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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, to be published by Yale University Press later this year. You can read more of Barry Rubin's posts at Rubin Reports, and Barry Rubin is now a blogger on Pajamas Media.
A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post. I own the article and all links should be to this address. This version also has important additions so I ask that you read it here and if you forward or link please do so to this version.
By Barry Rubin
Only twenty percent of Obama’s Middle East speech dealt with Israel-Palestinian issues and that only at the end. Clearly, this was not the main theme. Obama had to say something on this subject and never intended for that to make all the headlines.
I believe the speech was not intended to bash Israel at all.
The fact that the speech came off that way tells us a lot about Obama and his policy. Indeed, there are several items no doubt perceived by the White House as gestures that would make Israel happy:
--First, his tough line opposing the Palestinian Authority’s effort to get unilateral recognition of a state from the UN General Assembly:
“For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state.”
--Second, downplaying the linkage idea:
“For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region…. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.”
A “shadow” that “impedes,” but not the central issue or cause of all the region’s problems.
--Third, his acknowledging that the United States cannot make peace and isn’t going to try to impose a settlement or propose a detailed plan. He’s simply urging the two parties to act.
“What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”
Get it? This isn’t a blueprint for producing a deal within a year, or preparation for pressuring Israel. All the United States can do is…say stuff.
--Fourth, he takes a tougher line on the Fatah-Hamas agreement as raising, “Profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
--Fifth, he says a Palestinian state must be “non-militarized” which has been an Israeli demand.
Why then did he so upset Israel and its supporters? Look at this remarkable sentence:
“Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks.”
I believe this is the first time he’s ever acknowledged that the Palestinians refused to talk, though this has been obvious for two years. But by not mentioning that at his request Israel made an unprecedented freeze and then at his demand added Jerusalem to that freeze, Obama shows that he will not appreciate or reward Israeli concessions.
So while trying to be even-handed he’s signaling to Israel that it will gain nothing by doing what he asks.
Then there’s Obama’s patronizing attitude that he knows better what Israel needs than do Israelis or Israeli leaders. He says “permanent occupation” does not benefit Israel. Well, it’s not the best outcome but there are worse ones, something Obama and his colleagues (and the mass media) never understand.
It’s not enough to keep repeating the status quo is untenable. One must provide a convincing vision of a better status quo. And in that Obama, the Europeans and certainly the Palestinians fail totally.
They ignore the problems Israel would face in a real-world two-state solution under current conditions: cross-border raids, incitement, new demands, a possible Hamas takeover, or a Palestinian state reneging on commitments.
At the very moment Egyptians want to abrogate their peace treaty, Obama urges Israel to sign another one. Israel made a deal with Lebanon’s government, that country’s president was assassinated, and the deal broken. Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, and was attacked by Hizballah. Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip and Hamas attacked. Israel turned over land to the PA then faced terrorist attacks from it.
Yet Obama proposes doing the same thing again! He suggests Israel turns over the rest of the West Bank to the PA (a big and irreversible Israeli material concession) in exchange for security guarantees (an easily withdrawn Palestinian concession on paper). He has no interest in how this sounds in a context of Israeli experience. Still, it is only an idea, not a demand. Nothing is going to happen and the Obama Administration isn't going push for this plan.
But where Obama is doing real harm is not in some theoretical plan that won't be implemented but in his acceptance, in practice, of a Fatah-Hamas government. That the United States would accept the entry into government of an openly antisemitic, genocidal group that openly calls for Israel's destruction without even cutting off all U.S. aid immediately is a betrayal of Israel and all the concessions it has made as part of the "peace process" since 1993.
The whole idea was that the West would help a Palestinian regime that recognized Israel and rejected the use of terrorism. Whatever one can say about Fatah, there is no question that Hamas has failed to meet this test and will not change its approach.
Since President Obama won't even try to use his influence to keep Hamas out of government, he cannot be relied on for anything.
Now we come to the big controversy which, in light of all the above, is a relatively minor problem. Obama said:
"I 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.”
All this says is that Israel must agree to any proposed borders or they won't be drawn. Obama does not imply how big the changes might be and this doesn't rule out Israel incorporating settlement blocs, as the Obama administration promised to do in October 2009. Far from demanding that Israel return to the 1967 borders, that sentence really leaves the issue open.
The Associated Press report on the speech said:
"President Barack Obama on Thursday endorsed a key Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state. Obama's urging that a Palestinian state be based on the 1967 lines was a significant shift in the U.S. approach."
But that's flatly untrue! The Palestinian demand is precisely the 1967 borders with no changes. Obama endorsed changes. And said Israel must agree to the borders. And it is not a shift, much less a significant shift, in U.S. policy! It is pretty shocking that both sides in the debate can't even comprehend accurately a single sentence spoken by Obama.
Want proof? Here's, for example, the November 2009 State Department statement that pleased Israel:
"We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
So Obama said nothing new in his one sentence on borders.
I don’t believe that Obama “hates” Israel. I think he has zero comprehension of Israel and isn’t interested in learning more. In addition, he has zero warm feelings toward the country. Thus, he is callously indifferent to its problems, needs, and interests. Obama has given Israel ample reason to mistrust him, and that is why the "borders" sentence has become such a big deal.
But the big problem is his failure to recognize the threat of revolutionary Islamism to Israel and others; his deliberate blindness toward the radicalism that still dominates Palestinian politics, ignorance about what Turkey’s Islamist regime is doing, and weakness toward America’s enemies. These all injure Israel indirectly, as well as America’s Arab allies and also the Iranian and Turkish people.
So, yes, Obama’s policy is disastrous but not because he is attacking Israel directly or abandoning the traditional relationship. It’s a catastrophe because his policy hurts all of America’s allies, strengthens revolutionary Islamists, and throws away basic U.S. interests in the region.
Technorati Tag: Israel and Obama and Middle East.