Belmont Club

The Coalmine Collapses

Jennifer Rubin argues that the Palestinian Right of Return and Israel’s boundaries were the primary bargaining chips of each side in the decades-long diplomatic faceoff.  To get a comprehensive settlement the Palestinians would have to give up the idea of turning Israel into an Arab state in exchange for borders of their own.  In turn the Israelis would make territorial concessions only if they could be assured that the Palestinians would not be in a position to destroy it as a Jewish entity.

There was a certain asymmetry in the confrontation that often went unremarked. Israel was the world’s only Jewish state while the Palestinians were part of a larger community in the region, some would say indistinguishable from it. Israel’s existence was its all-in-all. On the other the hand, the Palestinian state was in the final analysis, optional to the Arabs in the region as a whole.  Israel non-negotiably needed to live. Palestine’s nonnegotiable demand was that Israel needed to die.

Rubin argues that what President Obama did was pre-concede — to all intents and purposes — Israel’s territorial cards while requiring nothing of the Palestinian side.

The right of return therefore should be understood as the extermination of a Jewish state. Berkowitz explains: “The question of refugees, moreover, is much more than, as the president described it in his State Department speech, a ‘wrenching’ issue. Palestinian dedication to a right, with no precedent under international law, inhering in seven million Palestinians to establish residence in the state of Israel has been and remains the overriding obstacle to a secure and lasting peace.”

So what did Obama do? He delinked the right of return and return of territories. Israel’s bargaining power is eliminated because Obama gave it to Abbas despite his stated intention this week to continue war against the Jewish state. What have the Palestinians given up? Nothing. Obama offered sympathy but didn’t even suggest that the Palestinians had to jettison that central obstacle to peace.

The President did not act alone in pre-conceding Israel’s position. If he has scant support for this maneuver domestically, he had ample backing internationally. “UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says U.S. president offered important ideas in Middle East speech that could propel peace talks forward; Mideast Quartet voices ‘strong support’.” In other words, his international allies were egging him to do it.

Their motives were simple: the region is vital to the Quartet for energy, financial and security reasons.  The Arabs could make trouble or do business on a scale that Israel could not. President Obama has cited the Arab Spring as main driver for urging both sides to ‘take the chance for peace’.  The truth may be more prosaic. The Quartet is on the verge of losing influence in the region, partly due to Obama’s own blunders. The Arab Spring has been disastrous for Western policy. Decades of foreign policy are being swept into the dustbin of history. Far from looking to Washington to lead the revolts, the street seems to regard President Obama as an impotent prattler. According to Commentary’s Johnathan Tobin:

All they see is a president who sat by and watched them bleed for their freedom in Egypt and Tunisia and now also in Syria without doing much, if anything, to help them. And they understand that it was France, not the United States that took the lead in the one Arab country where the West did intervene and that it was Obama’s dithering that prevented a quick defeat of Qaddafi. His professions of support for their freedom are considered either insincere or just too late.

Even more to the point, what comes across most from accounts of Arab reaction to Obama’s speech is the fact that not many people there care much about him. Whatever fascination they felt for him in the past seems to have faded. That has to be a difficult pill for a man who sees himself in near messianic terms. His carefully parsed appeals to democracy and rights would have made a difference had he started speaking this way back in 2009 when his reaction to the repression of Iranian dissidents (which he properly acknowledged in his speech as the true start of the regional protests) was muted.

Watching his engagement policy verge on becoming road kill in the Middle East, President Obama is confronted by the political necessity of appearing to lead and the practical requirement of recovering influence in the region. He wants to become the towering figure of Cairo 2009 again, when people listened to him. Watching his allies being swept away, he seeks urgently to establish his bona fides with the incoming leaders. The best way to get back his street cred is to buy his way out of the corner at Israel’s expense. But  President Obama will get precious little gratitude from the Arab world for throwing Israel under the bus. They will pocket what he offers with a quick flip of the wrist and hold out their hand for more.

But in the meantime he will have destabilized the region even more.  Where he can make no new friends, President Obama has made new enemies. The effect of President Obama’s speech has been to reset the acceptable goalposts in the region. For the first time a US Administration has joined the Quartet in accepting that the price of a regional settlement might be the liquidation of Israel. Shorn of their ritual recitation of commitment to the security of Israel, it appears probable that Washington has been for some time resisting what the rest of the Quartet have long ago decided: that good relations with the oil-rich, populous Arab world is worth far more than the existence of Israel. As French diplomat Daniel Bernard once put it, “all the current troubles in the world are because of that shitty little country Israel. Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?”  Throw it under the bus, and throw it under the bus now, while you can still take credit for it.

The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — also stood behind the U.S. president’s speech Friday, voicing “strong support” for U.S. Obama’s vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The Quartet agrees that moving forward on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final resolution of the conflict through serious and substantive negotiations and mutual agreement on all core issues,” the group said in a statement.

The statement added that “the members of the Quartet are in full agreement about the urgent need to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians”.

Scheduled meetings of the Quartet in March and April were postponed at the request of the United States, which said the time was not right, UN diplomats have said.

The Twentieth century should have convinced the French and the Europeans that their strategic intuitions were not always infallible; after all, they blundered into World War 2 because they wanted to avoid it. The balance of probability is that throwing Israel under the bus will buy the Quartet precious little leverage with the Arab world. It will not resolve their problems a whit, because the crisis in the region is only peripherally related to the existence of Israel. The crisis springs from deep seated problems with which the West managed in the past by supporting tyrants. Now with the Arab Spring is making that strategy infeasible, the last act of a great tragedy is to buy momentary peace by throwing Israel to the wolves. It will fail.

The crisis will rage on despite Obama’s pathetic engagement, only this time, with one less ally. Its fair bet that before 2012 reaches its end Barack Obama and the Quartet may find they will need Israel in that hostile region far more than they can rely on their new found friends.


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