The Region: Lessons not learned

The Region Lessons not

By BARRY RUBIN
November 22, 2009 22:28
4 minute read.

 
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The Obama administration keeps making big mistakes that have a devastating effect on its own goals and interests. What is most amazing is how the implications of its actions are just not understood. Already, the current US policy has destroyed any chance not only of progress on the Israel-Palestinian front but of even holding talks at all. Let's review the situation. Israel announced in 1993, at the time of the Oslo Accords with the PLO, that it viewed construction on existing settlements as completely in line with the agreement. The Palestinians, during the ensuing 16 years, never made this a big issue. The US government, while it can say it opposed this, was pretty quiet about it and never did anything. Then President Barack Obama came to office and made the construction issue the centerpiece of his Middle East policy; sometimes it has appeared to be the keystone of his whole foreign policy. It may look like an exaggeration but often it seems like the administration believes that if Israel only stopped building 3000 apartments, all the region's problems would go away. So far, the administration has wasted almost ten months pursuing this. First, it shouted at Israel - as if it were some servant - to do it fast or else. Then when Israel didn't, the administration realized that perhaps Israel should get something in exchange for the concession. So it went to Arab states and asked - presuming, wrongly, that they are desperate for a peace agreement - for some compromise but got nothing. IN FACT, the Obama administration had destroyed its own policy because, as a result, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to negotiate until there was a complete construction freeze. How could it be less hardline than the president? But there was a solution; sort of. Israel agreed to stop all construction once the apartments currently being built are finished, except in Jerusalem. The United States accepted the deal, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exulting about what a huge concession Israel was making. The US government knew how big a risk Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was taking with his coalition. So what happened? The PA couldn't stand to see Israel being praised and doesn't want to negotiate peace anyway. So it threw a temper tantrum: riots in Jerusalem, threats by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to resign, refusal to go to negotiations with Israel, and clamor for a unilateral declaration of independence. The hubbub about a unilateral declaration of independence was almost universally described in the media as arising from Palestinian frustration. Not at all. It is based on their core strategy: Why make compromise peace with Israel when you can just claim everything you want, ensuring the door is kept open for a future struggle to wipe Israel off the map entirely? What did the administration do? It backed down on everything except the independence bid! Having made a deal with Israel, having gotten Netanyahu to take an enormous risk, it then pulled the rug out from under him. Now it said: Well, maybe it wasn't such a great deal after all. Those who always advocate Israeli concessions as the solution should take note: Once again, we've seen that a concession doesn't lead to a concession by the other side nor does it lead to progress. It just produces a demand for more concessions without giving any real credit to the last one. THE LATEST act in the drama is that after an announcement of a plan to build apartments in the Gilo section of Jerusalem - which is quite within the US-Israel deal - the administration complained bitterly, showing not only that it wouldn't respect agreement others made with predecessors but it wouldn't even respect the agreements it made itself. Obama complained that the Gilo construction complicates administration efforts to relaunch peace talks, makes it harder to achieve peace and embitters the Palestinians. Funny, he never said this about: PA incitement to terrorism; failure to punish terrorists; negotiations with Hamas despite its hardline positions, genocidal goals, anti-Semitic views; refusal to return to talks with Israel despite Obama's express request to do so; breaking its promise on not using the Goldstone Report to punish Israel; and other such actions. Each of these individually is more dangerous than the Gilo construction. Moreover, having sabotaged negotiations by highlighting the construction-on-settlements issue, the administration has now escalated even higher: no construction in Jerusalem is the minimum demand. Of course, Arab states and the PA will echo this, refusing all talks unless that happens. And since Israel won't stop building in Jerusalem and the Arab side won't - unlike the administration - back down, Obama has just guaranteed a dead peace process for his entire term in office. In fact, he's probably ensured no comprehensive negotiations will take place. Here's another problem: By blaming Israel repeatedly for every failure, the administration is not only signaling to the PA and Arab states that they can do anything and pay no cost, it is also unintentionally encouraging them to sabotage any progress. Why? Because the worse and slower things go, the more they can blame Israel and expect the United States and Europe to do so also. The administration is making its own failure far more likely. If the United States gets angrier with Israel every time the Arab states and Palestinians sabotage negotiations, why shouldn't they do it? One final point: The same loss of US credibility and reliability that affects Israel also hits the relatively moderate Arab states in the administration's dealings with them. No doubt we will soon be hearing that if Israel stopped building apartments in Gilo there would be Arab-Israeli peace, no terrorism, Iran would give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and Obama would get the Nobel Peace Prize. Oops, that last event has already happened. How about giving him the Nobel Peace-Fumbling Prize?

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