There is much I admire about Barack Obama, including his intellect, vision and ability to connect with people, personally and globally. Rarely have I seen a public figure so comfortable within his own skin, regardless of its color.
But in his ninth month as president, I am deeply disappointed in, and frankly baffled by, his dealings with the Mideast in general and Israel in particular, from his focus on Jewish settlements as seemingly the key to renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, to his most recent conclusion that the best way to achieve peace in the region is to jump to final-status negotiations, a potentially fatal miscalculation.
I write out of frustration, painfully aware that the first months of the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve progress in the Mideast largely have been a waste, if not a setback. And that’s especially true because, realistically, a president only has the first two years in office to initiate bold initiatives before focusing on re-election.
I am certainly not alone in this assessment. Gidi Grinstein, the founder and head of Re’ut, a Tel Aviv-based independent think tank that offers strategic advice to the Israeli government, told me the other day that “the only attainable” positive result from U.S.-Israel-Palestinian Authority talks at this point could be through “baby steps,” establishing a West Bank state for the Palestinians. And even that would be very difficult because it requires support from a right-wing Israeli coalition and approval by a fragile Palestinian Authority — two bodies that are “weak on their best days,” Grinstein observed.
But by adopting what he called an “all-or-nothing approach” now, which would include discussions of the fate of Jerusalem and that of Palestinian refugees, the administration is losing touch with reality, “moving away from the achievable to the desirable.”
Grinstein pointed out that such efforts have failed since 1949, and that the result could well be the collapse of the fragile Palestinian Authority, leading to the inherent Israeli control of the Palestinian population and a recipe for more violence.
Moving away from the focus on establishing a Palestinian state is especially troubling, Grinstein said, because he believes the PA has made great progress in the last three years in improving law and order (with the help of U.S.-trained security forces), reducing corruption and building up the infrastructure needed for a more open society.
But those achievements “seem to have zero effect on the design of the process,” Grinstein said. “That’s why I’m so worried.”
There was a time when Israel thought that time was on its side, that maintaining the status quo with the Palestinians was an acceptable strategy. The Palestinians believe that time is on their side, that if a two-state solution fails, the inevitable result will be one state, meaning that demographics will play the deciding factor and eventually Israeli Arabs will outnumber Jews. A democratic election in Israel would then result in an Arab victory and the end of the Jewish state, without a shot being fired. The alternative would be a Jewish apartheid state, which the world would not tolerate.
In the end, time is on no one’s side in this conflict; lack of progress is a step backward toward potential violence and chaos — all the more reason why the Obama administration’s lack of insight and ingenuity up to now has been so frustrating.
That is not to take the Netanyahu government off the hook, either. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan University speech last June, delivered in response to Obama’s Cairo address to the Arab world, said the right things — acceptance of a two-state solution and calling for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — but it seemed too little, too late. It looked defensive and would have had greater impact and acceptance had it been given before the Obama talk.
What’s more, while it was wrong for Washington to publicly demand an Israeli settlement freeze — not the way to treat your most loyal ally, and misguided — Netanyahu would have been wise to accept it. In so doing, he would have called the Palestinians’ bluff and put the onus on them, since they have never been willing to make compromises for negotiations.
Instead, thanks to the U.S. blunder, the Palestinians are now insisting on a settlement freeze before negotiations, something they have not done since the Oslo talks more than 16 years ago. (It should be noted that when the U.S. called for such a freeze, it defined neither “settlement” nor “freeze,” perhaps not realizing that to the Palestinians, a freeze means, says Grinstein, “no building cranes in [the] French Hill [neighborhood of Jerusalem].” He pointed this out as an example of Washington’s lack of preparation.)
On the positive side, it appears that Netanyahu, and Iranian intransigence, finally have helped convince Obama that a nuclear Iran, not Jewish settlements in the West Bank, represents the greatest danger to Mideast stability.
But after witnessing the spectacle of the United Nations General Assembly in action this past week, from the ramblings of Libya’s Kaddafi to the haughty lies of Iran’s Ahmadinejad — and sadness in seeing Netanyahu feel the need to read from the podium Jewish names of Nazi victims to prove the historical reality of the Holocaust — one concludes, yet again, that this once-noble institution is more than a mockery; it is a threat to a peace when it comes to Israel.
All the more reason why the U.S. can and should play a critical role in stabilizing the Mideast and protecting the region’s only democracy. The Obama administration needs to jettison its grand plan for a swift and dramatic resolution to the Mideast impasse and go back to basics; the clock is ticking and the stakes are dangerously high.