The Obama administration and the diplomatic tsunami

While Obama was trying to build new bridges to the Arab world, his approach underscored the fact that this administration seems not to understand the Arab mind.

US President Obama speaks in White House Rose Garden 370 (photo credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)
US President Obama speaks in White House Rose Garden 370
(photo credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)
From the beginning of President Obama’s tenure he made a series of missteps. The first was perhaps his willingness to accept the Nobel Peace Prize a few weeks after his inauguration for the Middle East peace process. This cart before the horse move was a purely political act on the part of the Nobel committee and Obama should have seen it for what it was. A polite and grateful decline would have been more appropriate so that the world could wait for the results of his foreign policy.
The second error he made was in his address to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech of June 2009. In it he expressed a wishful-thinking vision of peace that was naive and that dangerously lifted the hopes of Palestinians. Obama reiterated his support of a Palestinian state, and he firmly rejected any construction by Israel of new communities in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, thereby going to the side of Palestinians and their demands.
People in the region viewed the speech as weak. While the president was trying to build new bridges to the Arab world, his approach underscored the fact that this administration seems not to understand the Arab mind. We know from talking to people in the Middle East that their respect is won in two ways: by showing strength and honoring yourself. The president did neither.
After 9/11, president George W. Bush’s approach was to confront radical Islam head on. President Obama was trying to open a new era between the two civilizations that was less confrontational.
He thought by reaching out to the Arab world he would be able to build a new path based on dialogue and understanding – and maybe to calm down the atmosphere. But it didn’t work because the Muslim world is not something that can be affected or moved by words. In fact, I would argue the opposite happened, and the fundamental sectors of the Islamic world were in fact galvanized and bolstered.
Of course, there are elements within the Arab community who are pro-Western and understand the benefits, but the other strong elements of radical jihadists and other extremist forces are not moved by any speech or outreach that comes from Western society. It is dangerously naive to think that a charismatic speech would be able to bridge or narrow the clash of civilizations.
The third and most crucial mistake Obama made was to adopt many of the demands of the Palestinians, unlike other US presidents, who tried to play the role of the mediator between the two parties.
Perhaps this was because such mediation resulted in few results – I am thinking for example of 1991, just after the first Gulf War, when president George H.W. Bush called a conference in Madrid between Israel and the Arab nations that were directly involved in the conflict. Talks continued afterward in Washington, but nothing substantial was accomplished. Then, in 2000, president Bill Clinton convened a peace summit between Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak was willing to compromise on all major issues, including going back to the 1967 lines and compromising on part of Jerusalem; however, Arafat was not willing to continue and in fact walked out of the talks.
When Barak returned to Israel he was thanked by being booted out of office.
Perhaps the Obama administration decided it was more expeditious to simply adopt the demands of the Palestinians by calling in May 2011 for a return to the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem. In his May 2011 speech on the Middle East at the State Department Obama said, “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
This statement made the Palestinians feel as if they no longer have to negotiate, and that they could win all their demands at no cost or concession whatsoever. What Obama did with that statement was accept borders that are often described as the “Auschwitz lines”: Indefensible borders that would put Israel in an untenable position, easy to attack from all directions. Moreover, a withdraw to the 1967 borders would mean a forced evacuation of over 300,000 Israelis.
Is this realistic or even desirable? This was done without insisting that Palestine recognize Israel or make a concerted effort to end incitement. In fact, Obama didn’t ask for any compromise on the Palestinians’ part. In other words, the Palestinians want recognition of their state without ever having to recognize the State of Israel. Obama provided a tall and convenient ladder to climb toward this goal and it is going to be very hard to bring them down. It was an effort to build confidence in the Arab world; it was his way of saying, we don’t automatically side with the Israelis.
Look what has happened in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and the region since then. The Middle East has its own dynamic and doesn’t run according to guidelines set in Washington.
The assaults continue
In December 2011 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta demanded that Israel “just get to the damn table” to negotiate with the Palestinians and “mend fences” with Turkey, Egypt and other Islamist regimes by “performing more gestures” – the code for more concessions. The deeper meaning to his outrage is that Israel singularly stands in the way of peace because of a refusal to negotiate and because it antagonizes its neighbors with hostile overtures. Mr. Panetta conveniently forgets it was the Palestinian Authority that walked away from peace talks. And Israel’s “gestures” or concessions include the aforementioned 10-month construction freeze, which held the promise of getting Palestinians back to the table. It did not. As far as our other neighbors are concerned, it’s hard to know exactly what Panetta is talking about.
Radical Islamists, whose stated foreign policies are hostile to Israel, influence the new governments in both Turkey and Egypt.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to increase naval surveillance patrols of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, freeze defense trade with Israel, and allow Turkish gunboats to accompany Turkish “humanitarian” vessels –that is, illegal flotillas – the next time they set sail for Gaza. These are just a few examples of the prime minister’s animosity toward Israel. Egypt’s Arab Spring resulted in an attack on the Egyptian Israeli Embassy, increased violence in Sinai, and a loosening of borders that allows Hamas easier access to weapons.
Howard Gutman, US ambassador in Belgium, blamed Israel for anti-Semitism at a conference in Brussels. He basically said that Muslim anti-Semitism was understandable and tolerable (unlike traditional anti-Semitism) – and Israel’s fault. He also argued, with a straight face, that an IsraeliPalestinian peace treaty would significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism while speaking in front of the same Jewish conference on anti-Semitism organized by the European Jewish Union.
If there were no Israel there would still be anti-Semitism, as there was before the state was created. The Palestinians would be no happier since they are raised on hatred. The Middle East would be no more peaceful – the region would simply revert to infighting.
It is a fight of cultures that is not about land or where borders will be drawn – both convenient ruses. The idea of an Israel-free utopia is a ridiculous ideologically driven fantasy.
In fact, well before there were any “Palestinians,” in 1929, Arab mobs murdered more than one hundred Jews, the majority of them in Hebron, an ancient community where Jews had lived among Arabs peacefully for centuries. The mufti of Jerusalem enthusiastically urged his ally Hitler to wipe out European Jews during World War II, before the State of Israel was established, while the mufti promised to do the same for Jews in the Middle East. Ambassador Gutman needs to brush up on his history.
These US incidents all may seem like small examples, and as such are easily trivialized and dismissed. But taken together they create a picture in which the Obama administration has a dim view of Israel. Such interactions chip away at an important relationship and also undermine our trust in the United States.
The writer is a Likud Knesset member, deputy speaker of the Knesset, chairman of World Likud, and chair of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. The above excerpts are from his new book, Israel: The Will to Prevail. (Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers)