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.
2. The failure to set standards for Palestinian conduct hurts the cause of peace.
In the Bill Clinton years, the foreign leader who visited the White House most often was Yasser Arafat—13 times. Who can blame Arafat for failing to take seriously criticism of his “alleged links” to terrorism when the invitations kept on coming? For years, American officials of both parties have said the “incitement must end,” but they have imposed no penalty for its failure to end. When in March the Palestinian Authority (PA) named a square for a terrorist involved in an attack in 1978 that killed 38 Israelis, including 13 children, Obama, Biden, and Clinton were silent. Lower-ranking officials tut-tutted. In Palestinian society, the veneration of this terrorist, Dalal Mughrabi, is widespread; Fatah, not Hamas, is the one celebrating Mughrabi. PA radio and television incite hatred of Israel and Jews with regularity, as Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI document every month.
In recent weeks the Obama administration has stated that both sides have responsibilities to meet, but it made no serious demands of the PA. Had there been early and regular insistence that incitement end, the Mughrabi incident would never have taken place. The price for such negligence is being paid in both Israeli and Palestinian society: Every such action and every vicious broadcast helps persuade Israelis that Palestinians do not truly seek peace and helps raise a new generation of Palestinians who see Jews as enemies to hate, not neighbors with whom to reach an accommodation. This infantilization of Palestinian society, moreover, moves it further from the responsibilities of statehood, for it holds harmless the most destructive elements of West Bank life and suggests that standards of decency are not necessarily part of progress toward “peace.”
A tough demand that all the incitement end now—no more terrorist squares, a clean-up of Palestinian broadcasting, the replacement of offending school textbooks—would both help Palestinian moderates undertake these actions and reassure Israelis that President Obama shares at least some of their concerns about the ability of Palestinians to negotiate and sustain a peace deal. The silence thus far, the unconvincing and rote handling of this issue, leaves the impression that Obama simply wants a deal signed and doesn’t much care about what happens after that. Like his distancing himself from Israel and his apparent lack of concern for Israeli security, this undermines any chance of successful peace talks.
3. Israeli withdrawals do not lead to peace unless law and order can be maintained by responsible security forces.
Israelis learned this the hard way in South Lebanon and Gaza, and it is unquestionably the greatest factor leading them to oppose a similar withdrawal from the West Bank. The Labor party leader Ehud Barak is not viewed in Israel as a hardliner; when he was prime minister he offered Arafat a dramatic peace proposal in 2000. But when, as defense minister, he met with President Bush in 2008 he handed over, and raised repeatedly in later meetings with Secretary Rice, a list of Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. He and Netanyahu (and the vast majority of Israelis) are of one mind on this: Terrorism from Gaza is a security challenge for Israel, but terrorism from the West Bank threatens Israel’s survival. There has been considerable progress in training Palestinian security forces, but no one believes they can yet maintain order without the presence of the IDF and Shin Bet. Those who say, as George Mitchell—Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East—and the Quartet have, that there can be a peace deal in 24 months are saying that fundamental security issues can be finessed or forgotten. Of course they can if your goal is a piece of paper—or, perhaps better put, a paper peace. If you want a real and lasting peace, you must have the answer to the question: What will fill the vacuum when Israeli forces leave? Today the answer is chaos or Hamas, and any prediction that in 24 months these matters will be resolved shows a lack of seriousness. Palestinians who value law and order and seek to build a decent society, as well as Jordanians who worry what forces will be across the river from them, cannot be so cavalier. This brings us back to lesson one: If the United States is intent on a deal in 24 months no matter what, Israelis will understand that we are not going to protect their security and that we’ll complain when they assert the need to do it themselves.
4. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not the center of world, Arab, or Muslim politics.
George Mitchell once acknowledged that when he talks to Arab leaders they raise Iran first, but no one in the administration wants to allow mere facts to interfere with their ideology. George W. Bush was as close as any American president ever has been to Israel, but had excellent relations with the Moroccan, Algerian, Emirati, Omani, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Jordanian rulers—all except the Egyptians, who were annoyed that he thought they should have free elections. Paying attention to what Arab political leaders say publicly about Israel is foolish, for their real views consist of tough-minded assessments of the balance of power in the region. What they want most of all is calm; they do not want their streets riled up by Israeli-Palestinian violence. Palestinians are not at the center of their hearts or they would visit the West Bank and bring plenty of cash with them. What preoccupies them is survival and Iran. If they take any lesson from the current coldness between the United States and Israel, it is that the United States is not a reliable ally. If we can ditch Israel, they know we can far more easily ditch them.
The most perverse misunderstanding along these lines is the thought that supporting Israel is risking American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror. Vice President Biden is reported to have told Netanyahu that “this is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” White House denials suggest that the quotation is not exact, but there has also been no flat-out denial of the sentiment. David Axelrod, the political hack who appears to be a key foreign policy strategist and spokesman for the president, was asked on one of the Sunday shows if he agreed that settlement construction puts U.S. troops’ lives at risk. He replied, “It is important for our own security that we move forward and resolve this very difficult issue.” Not exactly a resounding “no.” General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, told the Senate that “clearly the tensions in these issues have an enormous effect on the strategic context in which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility.” Once again, not a “No way” or a “Get real.” Petraeus had a chance to say the Pakistanis are not thinking hard about West Bank settlement construction when they watch the Taliban and developments in Waziristan, and he failed to do so then or in later explanations. How hard would it have been for him or some other official to remind everyone that Osama bin Laden became a terrorist to overthrow the government in Riyadh, not the one in Jerusalem? The struggles between modernizers and traditionalists, Sunni and Shia, secularists and Islamists are tearing the Islamic and the Arab world apart. They would continue to do so if Israel no longer existed.
Israelis listening to official American remarks hear an amateurish interpretation of Arab politics, which as Lee Smith reminded us in his recent book (quoting bin Laden himself) is basically about backing the strong horse. Arab leaders want to know what we will do to stop Iran; they want to know if their ally in Washington is going to be the top power in the region. Israelis wonder where the “uh oh, this will make Islamic extremists angry” argument stops. Does anyone think al Qaeda or the Taliban would be mollified by a settlement freeze? The Islamists are not interested in “1967 issues” related to Israel’s size, but in “1948 issues” related to Israel’s existence. If henceforth we mean to engage such people rather than to defeat them, Israel’s existence—not its settlement policy—comes into play.
If this is not the Obama view of the world, the administration should say so quickly and very clearly. Otherwise his administration can fairly be said to be revisiting our own “1948 issues.” The argument that Israel would be a great burden and ruin our place in the Arab world was proffered then by George Marshall—and rejected by Harry Truman. In his memoirs, Clark Clifford wrote at length about the State Department’s efforts to stop -Truman from recognizing the new State of Israel. Clifford quoted Marshall’s deputy Robert Lovett as saying on May 14, 1948—the day Israel declared its independence and Truman offered recognition—“There will be a tremendous reaction in the Arab world. We might lose the effects of many years of hard work with the Arabs. We will lose our position with Arab leaders. It will put our diplomatic missions and consular representatives in personal jeopardy.” After 60 years of American leadership and military dominance in the Middle East, it should be as disturbing to Americans—not least to Democrats who venerate -Truman—as it is to Israelis that traces of this approach are emerging again in Washington.
Netanyahu answered these poor arguments in his address to AIPAC:
Our soldiers and your soldiers fight against fanatic enemies that loathe our common values. In the eyes of these fanatics, we are you and you are us. To them, the only difference is that you are big and we are small, you are the Great Satan and we are the Little Satan.
5. The ‘peace process’retards peace.
A single-minded concentration on “the peace process” hurts the cause of peace and moderation throughout the region and does little to build the necessary institutions of Palestinian society. It’s obvious that nearly two decades of negotiations have not produced peace. Instead this focus has had two deleterious effects.
First, it means we care more about getting Syria, Egypt, or others to endorse some negotiating plan than we do about their own internal situations. The people, the politics, the alliances of such countries become unimportant, as we focus on whether their rulers will deign to sit at some table we’ve laid. Human rights and democracy issues evaporate.
Second, we use all our chips for the negotiating sessions, instead of applying them to the hard work of nation building. We ask Arab states to reach out to Israel (which they will not do) when we should be demanding that they reach out to the Palestinians (which they might). We explode, and damage U.S.-Israeli relations, over a tiny construction announcement because it might slow “proximity talks” Mitchell has cooked up. We use American influence with Israel not to promote economic growth in the West Bank, but to try and impede Jewish (never Arab) construction in Israel’s capital city. This set of priorities is perverse and will not lead to peace. Instead, a pragmatic approach that seeks to create in the West Bank a decent society and a state that will maintain law and order should be our goals.
The last week of March brought talk of “reconciliation” between the Obama administration and the government of Israel. Relations are so strained that we, too, appear to need our own set of “proximity talks” now. But reconciliation is not a simple matter, as the Catholic Church knows. In that faith, it is a sacrament consisting of three elements: conversion, confession, and celebration. Conversion is the internal realization of wrongdoing, confession is the external admission of it, and celebration follows when (and only when) the sinner has converted, repented, confessed, and returned. Given the Obama administration’s view of Israel and the Middle East, celebration seems a long way off.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.