Why President Obama's Concept of the Middle East Will Fail: Just Listen to It

To put it plainly, the press briefing intending to indicate how President Barack Obama thinks about Israel on the eve of his trip here was 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 is 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 Washington feels the need to explain to Israeli leaders what they have long known, and to 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 lede:

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 in thinking that everything is great."

Where does this come from? 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 thinking, 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:

-- 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.

-- How comprehensive a list do you want of the occasions Israel has shown the Arab public that it wants peace seriously?

-- Do you think the Arab public cares, or is going to be persuaded by any such behavior?

-- 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.

Indeed, Obama has forgotten those that took place during his first term -- for example, the nine-month-long settlement construction freeze.

Before that, the West forgot the Oslo agreement, the 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 it 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 needing to prove 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 to which the Arab side doesn't respond have also been repeatedly broken.

What Obama is in effect saying: “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down that [security, counterterrorism] wall.”

What he should be saying: “Mr. Abbas, Mursi, etc., tear down that wall of hatred against Israel!”

Of course, he won’t do so because that would make the Arab leaders and publics angry -- not because they want Israel to move faster on peace or to 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 real reason is that the White House knows that such an effort will go nowhere. And it is 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 Tzipi 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 substituting 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. Or: 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?