Analysis: Diplomatic intrigue, or intriguing diplomacy

Just because a secretary of state says her boss will deliver a speech on the Middle East doesn’t mean Israel should run and hide.

Clinton 311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
Clinton 311 reuters
(photo credit: Reuters)
For true believers, some truths die hard – like the axiom that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the center of the universe. Or, at least, that it is at the center of our region.
Reuters, in a report Wednesday of a speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Washington to the US-Islamic World Forum, wrote the following: “President Barack Obama will lay out US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks, Clinton told Arab and US policy makers in a speech that placed particular emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
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Whoa! Here we have the Arab world, from Libya to Bahrain, in tumult, and the emphasis of Clinton’s speech to a distinguished gathering that included the foreign ministers of Jordan and Qatar, and the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was on Israeli- Palestinian peace? Didn’t the past few months convince her that the instability in the region is not about us? Except that Clinton’s speech didn’t go exactly as Reuters described. Of her 4,027 words, just 135 dealt with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Three percent of a speech does not an emphasis make. The status of women in the Arab world received more attention. But if you take the Reuters report and then add it to a front page Yediot Aharonot headline from Monday that had the words “The Rift” centered between profile shots of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Obama, a reasonable person might think “Here we go again: Obama is on the verge of setting out a detailed vision of Mideast peace that will come down on the present government like a ton of bricks.”
Except that it just doesn’t fit. Yes, Obama will give a major speech on the Mideast and North Africa in the near future, or at least that’s what his secretary of state said. But with a tornado sweeping through the Arab world, and the wider world wondering what Obama thinks, is it likely that his emphasis will be on Israel and the Palestinians? Here is what Clinton said in that speech: “And I know that the president will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks.” Can we infer from this that Obama is going to focus on us? Obviously, any speech he gives on the Middle East will touch on the Israel-Palestinian issue.
But will we be the focus – with everything else going on around us? Unlikely. America’s core interests in the region and values have not changed, Clinton said, including its commitment to “promote human rights, resolve longstanding conflicts, counter Iran’s threats, and defeat al- Qaida and its extremist allies.” She added that this included “renewed pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.”
“The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months,” she said. “Neither Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state or the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution. And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership.
And the president and I are committed to that.”
While Israel and the Palestinians were certainly not the emphasis of this speech, there were some interesting points in those few words having to do with the current diplomatic process.
First, the US remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution. That’s a key principle to reiterate, especially in the run-up to the Palestinians’ efforts to get the UN to recognize a state for them in September.
The message is that only a negotiated settlement – not one that’s imposed – will work.
Second, Clinton restated that there is no substitute for active American leadership. This, perhaps, was a signal meant for the Europeans and the UN, who have pushed for greater involvement in the process by the Quartet, which is made up of the US, EU, Russia and the UN.
In recent days, though, there have been a number of reports saying the US has been behind a push by England, France and Germany to get the Quartet to issue a statement saying a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement should be based on the pre-1967 lines, with agreedupon land swaps.
According to this way of thinking, the US was engaged in the classic good cop/bad cop routine, with the EU in the bad cop role vis-a-vis Israel, but with the US encouraging it to play that role in order to pressure Jerusalem.
One problem with this theory, however, is that the US would have wanted to see the Quartet meet in Berlin on Friday, as expected, rather than working behind the scenes to scuttle it. Indeed, the Quartet meeting – first planned for last month – has been put off yet again.
Clinton’s remarks about an upcoming Obama speech on the region mean we are now waiting for two major policy addresses: Netanyahu’s, dubbed in the press as “Bar Ilan II,” and now Obama’s, which can be called “Cairo II.”
But it is not beyond credulity that once Obama gives his speech, Netanyahu won’t have to give his – or it will be significantly less initiative-oriented than might have been expected.
This is because Netanyahu is in a bind. The Palestinians won’t talk to him, and much of the world either doesn’t trust him or thinks he is being uncooperative.
Which likely means that any initiative he launches – if it comes from his mouth – will be dead in the water. The Palestinians will reject anything he offers, and the Europeans will look at it with skepticism – because he is the one doing the offering.
But if Obama launches an initiative, that is a different story.
In the hundreds of hours of talks that Netanyahu’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, has had with the White House over the past few months, he probably was trying to convince the Americans to accept certain Israeli initiatives and then present them as their own.
No one is saying whether the Americans have adopted any of these ideas, and it is certain that the Palestinians – in their own talks with the US – are playing the same game. But when Obama does give his Middle East and North African speech, and when he does relate in that speech to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what the world might hear is elements of ideas that Netanyahu would have liked to say but couldn’t, because if he had, they would have been summarily dismissed.