Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE CONFRONTATION CON-GAME

THE CONFRONTATION CON-GAME
By Barry Rubin

There are many people eager to see President Barack Obama and his administration bash Israel, or predict that’s already happened. But the administration has yet to make significant direct anti-Israel actions or statements.

Despite rumors and speculation at this point there’s still no solid evidence. While, obviously, things could change at any time I expect this widely predicted conflict isn’t going to take place.

Let me emphasize the word “direct” from the first paragraph. Inasmuch as the U.S. government gives up too much to Iran, Syria, and radical Islamists, it hurts Israel’s interests, as well as those of most Arab governments and the United States itself.

Still, what’s happened so far is being taken out of context by those who want a U.S.-Israel confrontation because they hate either Israel or Obama.

Contrast this alleged confrontation with the real but largely ignored conflict in U.S.-Europe relations. Obama’s trip to Europe was a failure. To everything he asked—a parallel strategy for dealing with economic troubles, getting Turkey into the European Union, or more help in Afghanistan—the Europeans said “no.” Then everyone proclaimed the visit a great success.

With Israel, it’s the opposite. No confrontation happens but it’s presented that way. Let’s look at some examples:

--Endorsing a two-state solution isn’t an attack on Israel’s government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t oppose a two-state solution—and hasn’t for 12 years--but emphasizes this would only happen if and when a Palestinian leadership proves its credibility and makes a decent offer. If the Obama administration says it’s going to succeed, so did its last three predecessors.

This issue raises the most important single guideline for Israeli policy, which shouldn’t merely consist of saying, “We want peace and a two-state solution” ten times a day. It should raise its own demands that the Palestinian Authority keeps its commitments and that any negotiated solution include Palestinian as well as Israeli concessions.

Giving the Palestinians a state is conditional on that happening, not a blank check given whatever they do. There’s nothing wrong with Israel demanding reciprocity. A strategy of offering everything and demanding nothing neither made Israel popular nor brought about a negotiated solution.

--U.S. engagement with Iran: While this is risky and likely give Iran’s regime time to develop nuclear weapons, administration statements say engagement’s purpose is to stop that. I’m not sure a Bush administration would be doing much more. The key point will be whether the Obama administration ever concludes Iran’s regime doesn’t intend to change its behavior.

At any rate, the administration has not made any material concessions to the Tehran regime. Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey, who managed financial sanctions against Iran during the Bush administration, is still doing so for the current government.

Vice-President Joe Biden’s and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ statements opposing an Israeli attack on Iran, like the Bush administration stance, argued Israel should give diplomacy more time to work. Israel agrees. These positions apply to the present and don’t close off a U.S. shift when Iran’s program is closer to success.

--Obama’s endorsement of the Saudi plan as a positive element in the peace process is nothing new either.

--The administration will boycott the Durban-2 hate-fest.

--While talking about engagement with Syria, the administration hasn’t made concessions and the Syrian regime is visibly upset. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Jeffrey Feltman, her choice for assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, are highly skeptical about Syria and Hizballah.

--Only one high-level presidential foreign policy appointment, White House advisor Samantha Power, is clearly anti-Israel.

--The administration appropriated lots of money for Gaza reconstruction but conditions on not giving it to Hamas seem serious and there’s no rush to send funds.

An extremely important factor here is that in fact the PA and Hamas, not Israel, are the barriers to peace. An Obama presidency would be far more dangerous if there was a PA determined to say anything to get a state, get U.S. pressure Israel to massive concessions, and then break its word. The same applies to a Hamas happy to pretend to abandon terrorism and genocidal rhetoric.

But that’s not the case. The PA will criticize Israel but offer nothing. It won’t provide a moderate alternative program to Hamas, stop incitement, accept resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state rather than Israel, make any territorial concessions, or agree that a two-state solution permanently ends the conflict. And it won’t accept Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestine which—according to the PA’s own constitution—is an Arab and Muslim state.

It’s predictable that the PA won’t give those who want to ram through a two-state solution, based only on Israeli concessions, the bare minimum they need to make such a strategy credible. The same point applies to Syria and the Golan Heights.

Given that situation, there won’t be a serious broad collision between the United States and Israel over the peace process, whatever smaller storms erupt from time to time as they have done with previous administrations.

Why are direct U.S.-Israel relations relatively secure? Aside from the other side’s intransigence, which will inhibit U.S. policy from giving them more, is the experience of the historically anti-Israel Obama himself.

He learned in the campaign that he could insult large sections of the American people and abandon the most basic assumptions of American patriotism and get away with it. In contrast, he learned that it is politically costly to attack Israel.

This isn’t to say there aren’t administration policies damaging Israel’s security, especially the strategy of futile engagement giving Iran’s regime time to get nuclear weapons. The administration’s approach also emboldens radical, terrorist, Islamist forces and demoralizes relatively moderate Arab regimes.

The biggest loser from Obama’s policy, however, is not Israel but U.S. national interests. Will there come a point when the administration realizes this and changes course?

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), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org/

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