WASHINGTON – One week after Middle East policy circles here began buzzing about the possibility that the United States would present its own peace plan – thanks to a David Ignatius column in The Washington Post reporting just that prospect – President Barack Obama took the podium to hold a press conference concluding the Nuclear Security Summit.
After a slew of questions focusing on curbing Iran’s nuclear program, the threat of nuclear terrorism and other topics relevant to the April conference, the final query focused on Obama’s sense of growing foreign policy capital and whether he would be using some of it to rejuvenate initiatives “in trouble spots such as the Middle East and elsewhere.” From that open-ended entrée, Obama began by addressing the purpose of the summit and other related topics. But when he started on the Middle East, the first thing he did was stress the limits of America’s ability to dictate the outcome.
“Even if we are applying all of our political capital to that issue, the Israeli people through their government, and the Palestinian people through the Palestinian Authority, as well as other Arab states, may say to themselves, we are not prepared to resolve this – these issues – no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear,” he said.
“And the truth is, in some of these conflicts the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism. I think it was former secretary of state Jim Baker who said, in the context of Middle East peace, we can’t want it more than they do.”
Though Obama also noted “what we can make sure of is, is that we are constantly present, constantly engaged” and that “I’m going to keep on at it,” it seemed a clear – as these things go – repudiation of the notion that America would be presenting its own peace plan in the near future and, if anything, a downshifting of American energies.
But not according to The New York Times
An analysis in the paper the next day focused on two other phrases he used, that Israeli-Palestinian peace was a “vital national security interest of the United States” and that conflicts like that in the Middle East end up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” On that basis, the analysis then drew the conclusion that his words offered “a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement.” It also said the shift “increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state.”
That piece was then seized on by Jewish groups wary of the Obama administration’s approach to Israel.
First out of the box was the Republican Jewish Coalition, who pointed to the Times
’s characterization of Obama’s “‘new thinking’ that entails ‘tougher policies toward Israel,’” in calling the situation “yet another wake-up call to the deeply pro-Israel majorities in Congress and across our nation. It’s time to demand that the president reverse his misguided blame-Israel-first policy.”
Then came a full page add in newspapers including The Jerusalem Post
accompanied by a letter from World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder to Obama expressing concern over “the dramatic deterioration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel.”
Last but not least, the Anti-Defamation League, already on record as criticizing the recent US posture toward Israel, released its own statement.
“The significant shift in US policy toward Israel and the peace process, which has been evident in comments from various members of the Obama administration and has now been confirmed by the president himself in his press conference at the Nuclear Security Summit, is deeply distressing,” ADL national director Abraham Foxman stated. “Saying that the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines US interests in the broader Middle East and the larger issue of resolving other conflicts is a faulty strategy.”
The only thing was, Obama’s statements on Israel during the press conference hadn’t exactly been new. In fact, when the president hosted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for their first White House meeting one year ago, he made largely the same point – and even noted it was not an original one.
“I have said before and I will repeat again that it is, I believe, in the interest not only of the Palestinians, but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security,” he said. And as the Times
piece itself pointed out, under the second Bush administration, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was a “strategic interest” of the US.
SOME INSIDERS suggest that the Times
, among others, has been listening too carefully to just one side of a policy debate in the White House over where to go next on Mideast peace policy.
After a year which has been marked by setbacks, they describe the emergence of two camps. One is taking a harder line on Israel and focusing on those “interests,” but the other is more attuned to what it considers the limits of Netanyahu’s coalition and the sensibilities of the Israeli public. And several sources say the debate and its policy implications haven’t been resolved. National Security Adviser James Jones, who hosted the meeting of former national security advisers suggesting a US-imposed peace plan that sparked the Ignatius piece, said soon after its publication that “there’s been no decision on that.” Observers see in pieces like those in The New York Times
and The Washington Post
a jostling for position between the two camps, with each hoping that putting its ideas into circulation will help it gather steam and ultimately prevail.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences that have emerged between the US and Israel, differences that have led to deep strains in relations.
Lauder’s letter, as he notes, was not written overnight but was the culmination of weeks of tension between the two countries, ever since the Interior Ministry’s approval of additional housing in a Jewish neighborhood of east Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March sparked the rupture.
Indeed, despite the parade of top administration officials who have dismissed the notion that the two countries are in crisis and that the bonds between them remain unbreakable, it has the ring of that famous Shakespeare line about protesting too much.
It’s not to say that the US dedication to Israel isn’t sincere, but that having to say it so often and so pointedly is surely a sign that something is off-track.
In one high-profile example during last week’s 25th anniversary celebration of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jones himself alluded to recent “distortion and misrepresentation” before setting the record straight by stating, “Like any two nations, we will have our disagreements, but we will always resolve them as allies. And we will never forget that since the first minutes of Israeli independence, the United States has had a special relationship with Israel. And that will not change.”
In fact, those disagreements are substantial, not least of them the chatter to impose a US peace plan. Israel strongly opposes such an approach, arguing that the Palestinians will use any American parameters as the beginning – rather than end – of negotiations, among other major complications.
There is also the increasing American outspokenness on linking the peace process with Iran, with the Obama administration arguing progress on peace talks is necessary to help get Arab states to act against Teheran and to reduce the appeal of the regional extremists it supports.
Jones offered some of the administration’s boldest language on the subject in his Washington Institute address, saying that “advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.”
Israelis, if anything, view the situation the other way around: If Iran is dealt with effectively, its influence and that of proxies Hamas and Hizbullah will wane, undercutting the ability of extremists to undermine any deal. They see the peace process as a lengthy one that would drag out the Iranian nuclear clock.
And the Obama administration is clearly frustrated that Israel hasn’t done more to move the peace process along.
used the word “disappointed” to characterize the administration’s
feelings on the fact that the two sides still hadn’t started talks.
while Obama didn’t own to such an emotion himself, in his press
conference he subtly chided both sides in observing that they “may say
to themselves, we are not prepared to resolve this.” The flip side of
America admitting that it can’t do everything is that it then has free
range to blame the parties themselves.