The region: US Middle East policy: Not as good as it sounds
Whether Israel builds a few thousand apartments in settlements assumes huge importance because it is the cornerstone of the Obama administration's plan for quickly settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
A clear US strategy is emerging in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is a badly flawed one, as the Obama administration will likely find out over the next six months. Hopefully, it will make changes as a result.
Let's consider the interrelated policy regarding Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. On Iran, the US plans to build on sanctions, going slowly to keep the Europeans on board and to win assent from Moscow and other countries. A series of international conferences, presidential visits and consultations are one arm of this effort.
The other is a careful attempt to avoid acting in an openly hostile way toward Teheran. There will be attempts at engagement. Some in the administration think this might work; others view it simply as a way to show the world that America has tried and that Iran is intransigent.
Then, the United States will spring its trap! Everything will be ready: allies coordinated, rationale laid.
And here's where the first problem arrives. European allies, Russia and China haven't been unwilling to do much because they disliked George W. Bush or thought Iran hadn't been given ample opportunity to repent. No, they behave the way they do out of simple self-interest.
European countries don't want a confrontation with Iran. Some are eager for the profits to be made from trade; others simply think a nuclear-armed Iran can be managed. As for Russia, it views Iran as an asset. Teheran buys nuclear equipment and weapons from it, and thus helps subvert US policies. In China's case, aside from the profit motive, it fears any tough anti-Iran effort could trigger actions against itself (over human rights, or Taiwan, or Tibet) in the future.
In other words, no matter how charming Obama is, no matter how many concessions he makes (or has Israel make) to the Europeans and Russia, no matter how well he proves himself willing to be friends with Teheran, it will make no difference.
But let's take the best-case outcome. Suppose everyone is ready to agree to some tougher sanctions. By the time all the compromises are made, the level of sanctions would be far too low to bother Iran. Moreover, the new Iranian government is tougher than ever and less inclined not only to doing away with the drive for nuclear weapons but even to slowing it down.
Obama's rhetoric and overall approach convinces Teheran that the West is weak, so it can be ignored. And when Iran actually has nukes, who cares what the West says?
So this Iran policy, though it seems brilliant to its creators, is hopeless.
NOW, LET'S turn to Arab-Israeli conflict policy. Alexander Pope wrote: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again." In other words, the Obama administration has learned only part of the truth, and this has made things worse.
What it understands - and, forgive me if I repeat a point I've been pressing for years - is that most Arab regimes (excluding Iran's little buddy, Syria) are more worried about Iran and radical Islamist groups than about Israel. So they have devised a brilliant - in its own mind - plan.
The US will force Israel to freeze construction on existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Using this proof of evenhandedness, it will then go to Arab regimes and say: "You see, we are ready to push Israel, now will you show your readiness for peace and press the Palestinian Authority toward compromise?"
Arab rulers will reply - indeed, the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians have already done so - "not by the hairs on your chinny-chin-chin." Or in more scientific language: "You get bupkis!" In part, of course, they know Obama isn't going to huff and puff and blow their houses down. The Iranian regime and their own people are far scarier.
The minor issue of whether Israel builds a few thousand apartments in settlements assumes huge importance because it is the cornerstone of Obama's plan for quickly settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and its success is intended to make possible a grand alliance that will stop the spread of Iranian influence, terrorism and radical Islamism. While this is indeed the central task, sweeping away the old conflict to make it easy isn't going to happen.
THINK OF HOW an alternative might look. On May 27 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "With respect to settlements, the president was very clear... He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions... That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly... And we intend to press that point."
Here's what this approach would sound like if applied to Iran's regime: "With respect to nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorism, the president was very clear... He wants to see a stop to nuclear weapons - not some nuclear weapons, not just the warheads, not just the missiles... That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly... And we intend to press that point."
Or how about Syria's regime? "With respect to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, the president was very clear... He wants to see a stop to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism - not just training terrorists, not just financing terrorists, not just ordering them to attack, not just giving them safe passage across the border, not just against Lebanon, not just against Iraq, not just against Israel... That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly... And we intend to press that point."
But of course such a policy would require real toughness against enemies on real issues, not just empty posturing against an ally on a really small issue.