Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obama Administration, meet Middle East Reality; Middle East Reality, meet Obama administration

By Barry Rubin

Hints are being dropped in the media and by U.S. officials visiting Israel that President Barack Obama's Middle East policy has altered somewhat. Now the spin is that Israel isn't just being asked to make a unilateral concession to stop construction on settlements (about 4000 to 5000 apartment units a year) but that such a concession would coincide with some Arab confidence-building measures.

In principle, this is a good thing. But let's begin by recognizing that it is a shift. Administrations like to deny they ever make a mistake or that they ever alter course. Journalists, academics, and analysts have the job of pointing out: they were wrong, now they see that--in part at least--and are making a change.

At the same time, from a U.S. policy standpoint, the slightly revised strategy is just as foolish as the original. Let's review:

Act One, Scene One: Without prior consultation with Israel, the U.S. government demands in an insulting and public manner that it make a big concession. It throws out old commitments, insists that Israel will get nothing in exchange, and makes no demand on the other side that it needs to do anything.

Underlying U.S Strategy: Israel makes a big concession and then the United States goes to the Arabs, asks them to do something. Meanwhile, these Arab countries will supposedly be so pleased by American success on the construction freeze that they will give the United States more help in constraining Iran and in other policy goals.

This concept has nothing to do with the Middle East as it actually exists.

At least, thank goodness, the United States has not actually done anything to pressure Israel: no aid cutbacks, no denunciations at the UN, and no sanctions on weapons' deliveries. This point is widely misunderstood. So far the U.S. "offensive" has all been words.

Moreover, the problem is not that Obama hates Israel or wants to destroy it. His administration has simply put forth a very silly, unworkable strategy based on a profound misunderstanding of Israel, Arab regimes, the Palestinian movement, Iran, and the proper American role in the region.

Act One, Scene Two, the new development: Recognizing at least in part that it has dug a big hole for itself and jumped into it, the administration now modifies the policy. Presumably this is supposed to make Israel more attracted to the idea of making a big concession. More emphasis is put on getting Arab states to make some gesture toward Israel at the same time. Instead of unilateral concession it would be mutual, simultaneous concession.

Now what the administration should be doing instead is to push for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stop incitement to murder Israelis in its media, schools and mosques and stop telling its people that the goal is to wipe Israel off the map. That would really impress Israelis. And since the United States has just given the PA another $200 million it might have some real leverage there.

But no, instead the administration is going to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and perhaps others saying: Do something.

And of course they won't do anything. So the policy still fails but now it fails on two fronts instead of one.

Special mention here should be devoted to the meaning of the word "pressure." Some administration officials in background interviews and also reporters are now saying that the administration is putting "pressure" on Arab states to do something. This is not true. It is all letter-writing and "please" and "wouldn't it be nice if you...."

That's not pressure, that's begging.

Of course, something similar could be said about what the administration is doing to Israel, but at least there has been public criticism and very vague hints of punishment. Let's call this "verbal pressure" at most. One might say, however: That's not pressure, that's nagging.

Now, a minor course adjustment is being made. But the basic strategy is still wrong. Either more adjustments must be made or bigger failures will follow.

What is most important, however, is that the administration's basic concept of how the Middle East works--what its issues are; what it means if Iran gets nuclear weapons; how Syria's regime will inevitably oppose U.S. interests and stay allied with Tehran; how a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is decades off; the need to bring down the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip; the necessity of backing moderate forces in Lebanon in a serious manner; and similar such things--come into line with reality.

In other words, we are now in Act 1, Scene 2, but what we really need is for the U.S. government to move into Act 2.

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) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Click here: To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

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