Is Obama's Pressure for Direct Israeli-Palestinian Talks Pushing Region Towards War? (Updated)

Despite the accepted “wisdom” that presents this as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with its natural corollary of the Palestinian/David vs. Israeli/Goliath frame), this has always been the Arab-Israeli conflict, and just as Western observers signed on to the tiny framework of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, it expanded into the Muslim-Israeli conflict.

And in that framework, this is not about land-for-peace, it’s not about positive-sum solutions, but rather about preserving the honor and self-respect of the Arab and Muslim world by eliminating the humiliating disgrace of an independent Jewish state in the midst of Dar-al-Islam.

Even the Palestinians know this. The term “intifada” means “shrugging off” as when a cow or a camel shakes its hide to shoo away a fly. They know they are the great beast, and Israel the tiny, pesky insect. It behooves any policymaker to understand this rather than engage in fantasies of a solution in 24 months. Then maybe the ridiculous game of musical chairs can end, and we can get serious about bringing some semblance of peace to this troubled part of the globe.

UPDATE: It has become rapidly clear what the carrots and the sticks are that the Obama administration has been using in this matter. Apparently Obama himself has decided that an enormous amount of his prestige depends on getting the direct negotiations going again. Abbas had spoken of enormous pressure on him, but at the same time, Obama has given the Palestinian delegation in Washington an upgraded status that permits them to fly their own flag, a move some analysts think was a premature award. Abbas continues to drag his feet on direct talks, demanding “three-way talks” largely to insist on Israeli concessions before entering direct talks.

Given the concessions Netanyahu has made in the days since the Arab League’s move, there seem to be equally strong pressures on him. A letter (memorandum of understanding) from Obama to Abbas suggests that in exchange for engaging in direct talks, Obama will pressure Netanyahu to continue the settlement freeze. In the meantime, the sudden and surprising announcement that Israel agreed to allow the UN (!) to investigate the flotilla incident suggests heavy administration involvement by, among others, U.S. Ambasssador to the UN Susan Rice. The Turks were quick to gloat that Israel caved in the matter.

Of course all of these maneuverings occur against the backdrop of a radical irredentist force at work in Arab society, like Hamas, for whom even a Palestinian state on every inch of the land under Arab control before 1967 would be unacceptable -- especially if it meant recognizing the state of Israel. For them, any move to negotiations, even one that violates every Israeli red line, is a danger they must avoid.

Thus yesterday, rockets aimed at Eilat in the south of Israel -- an unprecedented target which ended up killing a Jordanian on the other side of the border -- reminded everyone of the power in the hands of those who can at any moment fire at Israeli civilian centers. Indeed, they may have been fired from the Sinai, another major escalation in the level of threat. And if the south is heating up, then today the north heated up still more.

Obama, who lives in the world of Western progressive politics of “soft power" and consensual negotiated settlements, does not have a clue as to what kind of dynamics operate here in the Middle East. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, he uses the power of the presidency to move the parties “in the right direction,” and instead unleashes forces over which he has no control. To help his image among the American people, to reassert his control, he has twisted arms and played with fire.

He may just be contributing to another round of war.