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Frolicking in the Quicksand: How the Obama Administration Keeps Making Huge Mistakes in the MIddle East

Written by Barry Rubin

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Of course, the Obama Administration has its defenders. They either ignore criticism of the Administration's foreign policy or claim it is all partisan and ideological. And yet the truth is that if you watch the government's policy on a daily basis it is truly remarkable how many dumb, avoidable mistakes are made.

I won't supply a long list here but instead will talk about the latest one. Let's take it step by step to see what a mess is being created.

Background: Israel announced in 1993, at the time of the Oslo agreement with the PLO, that it did not view construction on existing settlements as a violation. The Palestinians, during the ensuing 16 years, never made this a big issue. The U.S. government, while it can say it technically opposed this, was pretty quiet about it, never did anything.

obama_middle_eastThen President Barack Obama came to office and made the construction issue the centerpiece of his Middle East policy, sometimes it has appeared to be the keystone of his whole foreign policy. It may seem like an exaggeration but often it seems as if the administration believes that if Israel stopped building 3000 apartments all the region's problems would go away.

So far, the Administration has wasted almost ten months in this pursuit. First, it shouted at Israel as if it were some servant to do it fast or else. Then when Israel didn't, the Administration realized that perhaps Israel should get something in exchange for the concession. So it went to Arab states and asked-presuming, wrongly, that they are desperate for a peace agreement-for some compromise but got nothing.

Now it had destroyed its own policy since the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to come to negotiations until there was a complete freeze. How could it be less hardline than the president?

But there was a solution, sort of. Israel agreed to stop all construction once the apartments currently being built are finished. And naturally, Israel said, this didn't apply to east Jerusalem.

The United States accepted the deal, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton exulting about what a huge concession Israel was making. Aside from everything else, the U.S. government knew how big a risk Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was taking with his coalition.

Ok. Sorry to give you all this background but it is necessary to understand how the Administration loves to jump in the quicksand.

So what happened? The PA couldn't stand to see Israel being praised and doesn't want to negotiate peace any way. So it threw a temper tantrum: riots in Jerusalem, threats by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to resign, refusal to go to negotiations with Israel, and a clamor for a unilateral declaration of independence.

The hubbub about a unilateral declaration of independence was almost universally described in the media as arising from Palestinian frustration. Not at all. It is based on their own position: Why make a compromise peace with Israel when you can just claim everything you want, ensuring the door be kept open for a future struggle to wipe Israel off the map entirely?

What did the Administration do? It backed down on everything except the independence bid! Having made a deal with Israel, having gotten Netanyahu to take an enormous risk, it then pulled the rug out from under him. Now it said: Well, maybe it wasn't such a great deal after all.

Those who always advocate Israeli concessions as the solution should take note. Once again, we've seen that a concession doesn't lead to a concession by the other side or progress. It just produces a demand for more concessions without giving any real credit to the last one.

This kind of thing is expected from the PA but one can only say: Et tu Obama? (William Shakespeare's line for Julius Caesar after his supposed friend, Brutus, stabbed him in the back.) Mind you, the Administration doesn't mean any harm-after all, it may end up the biggest loser-it just has no idea of what it's doing.

The latest act in the drama is that after an announcement that Israel would some day build apartments in the Gilo section of Jerusalem-which is quite within the U.S.-Israel deal and, by the way, is not in east Jerusalem-the Administration complained bitterly, showing not only that it wouldn't respect agreements others made with predecessors but it wouldn't even respect the agreements it made itself.

Obama said that the Gilo construction complicates administration efforts to relaunch peace talks, makes it harder to achieve peace and embitters the Palestinians.

Funny, he never said this about: PA incitement to terrorism; failure to punish terrorists; negotiations with Hamas despite its hardline positions, genocidal goals, antisemitic views, and terrorist acts; refusal to return to talks with Israel despite Obama's express request to do so; breaking its promise on not to be a sponsor of using the Goldstone report to punish Israel; and other such actions. Each of these individually is more dangerous than the Gilo construction.

Now here's another point you probably won't see anywhere except here:

Having sabotaged negotiations by escalating the construction-on-settlements issue, the Administration has now escalated even higher: no construction in Jerusalem is the minimum demand. Of course, Arab states and the PA will echo this, refusing all talks unless that happens. And since Israel won't stop building in Jerusalem and the Arab side won't-unlike the Administration-back down-Obama has just guaranteed a dead peace process for his entire four-year term in office. In fact, he's probably ensured no comprehensive negotiations will take place, much less succeed.

Talk about painting yourself into a corner, and the Administration keeps making that corner smaller!

Here's another problem: By blaming Israel repeatedly for every failure, the Administration is not only signalling the PA and Arab states that they can do anything and pay no cost, it is also unintentionally encouraging them to sabotage any progress. Why? Because the worse and slower things go the more they can blame Israel and expect the United States and Europe to do so also. The Administration is making its own failure far more likely.

One final point: The same loss of U.S. credibility and reliability that affects Israel also hits the relatively moderate Arab states in the Administration's dealings with them. The Obama Administration is doing the same thing to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and other Arab regimes. See here for details on that factor.

No doubt we will soon be hearing that if Israel stopped building apartments in Gilo there would be Arab-Israeli peace, no terrorism, Iran would give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and Obama would get the Nobel Peace Prize. Oops, that last event has already happened. How about giving him the Nobel Peace-Destroying Prize.

The Daled Amos blog has a terrific evaluation of how much the Obama Administration has accomplished (not) on Arab-Israeli issues. The story begins with a hysterically funny State Department press briefing where a spokesguy claims Obama has done more in nine months than the previous president did in eight years.

Then, the claim quickly--and embarrassingly--collapses when a reporter who knows something on the subject asks a few questions. The spokesman insists that the Obama Administration succeeded in getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a two-state solution. But, asks the reporter, didn't that happen under the Bush Administration? (Actually, it took place in 1996 under the Clinton Administration).

Within a few minutes, the spokesman backs down entirely. Even he cannot think of a credible achievement for the Obama Administration. It reminds one of the famous essay about the snakes of Ireland whose whole text reads: There aren't any. In this case, the progress--to use the euphemistic language of Washington government--has been all in a backward direction.  The exchange is also a great metaphor for the gap between what the Administration has done and what it gets away with claiming on lots of issues.

[PS: Within minutes of finishing the writing of this piece I started spotting media reactions claiming that Israel is "defying" the United States, that Gilo is a "new settlement" built on "Palestinian land," that it is on the West Bank, etc. I don't recall seeing headlines about the PA defying the United States on any of the points discussed above. As anyone who has been in Gilo knows, it's a neighborhood in Jerusalem with 40,000 people, mostly in pre-1967 Israel, the land beyond that border was purchased by Jews before 1948, and  the idea of building 900 more apartments there is in a years-long approval process and no construction whatsoever is imminent.]

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