Friday, March 22, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 3/22/2013: Obama's Trip To Israel -- He Still Doesn't Get It

By David Gerstman

  1) The President talks to the Israeli people

Barry Rubin summarizes President Obama's message to the young people of Israel whom he addressed at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem yesterday.
First: Obama’s big theme is that — and I’m not being satirical here — peace is good. He tried to make the students understand that peace is better than continued conflict and has many advantages. Of course the students think peace is good — they are the ones who have to serve in the military and risk their lives, not to mention know that they and their loved ones are the targets of terrorism and war. 
Can Obama possibly not comprehend this? I believe he doesn’t, that he seriously thought he was bringing new ideas to his audience that they had never thought about before nor heard about for years.
Second: he did not deal with a single one of “the day after” issues. Assume that there is a peace agreement between Israel and the PA. Well, how do we know Hamas won’t take over the PA, or that more radical forces won’t come to power that will not recognize the deal?
Third: Obama has not made one serious mention of the changed regional situation except to say that the United States wants democracy in the Arabic-speaking world and will try to work for that and for Egypt’s continued adherence to its peace treaty with Israel.
Yet he is still backing Islamists seeking or holding power.
Professor Rubin credits President Obama for referring to Israel as a Jewish state when he had his joint press conference with President Abbas. But he also notes that Abbas, even after being urged to negotiate by the President, said that he would not negotiate without a new settlement freeze. ("Hence, it is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity so that we can speak of issues.")

(It wasn't only the President's statements that showed that he didn't necessarily understand the implications of his actions.)

Lori Lowenthal Marcus contrasts the different tones between (some of the) President's remarks to the Israeli students and his remarks with President Abbas.
In other words, Obama believes virtually every one of the points of the false narrative that have been spun since Arafat was brought back from Tunisia: the Arab Palestinians are the sole native people, Israeli “settlers” commit violence and that violence goes unpunished, Arab Palestinian farmers are prevented from farming “their” land, the movements of Arab Paelstinians are restricted for no reason other than Israeli arrogance and greed, Arab Palestinians have been unfairly expelled from their land and they live under a state of Occupation in their own land, and, ultimately and completely, the land belongs, always belonged and must belong to the Arab Palestinians. 
When in Ramallah, the U.S. president did not mention any responsibilities for peace owed by his listeners. Instead, he talked about the recent release of U.S. funds “to help the Palestinian Authority bolster its finances.” The only discussion of terrorism when speaking in Ramallah was directed at Hamas. As recently as last month, however, a PA terror group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Israel from Gaza. 
Just as the U.S. president told the Israelis that the Arabs deserve their own state and that it is the responsibility of Israelis to give it to them, he made the same points to the Arab Palestinian audience gathered in Ramallah.
While most of President Obama's speech to the Israeli students was positive, he did make a point of encouraging his audience to pressure their political leaders.

Elder of Ziyon notes the subtle but noticeable difference in the way the President describe Hezbollah and Hamas.
The US still officially considers Hamas a terror group. Yet, in this speech, Hamas is considered capable of renouncing violence and recognizing Israel, while Hezbollah is considered irredeemable. 
This is even more jarring because on the very same day that Obama made this distinction, the "political arm" of Hamas - not the Al Qassam Brigades, but the "pragmatic" Khaled Meshal - issued a major policy document that re-affirms Hamas' commitment to terrorism and to never accept Israeli sovereignty over a single square inch of land. 
Obama is doing no one any favors by being conciliatory towards Hamas. On the contrary, he should have made it clear to Abbas that any unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas would put Fatah in the same terrorist category - because, if Obama was clear-sighted, he would know that Hamas' principles are far stronger than Fatah's quasi-acceptance of Israel is, and it is not possible for Hamas to ever change.
This failure to classify Hamas properly is especially egregious because Abbas had earlier said:
We are also serious in ending the division and achieve the Palestinian reconciliation, which constitutes an additional source of power for us to continue our march towards making peace, security and stability in the region.
Whether intentionally or not, the President didn't rebut Abbas, which is unfortunate because as Elder of Ziyon noted, if there's a merger, Fatah is a lot more likely to adopt Hamas's stands than the other way around.

Whatever flaws there were in the President's speech, he did say some very important words that has the Arab world seething.
JUXTAPOSITION: Israelis sing and cheer for America, Obama while Palestinians spit venom and riot
— Adam Kredo (@Kredo0) March 21, 2013

The New York Times was predictable in its editorial 'I speak to you as a friend.'
Mr. Obama invoked values and dreams shared by Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, including the idea that “people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” He also spoke bluntly about what’s at stake if the status quo persists, given that the Palestinian population on the West Bank and international frustration with Israel are both growing and the Arab world is in turmoil. 
Will Mr. Obama also take the risks that will be needed to be a credible mediator and nudge the parties forward? His new secretary of state, John Kerry, is eager to begin and will be in Israel this weekend, but will he have the space to conduct real diplomacy? And is there a sense of urgency on anyone’s part? In recent years, Israel has built so many settlements that the options for finding a two-state solution are dwindling. 
Mr. Obama spent four years tweaking his relationship with Israel. On Thursday, he said “peace is possible.” The question is: How much will he, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority invest to make it happen?
After the President urged direct negotiations, Abbas made his comment about insisting on a settlement freeze before negotiating with Israel. That would be a slap in the face to the President, but the New York Times didn't seem to notice that. There are no risks to President Obama except perhaps to his prestige. But to conclude an agreement that would later be abrogated would be a much more significant risk to Israel.

2) Meeting in the middle?

In disputing Jeffrey Goldberg's analysis of President Obama's trip to Israel, Richard Baehr quotes Herb Keinon:
Herb Keinon, writing in The Jerusalem Post, has a different narrative on what has happened in the relationship between the two leaders over the last two years. Keinon argues that the Obama approach to both Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was flawed from the start, and that over time, Obama has moved closer to the Netanyahu position on both issues. The Obama view had been that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to be resolved first, and that would enable the Americans to rally support for action against Iran in the Arab world. Netanyahu argued that the linkage really worked the other way: First, eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran, and then Iran's allies in the Gaza Strip (Hamas) and Lebanon (Hezbollah) would be more constrained, and there might be fewer obstacles to block Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. 
The second disagreement concerned the ability of Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement. Obama and his White House advisers seemed to think that the two sides were very close to a deal, and that what was needed was American pressure on Israel (the stronger party of the two) to make a few more concessions to the Palestinians, to move the process forward. This was the Obama redistributionist thinking on the foreign stage. As part of the campaign of outreach to the Islamic World that the administration was developing, distancing the U.S. from Israel was seen as a supporting message to change Arab and Muslim views toward the United States, The president believed that U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim nations had been damaged by the Iraq War and the Bush administration's close alliance with Israel.
Keinon argues that the Obama administration has moved closer to the Israeli position on both issues. There are no longer illusions about the chances for a quick resolution of the conflict, and greater realization that the Palestinians have shown little or no interest in moving forward on a bilateral basis with Israel. Netanyahu has also focused the president on Iran and the shrinking time frame in which to act, despite the president's effort to avoid any Israeli action in 2012 that might have complicated his re-election effort.
If Keinon (and Baehr) are correct and that, despite his urging of negotiations, President Obama has moved closer to Netanyahu's views of the Palestinians, two articles about Passive Aggressive President Abbas explain why President Obama has changed. At the beginning of President Obama's term in office, Jackson Diehl wrote Abbas's waiting game:
Yet on Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared for the White House meeting in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Abbas insisted that his only role was to wait. He will wait for Hamas to capitulate to his demand that any Palestinian unity government recognize Israel and swear off violence. And he will wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction and publicly accept the two-state formula. 
Until Israel meets his demands, the Palestinian president says, he will refuse to begin negotiations. He won't even agree to help Obama's envoy, George J. Mitchell, persuade Arab states to take small confidence-building measures. "We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution," he insisted in an interview. "Until then we can't talk to anyone."
What's interesting about Abbas's hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama's first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.
But by September, 2011, Mark Landler of the New York Times reported Obama and Abbas: From Speed Dial to Not Talking:
Mr. Obama named a high-profile special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell Jr. He also spoke empathetically about the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza after an Israeli military campaign against Hamas there. And the president’s demand of Israel that it freeze settlement construction cheered the Palestinians, who believed that would remove a stubborn hurdle to a peace deal. 
“We hoped a lot that in his administration, there would be real progress,” said Nabil Shaath, who leads the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority. “But later on, disappointment set in,” Mr. Shaath said in a telephone interview from Ramallah on the West Bank. “He really could not deliver what he promised in terms of a cessation of settlement activity.” 
When Mr. Netanyahu refused to extend a moratorium on construction, Mr. Abbas felt let down. And he blamed Mr. Obama for leading him on. In an interview with Newsweek in April, Mr. Abbas said: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said O.K., I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”
While the perspective of the article seems to be Abbas's (which is surprising because Landler often seems to be a cheerleader for President Obama), it shows that Abbas's stubbornness won him no friends in the White House. If Abbas was waiting for more pressure from President Obama for Israeli concessions that's hardly Obama's fault or Netanyahu's. Maybe Abbas overplayed his hand.

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