Some have praised President Obama’s September 20 speech at the U.N. as his most rousing defense of Israel to date. Perhaps so—though that’s not saying much. It rather seems to us that the president merits some credit—but only some—for a growing self-awareness, both of his own limits and of the finer points of American Middle East policy.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” Obama told the General Assembly. “If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.” But, as Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas noted, the president mapped out precisely such a prospect just last year. The most potent instruments at Obama’s disposal, it seemed then, were statements—mostly directed at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, instead of creating a Palestinian state, the president merely forged a stalemate that led Abbas to bring matters to a head at Turtle Bay, where a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood would spell bad news for American interests.
Obama misread the Middle East from the moment he came to office. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the central issue in the region. The Arab Spring shows that what matters most to the inhabitants of the Greater Middle East are domestic, even local concerns. And yet it also has to be said that the peace process does matter. Which is why it has to be handled carefully.
Now there is no logical reason why the Palestinian cause should touch off the emotions of the entire Muslim world. Indeed it is strange to suggest that Muslims are particularly sensitive to Palestinian suffering, when it is European and American taxpayers who provide for most of the Palestinians’ daily needs. There is no necessary reason that the Palestinian cause should be deemed central to the region except that Arab rulers claimed it was so, and their Western counterparts conceded the point.
In the 1930s the Sunni Arab powers that were also British clients—Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—vied for control of the Palestinian cause in order to compete with each other for regional prestige. The mandate for Palestine was in British hands, and whether the Brits were already uncertain of their imperial prerogative to rule or simply anticipated the outbreak of another great war that would require access to the region’s energy resources, they allowed the Arabs to have a say regarding policy in a place where they had no business meddling. London washed its hands of Palestine after World War II not just because it was incapable of managing a conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, but also because it could not balance the Arab powers against each other.
Where an empire in twilight could see Palestine only as a headache, a rising power like postwar America saw it as a stepping stone to regional dominance. If the Arab powers made so much of Palestine, the thinking went, that’s where they could be tied down. Nixon’s airlifts to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war showed the Arabs that, with America backing Jerusalem to the hilt, there was no point in fighting Israel. America became a virtual sultan, conferring its gifts on all who stuck by the rules: $2 billion a year in aid for Egypt; $3 billion a year for Israel; money for Jordan and the PA; arms for the Saudis; and so on.
President Obama is right to emphasize that a Palestinian state can only come from a negotiated settlement, because there is a U.S. national interest in the “process” part of the “peace process.” In reality, there already is peace. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the treaty with Israel in 1978, he moved Cairo out of the Soviet camp. And there is no strategic realignment that will issue from a PA-Israel accord, since Mahmoud Abbas is already an American ally. If he wages war on Israel, he will lose the support of the White House, which pays most of his bills on the West Bank.
Washington wants a Palestinian state as much as, or perhaps more than, the PA itself. Certainly Abbas’s verbal assault on Israel last week did little to convince the undecided that such a state would promote peace and comity with its Israeli neighbor. With all the noise at the U.N., including Abbas’s, we should not forget that the Palestinians have rejected various offers of statehood, the first tendered at the U.N. itself in 1948. What Abbas wants, as he has explained, is a better bargaining position. That’s certainly a reasonable desire, but the danger is that he may negotiate himself out of the American orbit. That would be bad not only for Washington, which requires the peace process to secure its role as power broker, but also for Abbas and the Palestinians.
It’s unpleasant for many people to think of the United States as the world’s policeman. So perhaps it’s better to think of Washington as a financial adviser, whose role is to make sure its clients have the wherewithal to do the things they really want to do without unnecessary risk. As we saw last week at the U.N., the Obama administration, by mishandling the peace process portfolio, exposed American clients—both Israel and the PA—to too much risk.
The result is that other powers are eager to step in where the United States has faltered. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is drooling at the prospect of picking up an account as prestigious as the peace process. What he fails to recognize is that France is no more qualified to manage this portfolio than, say, Turkey was able to mediate between Israel and Syria. The fact is that no one is able to offer the goods and services that Washington provides its allies, in the region and throughout the world.
If the president is beginning to see the nuances and difficulties of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in many of its details, he still lacks an understanding of the larger architecture that everything hangs on: American leadership. Nations, like individual investors, do not always know what’s best for them. Both history and Wall Street are replete with the tragic stories of those who confused opportunities and risks. When Washington fails to lead competently, the world is a riskier place, for our friends and for ourselves.