Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama’s Mideast Strategy: Useless if Not Harmful

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will hold trilateral talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the annual U.N. Summit in New York.

Naturally, smart gamblers will bet against a peace process breakthrough. For starters, history suggests that the forthcoming Obama-Abbas-Netanyahu meeting will go the way of previous Bush-Abbas-Olmert andClinton-Arafat-Barak encounters: nice photos, no results. Moreover, the two parties seem as far apart as ever on all of the issues – security, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem – that stand at the heart of the conflict. And then there’s the inconvenient fact that Hamas – an Iranian-funded terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s very right to exist – controls half of the Palestinian body politic.

But even if these traditional barriers to Middle East peacemaking weren’t enough, President Obama has – through his own policy decisions – erected another. Indeed, by reinforcing Islamists’ version of history and calling it “public diplomacy,” Obama has systematically alienated the Israeli people, who have increasingly backed Netanyahu’s more skeptical approach to both U.S. policy and peace making. Polls currently show that Netanyahu’s approval rating among Israelis is at 65% – staggeringly high, especially by the standards of Israel’s fractious political system – while only 4% of Israeli Jews see Obama as pro-Israel.

How might this affect Obama’s ability to forge Middle East peace? Try this thought experiment: put yourself in Netanyahu’s shoes and assume that, like most politicians, your top priority is political survival. Do you take the risks associated with immediate peace negotiations and more closely align yourself with an American president who is deeply unpopular among your constituents? Or, do you stick with an alternative approach that a strong majority of your countrymen endorse? The answer should be obvious.

Of course, none of this is news to the Obama administration. In recent months, it has attempted to counteract Israeli skepticism by pressing Arab regimes to make friendly gestures towards Israel. But, once again, Obama’s own policies have gotten in the way: Arab leaders have refused incremental “normalization,” using the administration’s earlier demand for a complete freeze of Israeli settlement expansion as an excuse for doing nothing at all. And, strategically, this makes perfect sense for them. Just put yourself in the shoes of an Arab leader: when the U.S. President naïvely affirms your long-held contention that Israeli settlements – and not terrorism, nor your own rejection of Israel’s right to exist – are the primary obstacles to peace, you run with it.

It is worth repeating that, even without Obama’s policy blunders, Israeli-Palestinian peace would be highly improbable. Still, Obama is supposed to be the “realist” president who, according to his most erstwhile defenders, prioritizes strategy and interests above principles. If so, how has he failed to understand Arab and Israeli leaders’ interests and decision-making so spectacularly?

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