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The Obama Administration is slowly adjusting its policy on Arab-Israeli issues but doing so in a way that ensures it still won’t work. They understand they were doing it wrong, they still don’t understand what they were doing wrong.
Briefly, in phase one the administration demanded Israel unilaterally stop construction on settlements in the West Bank, activity which not only all previous U.S. presidents in practice accepted but so did the Palestinians. By accepted, I don’t mean the Palestinians didn’t complain about it but that fact never stopped the negotiations’ process for 15 years. Obama has now achieved a full stop to the bilateral talks.
Once the United States raised the bar, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states could do no less. Now negotiations are frozen while construction isn’t.
In phase 2, U.S. policy did more unintentional damage, even though the shift was in the right direction. It asked Arab states and the Palestinians to give some confidence-building measure to Israel. They said “no,” and probably they would have done so under any conditions. That was predictable but it leads to an interesting and extremely important point.
Everyone speaks of how popular President Barack Obama is, and when it comes to the Middle East this is exaggerated. But the key word here isn’t “popular” but “credible.”
“I like you but I’m not going to bet on you,” is the way it could be expressed. If you are perceived as weak, it doesn’t matter if they think you’re a nice guy. In Middle East politics, nice guys really do finish last.
Once the whole Arab world plus Iran plus Israel defies you and you just smile and nod and don’t do anything about it, you’re credibility is even lower. Perhaps it will stay that way for four or eight years.
Now we are in Phase 3, characterized by bubbly optimism from Washington—everything’s going well, everyone’s cooperating—but still quite out of tune with reality. I have noted that false optimism–pretending progress is being made when it isn’t–can in part be a good strategy. But the administration is going about it in a way that ensures failure.
How? In the “Godfather,” Don Vito Corleone made people an offer they couldn’t refuse. If they do, they know he will back up his proposals with power. Obama makes people offers they’ll never accept. Not only do they know they’ll get away with it but they can expect he will offer them even more afterward.
Don Corleone said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Obama says, in effect, treat your friends badly and your enemies well. As a result, friends are going to think about moving into a less close relationship.
In addition, you don’t set preconditions on Arab-Israeli negotiations if you ever want them to get started. Since both sides aren’t eager to negotiate they will seize on the preconditions as excuses or use them to demand more. Successful negotiations–the first Camp David meeting, the 1991 Madrid conference–were held without any serious preconditions.
And so it sends the wrong signal when State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said August 27 that the United States would be flexible on pre-negotiation conditions for the parties because it is signalling that conditions can exist.
Middle East translation: I can use the fact that there are pre-conditions to say “no” and I can use the fact that you are flexible to ask for more.
President Obama, if you want negotiations, get rid of preconditions and bring the parties together. (It wouldn’t work any way but you’re the one who wants talks so make them happen.)
Crowley also said:
“We put forward our ideas, publicly and privately, about what it will take for negotiations to be restarted, but ultimately it’ll be up to the parties themselves, with our help, to determine whether that threshold has been met.”
Ah, so the administration is leaving it in Palestinian hands to decide if they’ve gotten enough to talk? That’s an open invitation to get all sorts of demands from them. The problem that Obama hasn’t understood yet is that when you basically renounce force and threats, apologize, and say that the United States is just another partner in the world, you’ve given away the power you need to get things done.
Finally, the administration has no idea that even if Israel were to give a partial freeze, the Palestinians would demand a full one. If Israel gave a full one, the Palestinians would make up stories about construction or add in a demand for no remodeling or renovations on existing apartments.
The situation regarding the Obama administration in the Middle East today is something like putting a child who is still learning the rules up against the world’s greatest poker players. For the first six months of a new president that is an understandable problem but if it continues longer the feeble condition of this administration’s foreign policy starts to seem permanent.
Reportedly, the administration wants a breakthrough in September. Why? It will look good during the UN General Assembly session and, more important, it will be in place when Obama asks for tougher sanctions against Iran.
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). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.