The Region: More talk, less action

following Obama's acknowledgment that he had overestimated his ability to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process rolling, the administration seems poised to remain active but do relatively little.

By BY BARRY RUBIN
January 31, 2010 23:16
US President Barack Obama speaks at the University

obama pointing 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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In contrast to its refusal to change course on Iran, the Obama administration has learned something about Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, conclusions clearly expressed in the government’s new talking points.

First, President Barack Obama stated recently that his administration had overestimated its ability to get the two sides into meaningful peace talks. Blaming both parties equally, Obama said the problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians were ready to take the bold steps necessary to succeed.

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This is a recognition of reality and about the most we can expect. Of course, it maintains a determined evenhandedness, failing to hint at the easily demonstrable fact that it was the Palestinians who were not interested in making any compromises, even refusing to come to the table at all. But evenhandedness is welcome from an administration that originally seemed set to become the most anti-Israel presidency in history.

The new perspective, at least its public version, does not note the administration’s own responsibility in raising Palestinian expectations that Washington would abandon Israel and give them everything they wanted. Two key points here were the administration’s early bashing of Israel, combined with the silly obsession about freezing construction on settlements. The Obama administration also has repeatedly told the Palestinians that they “deserve” a state with no indication that they would have to earn it.

But as I said, this is the most we can expect.

The words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be studied carefully on this matter as they point out the administration’s future plans. These can be summed up as: remaining active (and continually calling attention to their activity, however minor) but doing relatively little in real terms.

This new line is being framed with the awareness of how the Obama administration blamed its predecessor for not doing enough. Ironically, the new policy is effectively an admission that the aforementioned predecessor in the White House couldn’t have achieved more if he had used greater zeal on the issue, which was precisely the same conclusion reached by that other president’s team.



Thus, Clinton takes a swipe at George W. Bush even while adopting his interpretation: “We believe that this is a situation that deserves constant, persistent attention; that the absence of such attention perhaps created some of the difficulties that we are now encountering.”

It’s pretty funny to deconstruct this statement: We were too optimistic and our expectations were too high, we tried really hard and got nothing. But the reason we didn’t get anything is because the people in office before us didn’t also set expectations too high, try really hard and get nothing!

Okay, now let’s focus on the future. Clinton continued: “But ultimately... this has to be between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States, the UK, the EU, the Arab League, everyone can work together to try to create the conditions for a resolution of the outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but at the end of the day, they must make that decision.”

Isn’t this what the Clinton and Bush administrations concluded? Well, it’s good that the Obama administration has learned this lesson.



AND YET there was a remarkable point about Obama’s State of the Union message that no one seemed to notice. The word “Israel” is not even mentioned. There is no commitment to its security expressed and nothing about the peace process. This is revealing in two ways.

First, Obama has admitted that he made a mistake on the issue, the only foreign policy mistake he has ever mentioned. His response now is to ignore the issue altogether, not in his government’s daily activities but in terms of his main commitments. Remember that type of response for it might come to characterize other issues. For example, suppose Obama fails – as he clearly will – to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Will he then turn away from that problem as well, banishing it from his agenda?

Second, everyone knows that Obama’s commitment to Israel has been widely questioned. A good politician would go out of his way to say something to show – truly or falsely – how much he does care about it. That isn’t how Obama works. He is not the kind of president to whom other countries can turn to for reassurance. And that sense of worry is applying now to many other countries in Latin America, Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and elsewhere who know that they cannot rely on the president of the United States to protect them against their enemies.

If Obama were honest – and effective – he would admit that Israel did almost everything he asked, while the Palestinian Authority defied him. Israel froze all the construction on the West Bank (it has never defined east Jerusalem in that way) and expressed willingness to go to talks with the PA. The PA has refused to negotiate for five months after Obama asked it to do so. Yet for Obama to pressure the PA to go to the table – the normal route in such situations – is unthinkable for him. So he has no way out of his failure.

And Israel’s “reward” for its major concession? Not even a mention in the president’s main annual speech for the first time, I presume, in decades.

So what are they going to do? Clinton lays out the framework: “We are going to continue to do everything we can to create an environment in which that is possible.” In other words, have lots of talks and present ideas which continually fail but at least show they are trying.


Of course, what’s left out is the missing element which might allow at least for some minimal progress: put real pressure on the Palestinian Authority to make some compromises. But that isn’t going to happen. And so we return to business as usual.

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