Thursday, March 21, 2013

As Obama Continues Visit, His Themes Are Confirmed

By Barry Rubin

As President Barack Obama continued his visit to Israel the themes remained the same as the ones I covered here. The two main public events were a speech by Obama to Israeli university students and a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In his speech, Obama spoke at great length about Israel’s history, concerns, and related matters to try to show that he “gets it” when it comes to Israel. The basic phrases were in many cases similar to those used by previous presidents. The intention was to show warm sympathy and support for Israel.

But there were three things strange about the point of the speech, showing that Obama was completely out of touch with contemporary sentiments and thus showing that in many ways he doesn’t get it. These points are:

First, Obama’s big theme is that, and I’m not being satirical here, peace is good. He tried to make the students understand that peace is better than continued conflict and has many advantages. Yet all the students in the audience probably knew everything he was saying. Of course they think peace is good. They are the ones who have to serve in the military and risk their lives, not to mention know that they and their loved ones are the targets of terrorism and war.

Can Obama possibly not comprehend all of this? No, I believe he doesn’t. He seriously thought that he was bringing new ideas to his audience that they had never thought about before nor heard about for years.
Second, he did not deal with a single one of what I call “the day after” issues. In other words, assume that there is a peace agreement between Israel and the PA. Well, how do we know Hamas won’t take over the PA or more radical forces will come to power that will not recognize the deal?

--What is a deal with the PA worth when it won’t include the Gaza Strip, where Hamas would redouble its efforts to attack Israel and work hard to undermine any such agreement?

--What reason is there to believe that there won’t be cross-border terrorism across the new international frontier and the government of Palestine doesn’t do anything about it?

--What about the likelihood of the Palestine government inviting in the armies of other countries or at least getting advanced weapons from them?

--How is Israel going to deal with the PA’s passionately held demand that millions of Palestinians be allowed to come and live in Israel?

--Why should Israel believe in any guarantees and assurances from the United States and Europe when such promises have been repeatedly broken, including ones made by Obama himself?

These are only some of the questions Israelis have about what a peace would look like and whether a formal agreement would really be better than the status quo. This is especially true with the 30-year-old peace Egypt-Israel peace treaty possibly under dire threat. For Obama, none of these problems exist.  To his mind, you get a peace agreement on paper and that’s the end of the problem.

Third, Obama has not made one serious mention of the changed regional situation except to say that the United States wants democracy in the Arabic-speaking world and will try to work for that and Egypt’s continued adherence to its peace treaty with Israel. Yet he is still backing Islamists seeking or holding power.

To cite only one example, Obama has supported the new head of the Syrian opposition—apparently against real resistance in the opposition—despite the fact that this man, Ghassan Hitto, has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood,  Hamas, and support for terrorism against Israel.

Other than wishful thinking, how does Obama think that Israel can make new big concessions and take risks in the face of radical Islamist regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria? This is especially true when none of these regimes--except for Iran and to some extent the Hamas regime in Gaza—is strongly opposed by the current U.S. government?

So there is a disconnect between Obama’s new policy on the peace process which fits with Israeli interest despite is criticism, and a regional policy that is a big headache for Israel.

The other development was Obama’s visit to Ramallah. There he gave a message to the PA leadership that also preached the benefits of a two-state solution. He even referred to Israel as a Jewish state, which was a significant phrase.

In response, however, Abbas made it clear that he would only negotiate with Israel if certain preconditions were met, Including a new freeze on construction within existing Jewish settlements on the West Bank and also Israel providing its final proposal for where the border should be. Presumably, if Israel seeks to change the pre-1967 borders Abbas will not come to the negotiating table.

I wonder if Obama and his advisors noticed two things about Abbas’ statement and I think they did.

First, the last time Obama got Israel to do a freeze, Abbas did not negotiate seriously, leaving Obama looking foolish. Netanyahu cooperated; Abbas and the Arabic-speaking regimes didn’t. So why should Obama fall for the same trick twice?

Second, the situation is similar to what happened early in Obama’s first term when Abbas arrived in Washington and gave an interview to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post making it clear that he was not interested in negotiating with Israel. Abbas has given several interviews recently in which he explicitly stated that now that the UN General Assembly has declared Palestine a “non-member state” he doesn’t need to negotiate with Israel.

In other words, Obama’s trip to Ramallah reinforced his view that the “peace process” is going nowhere and he cannot expect the PA to cooperate with any big effort by him to try to get talks going. So why should Obama bother to pressure Israel in trying to push ahead?
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 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 book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include 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  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

This article is published in PJMedia.

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