The Magazine

Obama's Middle East Gambit

There are far greater obstacles to peace than the Israeli settlements.

Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Tel Aviv

Masters of the art teach that subtlety, indirection, and on occasion mis-direction are crucial to successful diplomacy. Perhaps, then, President Obama is up to something shrewd.

When he took to the stage in Cairo in early June to address Muslims and discuss "the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world," he called on Palestinians to renounce violence and develop their own political institutions, Israel to stop building in the West Bank, and Arab states to assist the Palestinians and recognize Israel's legitimacy. Since the speech, however, much has been heard from the administration about the need for an Israeli settlement freeze and little about Palestinian and Arab state obligations.

If something shrewd does lie behind the decision to focus on Israeli concessions, then Obama and his administration are executing a dangerous gambit. It is likely to reinforce the false analysis popular among Palestinians, Arabs, and European and American intellectuals, an -analysis reaffirmed earlier this month in a Washington Post op-ed by former President Jimmy Carter: "A total freeze of settlement expansion is the key to any acceptable peace agreement or any positive responses toward Israel from Arab nations."

And if the high-profile imposition of pressure on Israel is not a gambit, if the president believes that once Israel freezes West Bank settlement construction then the parties will proceed to successfully negotiate a final status agreement that brings into existence a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that lives in peace with Israel, then he is dangerously deluded about the basic elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the overall logic of Middle East politics.

Either way, the hard truth is that, much as the settlements represent a formidable challenge to a peace agreement, other and intractable differences on critical issues separate Palestinians and Israelis. To make negotiations a top priority as the Obama administration appears to have done is to expend limited time and energy on what at best will be a sideshow.

Meanwhile, real, if incremental progress toward the day in which Palestinians can establish a state of their own consistent with Israel's national security interests depends on tasks to which the Obama administration has paid lip service but which it has done little to advance. These include improving dysfunctional Palestinian political institutions and political culture, building up the Palestinian economy, containing and defeating Hamas, cajoling or compelling Arab rulers around the region to assist the Palestinians and normalize relations with Israel, and, looming over all, countering Iran's multipronged strategy--involving the acquisition of nuclear weapons and sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas terror--to impose its brand of Islamic rule on the entire Middle East.

According to the generous interpretation, which informed Israelis following the comings and goings of Middle East envoy George Mitchell and special assistant to the president Dennis Ross consider plausible, the Obama administration is well aware that the settlements are not the sole or even most significant obstacle to peace. But seeking to set America's relationship to the Muslim world on a new footing and needing Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas and Arab rulers on board for his ambitious plans, Obama has sought to earn good will around the region by demonstrating his readiness to require painful concessions from Israel.

If such is Obama's gambit, it has thus far failed to bear fruit. No Arab ruler has come forward to propose a thawing of relations with Israel should Israel agree to freeze settlements. Fatah's recently concluded Sixth General Conference was short on conciliatory statements and long on reaffirmations of Palestinians' right to engage in armed struggle. And Hamas continues to attack Fatah for failing to embrace jihad to destroy Israel.

Perhaps Obama will announce a breakthrough in his September 23 address to the United Nations General Assembly. The reopening of Israel's tiny, unmarked trade mission in Qatar or a few meetings at the U.N. with Arab leaders or the launching of a few cultural or scholarly exchanges would be nice, but more than gestures will be necessary to build Israeli confidence. Permission from Saudi Arabia for El Al passenger jets to fly through Saudi airspace en route to Asia would be a step forward.