The Magazine

Next, Locusts?

The abject failure of the Obama administration's Middle East policy.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Can anything else possibly go wrong for the Obama administration's Middle East policy? In the past ten days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has twice reversed herself publicly on her attitude toward the Israeli settlements. Palestinians have refused her direct request to rejoin peace talks with Israel, and Palestinian Authority president Abbas has said he will not run for reelection. U.S.-Israel relations are in a state of frozen mistrust. The New York Times and Washington Post, among others, are calling Obama's policy a complete failure--in news stories as well as editorials. The only thing missing is a plague of locusts.

The policy is indeed a complete failure. In ten months the administration has managed to offend and demoralize Israelis and Palestinians, lose the support of Arab governments, and reduce previously excellent relations with the government of Israel to levels unmatched since the James Baker days. Meanwhile, George Mitchell's trips to the region are increasingly reminiscent of the Colin Powell visits in 2002 and 2003--producing little but embarrassment. The Israeli "100 percent settlement freeze" and the Arab outreach to Israel, early goals of the Obama team, are now forgotten, as is an early resumption of serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

These disasters are mostly the product of an ignorant and belligerent attitude toward Israel and especially its prime minister. The ignorance was most evident in the administration's view that a total construction freeze could be imposed not only in every settlement but in Jerusalem itself. But the U.S. policy was worse: We demanded a freeze that would apply to construction by Jews, but not by Arabs; could any Israeli leader be expected to support such a position? One does not need to be a member of the Knesset to understand that such a freeze was impossible for Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition as it would have been for any Israeli prime minister--but apparently this fact was beyond the understanding of Mitchell, Rahm Emanuel, and all the other "experts" on the Obama team.

The belligerence toward Netanyahu has been evident all along, but is best shown by the refusal to tell Israel's prime minister whether or not the president will see him this coming week when Netanyahu (like the president) addresses the United Jewish Communities annual general assembly in Washington. The Israelis gave the White House weeks of notice that Netanyahu had agreed to speak, would be in town, and hoped to see Obama. The White House reaction has been to keep him twisting in the wind, with news stories several days before his arrival saying the president had not decided yet whether to see Netanyahu.

Think of it: Our closest ally in the region, critical issues at stake (from Iran's nuclear program and the recent Israeli seizure of an Iranian arms shipment meant for Hezbollah to Abbas's announcement), yet the Israelis get no answer. Obama and his "experts" may think they are reminding Netanyahu who is boss, but they are in fact reminding all of us why Israelis no longer trust Obama--and making closer cooperation between the two governments that much harder.

The problems Netanyahu has with Obama pale in comparison with those of the Palestinians, and Abbas's announcement reflects their frustrations. The best example: Obama and Clinton lured Abbas out on the settlements-freeze limb and then sawed it off. When they said a total freeze including Jerusalem was necessary, he of course happily agreed. But when they abandoned that doomed policy and instead began talking of "restraint," he could not climb down.

Abbas has threatened to leave many times before, and it's worth -noting that he did not resign. He said he would not seek reelection next year, in elections scheduled for January 24 but highly unlikely to take place then--if ever. So he will be around for months more, in fact indefinitely if elections keep getting postponed. His statement must be regarded, then, not as a Shermanesque personal denial but as a protest against an American policy that has weakened him and left him high and dry.

Israelis and Palestinians when I visited in October had two main questions: Who is making this Middle East policy, and do they not realize by now that it is a disaster? At least in this, one can say the administration has produced Israeli-Palestinian unity. They are also united in watching warily as the president seems unable to make a decision about Afghanistan. For the Palestinians, this suggests he'll never really take on the Israelis for them, as they thought he might back in January. For the Israelis, it means he'll never take on Iran, and that they may in the end face the Iranian nuclear threat on their own.