Sunday, November 28, 2010

Has the Obama Administration Failed Again?: No Freeze, No Talks, No Competence

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By Barry Rubin

While the outcome still isn’t clear, it seems that a new example of failure and humiliation is unfolding for the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the president’s high-profile effort to restart Israel-Palestinian talks will succeed during the remainder of 2010 or even well beyond that time.

This Administration has had a very clear idea of what it wanted to achieve:

1. A comprehensive Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli peace.

2. Getting rid of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the belief that this will reduce terrorism and strengthen US power in region and US interests.

3. Getting rid of the conflict to get Arab support on Iraq, Iran, and Aghanistan. 

The embarrassment is taking place due to faulty assumptions about these goals and how to achieve them:

--That a high-profile effort would serve U.S. interests. By showing American engagement on the issue, the Administration thought it would please Arab and Muslim-majority countries so as to gain their support on other issues. This didn’t work.

--That, at best, a high-profile campaign would be likely to succeed in bringing rapid progress toward comprehensive peace. That obviously isn’t working.

--That , at minimum, they could at least get the two sides to sit down to pretend talks where nothing actually happened but at least it could be portrayed as a diplomatic achievement. Even that isn’t working and that's really embarrassing.

Part of the problem is due to the Administration’s additional wrong assumption that the Palestinians are eager to negotiate and get a state plus the belief that the current Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership could deliver a deal. In fact, both of these ideas are wrong, too.  The PA leadership can't--and doesn't want to--deliver even on holding talks that go nowhere.

Most of the Palestinian leadership and the masses, too, are still locked into the belief that a combination of struggle and intransigence will bring them total victory some day in wiping Israel off the map. And even though they are more moderate than this, neither “President” Mahmoud Abbas nor Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are strong or determined enough even to attempt to change that orientation.

Another part of the problem is the Administration’s mistaken view that it could pressure or bribe Israel and the PA into doing what it wants. Yet since neither side has faith in the Obama Administration, both know that it’s weak, and Israel has seen that Washington doesn’t keep commitments, their incentive for cooperation is reduced. In the PA’s case at least, the United States doesn’t even put on any pressure or criticism. In Israel's case the Administration has not put on the level of pressure that its more extreme officials (and outside supporters) would like to see, though that wouldn't work either.

But even that’s not all. There’s every indication that the Administration has incompetently handled the actual negotiations about holding negotiationsy. It focused on getting Israeli concessions without firming up the PA side, thus allowing the PA to demand more. The offer to Israel was presented in a confused manner and it still isn’t clear what precisely is to be given in exchange for a three-month construction freeze.

Moreover, part of the package that led people to say that it was so "generous" that Israel was being “bribed” seems to consist of things that the United States has always provided, like support in the UN or maintaining Israel’s strategic advantage over its enemies.

The whole thing has turned into a mess and this isn’t the first time that’s happened in Obama policy on the issue. To cite just four examples, there was:

--The raising of the construction freeze idea in the first place;

--The position that promises made by the Bush Administration would not be fulfilled by his successor;

--Praising Israel for a construction freeze that didn’t include Jerusalem and then screaming when Israel fulfilled the agreed conditions;

--And announcing last year that intensive Israel-PA negotiations would begin in two months when no such agreement had been made by the PA.

Yet even that’s not all. Why did the administration seek a three-month freeze (originally a two-month freeze) at all? What was the purpose of this clearly useless goal? After all, even if the Administration obtained the freeze there would only have been twelve weeks of stagnant conversation—purchased by the United States at a high price—followed by the break-down of the talks. As an election ploy the idea at least made sense but if that was the motive the whole frantic exercise is now useless.

So far the Obama Administration has achieved a remarkable record of failure on this issue. It is, of course, understandable that the U.S. government was unable to solve the long-standing conflict--though making over-optimistic claims over what might be achieved was a self-inflicted wound--but it actually succeeding in moving the diplomatic process backwards.

Has the Obama done much harm regarding Israel-Palestinian issues? Directly, not so much since there was never much chance for dramatic progress. Yet for the Obama Administration's own reputation and credibility in the region this has been disastrous. Finally and worst of all, it isn’t clear that the current government has learned anything from the experience.

The above article could be taken as a highly critical bashing of the Obama Administration. But the sad thing is that it is totally accurate albeit not--in order to save time and to promote clarity--cloaked in bland language.

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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