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Why President Obama’s Concept of the Middle East Will Fail

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Sun, March 17, 2013 | RubinReports | By Barry Rubin

Palestinian activists hold up a shoe during a protest Monday against the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Showing the sole of your shoe has long been an insult in Arab culture and to hit someone with that shoe is seen as even worse. (Photo: Musa al Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

 

To put it plainly, the press briefing supposed to indicate how President Barack Obama thinks about Israel on the eve of his trip here, is a combination of fantasy and insult. It is likely that the Obama Administration made such statements for show, to persuade the Arabic-speaking world that the United States is striving for peace, is not acting like a puppet (or should one say, ally?) of Israel and using its influence to change Israeli policy even as it does nothing of the sort.

As proof that Obama isn’t going to do anything, he reportedly told Arab-American leaders before his trip that he wouldn’t make some peace initiative because the government in Israel is not ready to make concessions and so there is no point in bringing pressure to bear at this time. I see that as a mixed statement. He isn’t going to pressure Israel because he knows that to be a waste of time. That’s good.

Yet the premises on which this argument — as repeated in the public briefing of the media — is based can also be described as believing that what the Arab public really wants is progress toward peace with Israel and that the United States sees the ball as being in Israel’s — not the Arabs — court.

The other premise is a strange hint that Washington has suddenly realized what Israel has understood since the beginning — that the “Arab Spring” isn’t going well. Now it feels the need to explain to Israeli leaders what they have long known, and give bad advice on what to do about it.

To show how mainstream Israelis who follow these issues closely see these themes, let’s quote how the Ynet reporter who covered the briefing — the respected and nonpartisan Yitzhak Benhorin — summarized what Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said. Here’s his lead:

“U.S. President Barack Obama will not be bringing a peace plan to Israel, but he will try to convince Prime Minister Benjamin and the Israeli public that after the Arab Spring, Israel cannot depend on autocrats holding everything together in the region.”

Here’s a president arriving at a moment when Israelis think the region is falling apart, with old autocrats being replaced by new ones and a more hostile environment, and the message is: You shouldn’t be complacent so stop thinking that everything is great?

Where does this come from? It arises from the American conception that the “Arab Spring” is a great thing, that old autocrats are falling and will be replaced by more democratic and moderate regimes. That is American; not Israeli thinking.

If that theme is based on fantasy, the second theme is insulting. Here is the second paragraph of Benhorin’s analysis:

“The U.S. believes that Israel must show it is serious about its peace efforts. It must convince the general Arab public, if nothing more than to maintain Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt.”

These are Benhorin’s words, not Rhodes’ exact formulations. But I think Benhorin reads the message properly.

Let’s begin by discussing the idea that Israel must persuade the Arab public:

  1. The question should be posed as this: When will the Arab public, or Arab governments, show Israel they are serious about peace? In 2009 when Obama sought such assurances and demonstrations he was turned down flat. We know it and he should know it.
  2. How long a list do you want of the times Israel has shown the Arab public that it wants peace seriously?
  3. Do you think the Arab public cares or is going to be persuaded by any such behavior?
  4. Hundreds of Israelis died in the 1993-2000 period in the effort to show the Arab public Israel was serious about peace.

The idea that Israel needs to persuade its neighbors to accept its existence is a line we have heard almost daily since the 1980s or even 1970s. Yet curiously the Arab street pays no attention to the scores of such Israeli gestures and the West soon forgets each one. And indeed Obama has forgotten those that took place during his first term, for example the nine-month-long settlement construction freeze, just as before that were forgotten the Oslo agreement, Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the 2000 Camp David offer (including the offer to redivide Jerusalem!) and many more. [See Footnote, below]

Guess what? If today Israel were to make a huge new concession, six months from now that would be forgotten in the West, which would also forget that there was no considerable Arab response. Israelis know this and so saying this kind of thing about Israel proving its decent intentions can only fall with a cynical thud. Such statements remind Israelis why they are NOT rushing to make new concessions or take new risks.

Note, too, that Western and European promises to give Israel a big reward if Israel takes a big risk or makes a big concession and the Arab side doesn’t respond have also been repeatedly broken.

What Obama is in effect saying is “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down that [security, counterterrorist] wall.” When he should be saying to the other side: “Mr. Abbas, Mursi, et. al., tear down that wall of hatred against Israel!”

Of course, he won’t do so because that would make the Arab leaders and publics mad, not because they want Israel to move faster on peace or seek a better deal but because they don’t want peace at all. And the Islamists coming into power have no intention of tearing down the wall. In fact, they are building it higher than ever. And there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — Israel can do to change the course of events in that respect.

Moreover, in a context where the same point is not made loudly, clearly, and publicly to the Palestinian Authority, the idea that the burden is on Israel to prove its peace credentials is a veiled way of Obama saying — and signaling to his supporters — that Israel is responsible for the failure to achieve peace.

So on his visit Obama is not about to try to impose peace or even to press the issue. But why? The Obama Administration isn’t being honest about this. The reason is that the White House knows that such an effort will go nowhere. And it also not because of Netanyahu. After all, how well did six predecessors do in solving this problem? Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tsipi Livni. Even if one can claim they all tried harder than Netanyahu why did they all fail?

While the ideas on the “peace process” show the problem with U.S. thinking on that issue, the idea on the direction being taken by the region shows the wider miasma of fantasy that surrounds U.S. policy.

This idea that Israel cannot depend on autocracies to maintain the status quo parallels Obama’s view for U.S. policy: that to protect the region’s stability, the United States must show its desire for good relations and the fulfillment of Arab and Muslim dreams by helping force out pro-American authoritarian regimes and to substitute for them (anti-American) Islamist authoritarian regimes.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is not 1980. Does Israel not understand that the region is already overwhelmingly ruled by autocracies hostile to itself? Here is the list: Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, in particular. And one can add Tunisia and Turkey where elections do mean something.

What does Obama intend to convey by this idea? It seems as if he is saying: You better act now while the relatively friendly dictator Bashar al-Assad is running Syria before the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists take power! But that is absurd. How about: You better act now before we pass the window of opportunity of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime being eager for comprehensive peace with Israel? You better act fast before Hamas (which rules the Gaza Strip) and Hizballah (which rules Lebanon) change to a more hostile attitude?

What better time to make risky concessions than when the security situation is deteriorating and the new rulers of your neighbors are baying for your blood?

At any rate, the old autocrats are already gone for all practical purposes. The U.S. idea is an outdated one: Don’t depend on being nice to Mubarak because one day he could be overthrown and there will come a pharaoh who knows not Joseph. Thanks, but that’s already happened and you helped bring about that problem.

Thus, Israel must prove that it is a nice guy to…the Muslim Brotherhood? The nonsense involved is clear when the concept is stated plainly.

In Jewish history this concept translates, for example, into saying that the Jews shouldn’t put all their eggs in the basket of the Weimar Republic because it had just been overthrown by the Nazis, so the Jews had to prove to them that they wanted good relations. (I apologize for the over-used Nazi reference but it is appropriate to explain the situation.)

The problem is that the United States is under the illusion that even the United States can make friends with Islamist regimes. How all-the-more ridiculous is it to claim that Israel can do so by concessions or gestures? How can anyone with a straight face suggest that if Israel shows progress on negotiations with the Palestinians that regimes which have sworn to wipe it off the map will change their minds?

Rhodes added that in particular progress on the peace process required that Israel show Egypt it should keep the peace treaty by making concessions to the Palestinians. Perhaps Egypt should keep the treaty because it is an international agreement it is required to keep. Or that it is in Egypt’s interests because Israel and the United States would make Cairo sorry if it abandoned the treaty completely. Notice that only concessions — not toughness, deterrence, or credibility — are a tool to keep treaties.

In these circumstances, a phrase often comes to my mind: Just because you are stupid, why should I kill myself?

Yes, it is intemperate of me to call these people stupid but they leave me no choice. Who does the Egyptian government support among the Palestinians? Hamas, despite their recent bickering. So how would progress on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority soften Egypt’s attitude? Is President Mursi going to say: Wow, that treaty with Israel is worthwhile because there is hope of a deal with the Palestinians that will ensure a non-Islamist government in Palestine and help to guarantee the existence of a Zionist state in the region? Yay!

No. He would say that such progress would indicate a betrayal by the PA and make it harder for the Islamist cause to flourish. Hence, any such deal must be stopped. Mr. Rhodes, let me explain. It was Mubarak who perhaps benefited from an advancing peace process; Mursi hates the idea.

Rhodes continued:

“I think there’s an opportunity, frankly, for there to be a deeper source of support for peace broadly across the region if there can be progress.”

I will give Rhodes the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that he does not believe one word of that sentence.

Again, Obama’s trip is not about this issue. Yet by keeping the mythology alive about the state of the conflict the Obama Administration does another disservice to Israeli interests and American understanding of the region.

Oh, and let’s not forget something else.

Rhodes didn’t say that the PA, whose leaders Obama will also meet, must show Israel that it’s serious about peace. Supposedly, making peace is a one-way street in which the burden is always on Israel. Yet Israel’s behavior is not due to stubbornness, paranoia, or ideology.

It is based on experience.

Footnotes: Of course I am aware that there have been circumstances in which specific Arab factors were responsive to Israeli concessions. To act Arab leaders — autocrats or otherwise — must believe they can get away with defying Islamists, who will declare anyone wanting to make peace with Israel as enemies of Allah. That was most obviously true of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Mursi’s ideological compatriots killed Sadat. That graphically sums up who is on which side and why Rhodes’, and hence the Obama Administration’s, formulations are absurd.

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 book, “Israel: An Introduction“, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include “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). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.



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