Obama: I Know Better Than Israelis and Palestinians

Posted in United States , Israel / Palestine | 31-Mar-09 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

Israel's Prime Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony of his new government in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 31, 2009.

President Obama got it wrong in answering a question about Israel-Palestinian issues in his press conference, March 25. But his mistakes are different from those everyone noticed.
The reporter asked:
"Mr. President, you came into office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister who's not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?"
The reporter's wording betrays typical aspects of many mainstream media messages:

  • Any fault must be Israel's and Israel is the sole focus of why there's a problem. At least he formulated terms carefully. Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be "not fully signed up to a two-state solution," instead of being labeled as opposed; Avigdor Lieberman is merely "accused" of insulting Arabs rather than being an evil racist.
  • Palestinians only exist as victims so their politics aren't worth studying or analyzing. After all, the PA's prime minister just resigned, there's a Hamas-Fatahn civil war, the PA announced elections in a year, and the current leader is ailing. As if that isn't enough, the Palestinian leaders are really "not fully signed up to a two-state solution" and constantly insulting Jews.

What should Obama have said? If he were really professional something like this:
"It isn't for me to characterize Israel's new government. We'll have to wait to see. But whatever it is we will keep trying and I'm sure we can count on Israel's cooperation....."
Here's what he said:
"It's not easier than it was, but I think it's just as necessary. We don't yet know what the Israeli government is going to look like and we don't yet know what the future shape of Palestinian leadership is going to be comprised of. What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable; that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security."
The first half-dozen words, could be taken as hostile to Israel's leaders. He shouldn't have said it but not that big a deal. He even balanced by saying the Palestinian leadership's future is also unclear.
The problem is not in the first but the third sentence: "What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable...." Whenever someone says that, short of outright anarchy, they're naïve. All status quos are unsustainable in a sense since time brings change. On the other hand, this status quo can continue for years. In fact, a serious study of underlying forces and factors indicates this is likely, probably inevitable.
Obama's statement, like thousands in recent decades, basically says: things are so horrible change is vital no matter what the risk or cost. Things can't possibly get worse. He adds, "We're going to be serious from day one in trying to move the parties in a direction that acknowledges that reality."
To some extent, this is just rhetoric, a promise to work real hard. In practice, the policy is closer to saying: sure we'll pretend to be serious but this looks tough and we have more urgent priorities on domestic and even foreign policy.
Yet to a considerable extent Obama-though not Secretary of State Hillary Clinson--thinks he understands true reality and the parties don't. In fact they know far better than him. Back in the 1990s U.S. and European leaders would say: The status quo is unsustainable and Palestinians are desperate for a state so we have to move real fast? Today some of the same people-including Bill Clinton--say their big mistake was trying to force a resolution to the conflict when Yasir Arafat really didn't want one.
Today, the PA believes the status quo is sustainable (at least if they can make a deal to reunite with Hamas) because they're unwilling to make the compromises and concessions required for peace (full recognition of Israel, end of conflict, resettling Palestinian refugees in Palestine, security guarantees, stopping incitement, and so on).
Israel-no matter who leads it-believes the status quo is sustainable (at least if it can stop rocket firing from the Gaza Strip) because it won't make any more concessions to a side that can't and won't deliver anything serious toward full and lasting peace.
So, no, Obama will not persuade anybody that very bad change is better than a bad status quo. And because he doesn't comprehend that all his efforts are doomed to failure.
There's one other feature to his answer that went unnoticed. He mentioned a recent St. Patrick's Day meeting with "previously sworn enemies celebrating here in this very room," people who, "even a decade ago, people would have said could never achieve peace."
Well, he did have the St. Patrick's day event but, leaving aside the huge differences between the two conflict, his answer shows how detached he is from the continuity of U.S. policy and Middle East history, things he had no role in and knows nothing about.
One might expect an American president to recall his predecessors' brokering of Egypt-Israel, Israel-PLO, and Israel-Jordan agreements. They didn't solve everything but made progress for which America can claim credit. By citing them Obama might have also shown some understanding of the reasons they fell short.
But that, too, is part of the problem. He's coming into office thinking that a solution is easy and nothing can go wrong. In dealing with the Middle East, that's the direct path to, at best, miserable failure and, at worst, outright catastrophe.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org