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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

They all wonder whether to blame Mitchell or Clinton or Dennis Ross or National Security Adviser Jim Jones or the State Department's Near East bureau, and each individual Israeli and Palestinian has a favorite target. But the answers to their questions seem obvious: It is the president's policy, and no, he does not seem to be aware that it has already failed. While he has backed off from the early targets, he has not changed his attitude toward -Israel's government, nor altered his basic approach: to push for negotiations over "core issues" as soon as possible.

And this is the fundamental problem with Obama's policy: Like too many of his predecessors he believes that a solution is at hand if only he can force the parties to the table. There, presumably under American tutelage, they will reach American-style compromises (pragmatic, sensible, realistic) and resolve the dispute, with Nobel Peace Prizes for all. The only question is where the table is: Camp David, Taba, Annapolis, Oslo, perhaps this time Chicago.

This approach undermines the one real hope in the region, which is the practical advances being made in the West Bank. There, the economy is improving, law and order are maintained, the Palestinian Authority is fighting Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation is growing, and mobility for the population is increasing. In recent months Israel removed more checkpoints and expanded the hours of the Allenby Bridge to Jordan. It isn't paradise, but it isn't Gaza either, and life is better each year. It could be far better if the Obama administration would abandon its doomed efforts to force an Israeli construction freeze in Jerusalem and an Arab embrace of Israel, and instead ask them all to think of real-world ways to keep improving life in the West Bank. There are many ways this could be done, from further steps to remove Israeli barriers to movement, to reliable and generous Arab financial support.

The way forward does not lie through fancy international conferences, and one idea still mentioned as an Obama option--proposing a final status plan--would be disastrous and unsuccessful. The way for the Palestinians to get a state is to go ahead and build it. If and when the institutions are there and functioning, from police and courts to a parliament, negotiations will reflect that fact. But the argument that settling the borders and removing the Israeli troops must come first is a path to failure. For one thing, Israel will not and should not leave until it is clear that the West Bank can be policed by Palestinians and that the region will not be a source of terrorism against Israel, as Gaza and South Lebanon became when Israel left there. No conference and no treaty can provide such a guarantee; only functioning Palestinian police forces that are already fighting and defeating terror can do so.

Such a practical approach would bring other benefits. It would enhance the status and power of Palestinian moderates who are working to improve life in the West Bank, rather than enhancing the status and power of old PLO officials who thrive on endless, useless negotiating sessions. It would put a premium on practical Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, rather than elevating precisely the final status questions (like Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees) that most bitterly divide them. It would increase the gap between the West Bank and Gaza, thereby showing Palestinians that Hamas rule brings only despair and poverty. It would press the Arab states to help real live Palestinians in the West Bank, rather than the imaginary Palestinians--all either bold jihadists or desperate widows and orphans--whom they see on Al Jazeera. In fact, except for occasional visits by Jordanians and Egyptians (who have peace treaties with Israel already), top Arab officials haven't a clue what's going on in the West Bank, for they've never been there. Not one head of state or government or foreign minister, not once. If George Mitchell wants to do something useful, he could organize a tour; take a few princes and foreign ministers to Ramallah and Jericho and Jenin, where they would find that they are neither in Somalia nor some heroic battle scene against Zionist oppressors.

But thus far, the anniversary of Obama's election appears to have passed with no rethinking of policy. Instead the administration slogs forward, judging itself by its elevated intentions rather than its performance. Clinton's pronouncements--demand a total construction freeze one day, accept Netanyahu's more modest offer the next, then back to the wider demands two days later in Morocco--are increasingly reminiscent of World War I trench warfare: gain a few yards, lose a few more, while the casualties pile up. There will be no progress this way, and the practical efforts that should be at the heart of U.S. policy will instead be undermined as we poison Israeli-Palestinian relations and degrade the trust both parties have in us.

<ι>Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.