Those who cannot remember the past are condemned, it seems, to direct the Middle East policy of the Obama administration.
Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, 17 years of efforts under three American presidents and six Israeli prime ministers have taught five clear lessons. Each of them is being ignored by President Obama, which is why his own particular “peace process” has so greatly harmed real efforts at peace. Today the only factor uniting Palestinian, Israeli, and Arab leaders is distrust of the quality, sagacity, and reliability of American leadership in the region.
The patching-up efforts of the last two weeks were impressive, but perversely: They showed how much damage had been done and how little the administration cares about reversing it. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, against whom Obama was said to be “boiling with rage” after the Jerusalem housing announcement, got the complete slate of Washington meetings: Clinton, Gates, Biden, Obama. But the meetings were virtually secret: The White House did not permit a single photo to be taken of the Oval Office session, an unprecedented snub. Same at State: no ceremony, no press conference.
For her part, Secretary Clinton told the giant AIPAC meeting, “Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.” Several recent Palestinian actions, she said, were “provocations” that are “wrong and must be condemned.” That was nice, but saying it to a Jewish audience in a kiss-and-make-up session in Washington fools no one, not after her famous 43-minute telephone call to Netanyahu. These “provocations . . . that must be condemned” (note the passive voice) did not after all elicit a timely call to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas condemning them, nor did she use the Quartet meeting in Moscow on March 19 for that purpose. And general administration protestations that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and that relations are “rock solid” now carry little persuasive power; they sound like Obama’s (and for that matter Clinton’s) campaign rhetoric, and everyone knows how useful a guide to administration policy all of that proved to be.
What are the lessons the Obama team is ignoring?
1. Israel’s flexibility is dependent on its sense of security.
Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, put it this way in his memoirs: “The record . . . suggests that American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward, rather than attempt to browbeat them into submission.” During the George W. Bush years, the leader of the Israeli right, Ariel Sharon, decided to abandon the idea of a “Greater Israel,” impose constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank (no new settlements, no outward expansion of settlement territory), and remove every settlement in Gaza and four small ones in the West Bank. His closest advisers say all of this was possible for him only in the context of unwavering American support for Israel’s security steps—including the targeting and killing of Hamas terrorists and the refusal to deal with a terrorist leader like Arafat. What was the turning point for Sharon? Bush’s June 24, 2002, speech, where he abandoned Arafat, denounced Palestinian terrorism, and said thorough reforms were the only possible basis for Palestinian statehood. Reassured, Sharon began to act.
Contrast this with the Obama administration, where Israel has been “condemned”—the toughest word in the diplomatic dictionary—for a housing project. Instead of seeking practical and politically feasible limits to settlement activity, the Obama approach has been to say every brick cemented to another was “illegitimate.”
Israelis know that these American denunciations of Israel liberate Europeans and others to crank up their own, and so it has been this past year: Israel has been increasingly isolated and criticized internationally. Once we used “condemn,” it was impossible (even if we were trying, which we were not) to keep it out of Quartet and EU statements. Add a few other international assaults (the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war, for instance) and American acts of distancing (the president visits Cairo and Riyadh but skips Israel, for example), and Israelis are in no mood for additional risktaking. Who, after all, will have their back if things get rough? Hillary Clinton told AIPAC that “the status quo is unsustainable,” as if just about anything we can get on paper would be better. Such phrases do not inspire Israeli confidence that their country’s security is anywhere near the top of the administration’s list. All this should be elementary, but it seems to have escaped the Obama White House.