreign policy. Some have depended too much on this approach but the Obama Administration would be well-advised to add it to its repetoire (and also thing of using it against enemies rather than friends):

"Well, if you see me comin',
better step aside.
A lotta men didn't, an' a lotta men died.
One fist of iron, the other of steel.
If the right one don't get you,
then the left one will."

Yes, the "left" fist of America, that is liberal Democrats historically, knew how to be tough on enemies and stand up for U.S. interests, too. What's really important in this regard is not that the president of the United States be a white man or a black man, a glib man or an inarticulate man, or even a man at all (in gender terms). What's necessary in a time like this is that the chief executive be a Truman.

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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