Obama is wrong on Israel

The Dreamer Goes Down For The Count

Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum.  The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent.

Walter Russell Mead, May 25, 2011, The American Interest

I had never thought there were many similarities between the pleasure-loving Charles II of England and the more upright Barack Obama until this week.  Listening to his speeches on the Middle East at the State Department, US-Israel relations at the AIPAC annual meeting and most recently his address to the British Parliament the comparison becomes irresistible.

“Here lies our sovereign king,” wrote the Earl of Rochester about King Charles:

Whose word no man relies on.
Who never said a foolish thing
Or ever did a wise one.

This seems to capture President Obama’s Middle East problems in a nutshell.  The President’s descriptions of the situation are comprehensive and urbane.  He correctly identifies the forces at work.  He develops interesting policy ideas and approaches that address important political and moral elements of the complex problems we face.  He crafts approaches that might, with good will and deft management, bridge the gaps between the sides.  He reads thoughtful speeches full of sensible reflections.

But the last few weeks have cast him as the least competent manager of America’s Middle East diplomatic portfolio in a very long time.  He has infuriated and frustrated long term friends, but made no headway in reconciling enemies.  He has strained our ties with the established regimes without winning new friends on the Arab Street.  He has committed our forces in the strategically irrelevant backwater of Libya not, as he originally told us, for “days, not weeks” but for months not days.

Where he has failed so dramatically is in the arena he himself has so frequently identified as vital: the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.  His record of grotesque, humiliating and total diplomatic failure in his dealings with Prime Minister Netanyahu has few parallels in American history.  Three times he has gone up against Netanyahu; three times he has ingloriously failed.  This last defeat — Netanyahu’s deadly, devastating speech to Congress in which he eviscerated President Obama’s foreign policy to prolonged and repeated standing ovations by members of both parties — may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American President a foreign leader has ever delivered.

Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum.  The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent.  It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters go up against the junior squad from Miss Porter’s School; like watching Harvard play Texas A&M, like watching Bambi meet Godzilla — or Bill Clinton run against Bob Dole.  

The Prime Minister mopped the floor with our guy.  Obama made his ’67 speech; Bibi ripped him to shreds.  Obama goes to AIPAC, nervous, off-balance, backing and filling.  Then Bibi drops the C-Bomb, demonstrating to the whole world that the Prime Minister of Israel has substantially more support in both the House and the Senate than the President of the United States.

President Obama’s new Middle East policy, intended to liquidate the wreckage resulting from his old policy and get the President somehow onto firmer ground, lies in ruins even before it could be launched.  He had dropped the George Mitchell approach, refused to lay out his own set of parameters for settling the conflict, and accepted some important Israeli red lines — but for some reason he chose not to follow through with the logic of these decisions and offer Netanyahu a reset button.

As so often in the past, but catastrophically this time, he found the “sour spot”: the position that angers everyone and pleases none.  He moved close enough to the Israelis to infuriate the Palestinians while keeping the Israelis at too great a distance to earn their trust.  One can argue (correctly in my view) that US policy must at some level distance itself from the agendas of both parties to help bring peace.  But that has to be done carefully, and to make it work one first needs to win their trust.  Obama lost the trust of the Israelis early in the administration and never earned it back; he lost the Palestinians when he was unable to deliver Israeli concessions he led them to expect.

The President is now wandering across Europe seeking to mend fences with allies (Britain, France, Poland) he had earlier neglected and/or offended; at home, his authority and credibility have been holed below the waterline.  Everyone who followed the events of the last week knows that the President has lost control of the American-Israeli relationship and that he has no near-term prospects of rescuing the peace process.  The Israelis, the Palestinians and the US Congress have all rejected his leadership.  Peace processes are generally good things even if they seldom bring peace; one hopes the President can find a way to relaunch American diplomacy on this issue but for now he seems to have reached a dead end — and to have allowd himself to be fatally tagged as too pro-Israel to win the affection of the Europeans and Arabs, and too pro-Palestinian to be trusted either by Israel or by many of the Americans who support it.

Internationally, this matters a great deal; domestically it matters even more.  The President has significantly less capacity to act than he did a week ago.  The Bin Laden dividend, already cruelly diminished by what The Daily Caller said was the administration’s “victory lap in a clown car”, is now history.  The GOP, in trouble recently as voters recoil from what many see as Republican extremism on issues like Medicare and public unions, will be able to use the national security card in new and potent ways.

As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth.  Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul.  The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism.  The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.

It means more.  The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race.  For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith.  Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ God.  Obama’s political isolation on this issue, and the haste with which liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi left the embattled President to take the heat alone, testify to the pervasive sense in American politics that Israel is an American value.  Said the Minority Leader to the Prime Minister: “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.”

President Obama probably understands this intellectually; he understands many things intellectually.  But what he can’t seem to do is to incorporate that knowledge into a politically sustainable line of policy.  The deep American sense of connection to and, yes, love of Israel limits the flexibility of any administration.  Again, the President seems to know that with his head.  But he clearly had no idea what he was up against when Bibi Netanyahu came to town.

As a result, he’s taking another ride in the clown car, and this time it isn’t a victory lap.  I hope I’m wrong, but I think the next intifada got a lot closer this week.

Editor’s Note: For further information see WRM on last night’s episode of Charlie Rose.

Posted in Middle East, Obama, Politics, U.S. Foreign Policy

102 Responses to The Dreamer Goes Down For The Count

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  1. Robert Werdine says:

    May 28, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Mr. Mead,

    If I could recommend a book to President Obama it would be “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War” (2008), by Benny Morris. Morris covers a lot of familiar ground here, but one of the things that stood out to me was the intensity of the rejectionism of the Arabs at the time, and how little it has changed. This might, in all seriousness, give the President a clue to why the Palestinians have proven so recalcitrant and intransigent in the face of all his mollifying and appeasing. Indeed, he would find it most instructive. He would see how Arab rejectionism has run like a black, sinister thread through the whole conflict: their rejection of the Faisal-Weizmann compromise in 1919, the rejection of the 1937 and 1947 partitions, Nasser’s “three no’s” of 1967, Arafat’s rejection of autonomy in the territories in 1979, his multiple rejections of a sovereign, contiguous state in 2000 and 2001, and Abbas’s rejection of the West Bank in 2008. These rejections are all a matter of record and are beyond dispute.

    Just as clear are the compromises and concessions made by the Israelis: the willingness to compromise in 1919, 1937, and 1947; the return of the Sinai to Egypt after the 1956 war and the second return of the Sinai to Egypt in 1981 along with the withdrawal of all Israeli settlements there; the offer of autonomy to the Palestinians in 1979; the withdrawal of Israel from 98% of all Palestinian population centers and the release of scores of Palestinian prisoners (some of them hardened terrorists) in the 1993-2000 period; the unprecedented offers in 2000-2001 of a Palestinian state in some 97% of the West Bank, all of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the removal of all Israeli settlements contained therein; the offer of the return of the Golan to Syria in 2000; the unilateral withdrawals of all Israeli troops, citizens and settlements from South Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005; the offer of the West Bank to Abbas in 2008, the 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-2010, the repeated willingness, to this very day, to negotiate directly and without any preconditions which has been met with the Palestinian’s usual intransigence and refusal to reciprocate.

    The President might also want to take a peak at Dennis Ross’ “ The Missing Peace,” where the evidence is overwhelming that Arafat never had any intention of making peace and simply used the peace process to pocket as many concessions as he could and entrench himself in the territories for the next round of conflict with Israel. His refusal to compromise and make peace at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the months following are thus perfectly consistent with this plan of action. He knew there would be no peace. He knew more than anyone the whole culture of maximalist rejection that he himself had cultivated with such care over the decades. He had never attempted to educate or persuade the Palestinian people in the ways of peaceful co-existence with Israel or the necessary and painful sacrifices that would be needed to make a practicable, workable peace with Israel. That was not his style and never his aim. The whole culture of anti-Israel incitement and rejection not only continued under his tenure but flourished and intensified at his behest. To forgo the right of return, that sure recipe to Israel’s demise, to concede the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Holy Palestine, to know that Arab schoolchildren would someday read of him as the “traitor” who “surrendered” Palestine to the Jews, were simply out of the question.

    Of course, Arafat was also well aware that making peace with Israel could be hazardous to his health; not for him the fate of Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat. No thanks. Better to be a live rejectionist than a dead peacemaker. As for the hardships that a prolongation and intensification of the conflict would heap on his stateless and long-suffering people, well, that was their problem; and anyway, what mattered most was not the suffering of his people, but who he knew would get the blame for it: Israel. With images of violence, carnage and death dominating television screens, the UN, the Europeans, the whole cabal of “human rights” and “peace” activists on the internationalist left, and even many Americans would soon resume making all their familiar noises about Israel’s “occupation” and “repression” and in no time everyone would soon forget the peace he had rejected amidst all the fire and smoke and chaos of attack and counterattack. On that he could rely.

    The cruelty and the cynicism inherent in Arafat’s strategic calculus were crucial to his success. The manner in which Arafat used the Oslo Peace Process to extract numerous concessions from the Israelis without making any in return was a masterpiece of Machiavellian diplomacy in which every ruse and stratagem advised by the 16th century Florentine diplomat were used with consumate skill and cunning. Diplomacy, for the Palestinians then, is merely war by other means. Of course all this makes a sham out of the words “peace process.” The difference between a war and a peace process is that in a war there is a winner and a loser; in a peace process both sides agree to lose something to win something. Both sides make compromises and concessions toward a common goal: peace. How can a peace-process possibly function and produce results if one side does all the compromising and conceding and the other side remains adamantly inflexible? It can’t.

    The sad truth is that the Palestinian leadership (both the PA and Hamas) demand nothing less than a full, uncompromising reversal of the 1948 Nakba. This demand is accompanied by a refusal to acknowledge any responsibility whatever for any role that the previous refusals to compromise and peacefully co-exist have played in the creation and prolongation of the conflict. They want victory, not peace, and the sufferings that a further prolongation of the conflict have and are inflicting on the peoples of the West Bank and especially in Gaza are a matter of complete indifference to them.

    The Road Map, issued by the “Quartet” in 2002 to rejuvenate the then-defunct peace-process, was performance based and that the Palestinians, to put it mildly, did not “perform” anything, and could barely get their own house in order in the next several years. The Palestinians fulfilled none of their obligations in Phase one to cease terror, and their efforts at political reform were hapless at best. In 2005, after Israel’s full withdrawal from Gaza, Abbas watched as Hamas spread all over the strip like a slime. In 2006, he lost an election to the terrorist group, and was thrown out of Gaza by them altogether in 2007. In 2008 he received an offer of statehood slightly more generous than the one Arafat thumbed his nose at in 2000/2001, and rejected it without making a single counter-offer, just like his predecessor. In 2009 he told the Washington Post that he was through making concessions and would sit back and watch Obama squeeze Israel for them instead. In 2010 he had effectively jettisoned negotiation for UN support for a state. In 2011 he has now reconciled with the violent terrorist group who evicted him from Gaza, brought them into his government, and, in his recent NYT op-ed, has made it perfectly clear that even statehood within the ’67 borders will only serve as a platform for carrying on the conflict against Israel through other venues. His term of office expired more than two years ago.

    The failure of the President to call the Palestinians out forcefully and candidly on their obstructionism is scandalous. The President’s whole handling of the peace process seems to illustrate his peculiar genius for getting the worst of all possible worlds while trying to give the best to everyone. The PA were, and remain today, a wholly dysfunctional polity grievously compromised by corruption, violence, a culture of non-stop hatred and incitement, and a leadership that has now legitimized the very terrorists whose dismantlement was their primary obligation under the Road Map. Abbas’ intransigence toward even coming to the negotiating table, let alone making a final peace, are going to be more pronounced now than ever, and are unlikely to improve with Hamas riding at his side. His stewardship of the Palestinian Authority has been a sad, sorry failure. He has never negotiated in good faith and has sought one alibi after another to refuse numerous peace offers. He is still refusing direct negotiations, still rejecting a two-state solution, still demanding an endless “right of return” to Israel, still refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and still insisting that the Jewish people have no legitimate attachment to Jerusalem and, for that matter, to any of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. These facts, sadly, can no longer be denied.

    This will not end well.

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