President Barack Obama’s speech on Middle East policy did more damage to U.S.-Israel relations than anything said by any previous president during the almost forty-year alliance between the two countries. Yet, ironically, the speech wasn’t intended to be on Israel at all; Obama apparently thought he was being friendly toward Israel; and the point that created the biggest controversy was something that the president didn’t even say.
The crisis, then, was caused by three factors: The ignorance of the Obama Administration over the issues involved; Obama’s chronic lack of friendliness toward Israel; and his refusal to recognize the threat from revolutionary Islamism.
His speech mainly focused on a totally uncritical evaluation of the current upheavals in the Arab world. The idea that Egypt is about to become a radical state, that the Egypt-Israel treaty is jeopardized, and that Israel is now facing the prospect of a renewed enemy to its southwest with twelve times its own population simply has not entered Obama’s calculations.
In other words, Obama is asking Israel to make risky concessions at the very moment when its security situation is potentially at its worst in the last thirty years. The assumption that Arab states would not launch a conventional war on Israel—which has prevailed since Egypt moved toward peace in 1978—no longer holds.
The fact that the president blithely sees no danger whatsoever from the Egyptian situation or the current upheavals in the region—a point that was the main theme of his speech—reduces his credibility with Israel to zero.
A second factor that makes Obama’s timing dangerously thoughtless is that he is rewarding the Palestinian Authority (PA) after it made a cooperation deal with the revolutionary Islamist group Hamas. Of course, Hamas is an openly antisemitic organization that makes no secret of its refusal to recognize Israel, its pride in committing terrorism, and its intention to commit genocide against Israel’s Jews.
Obama did take a stronger stance against the merger than the U.S. government has done previously. But so what? He has taken no sanctions against the PA for engaging in a merger that virtually tears up the Israel-PLO agreement of 1992. He doesn’t even criticize the PA for doing so. Hamas is for Israel what al-Qaida is for America.
In practice, Obama accepts the entry of Hamas into the PA government, just as he accepts that of Hizballah into Lebanon’s government, and the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt’s government. While the president’s rhetoric on Israel and the Palestinians is studiously “even-handed” his policy is clearly on the other side, that of Israel’s and America’s enemies.
I don’t think Obama realizes this fact. But who cares? That’s what he’s doing and it is catastrophic for the United States, its Arab allies, and Israel. .
But there’s more! In his speech Obama took a tough verbal stance against the PA’s plan to get the UN General Assembly to grant Palestine independence unilaterally in September. That this is a total violation of all agreements made by the PLO and PA since 1992 doesn’t seem to register with Western governments, though almost all of them will vote against it.
While it is nice to know that the Obama Administration will vote against the proposal—one can’t take anything for granted with this president—that’s not what’s most important. In line with his principle of not taking leadership, Obama isn’t lobbying strenuously to press other countries to oppose the measure or the PA to drop the idea, and certainly isn’t threatening to punish them if they do.
Thus, this fiasco, which destroys even the chance for any Israel-PA talks in 2011 and perhaps for far longer, is partly the result of American passivity.
Yet the list of administration mistakes on these issues is still not complete. In his speech, Obama proposed a plan. Again, he tipped his hat at Israel by saying that he wouldn’t try to impose a solution—no doubt thinking that would win him praise from Israel—but then made a proposal that totally tramples on Israel’s interests.
Obama’s idea was that Israel would withdraw from the remainder of the West Bank and turn it over to the PA in exchange for unspecified security guarantees. Palestine could become a state and the issues of Jerusalem and refugees would be postponed.
The effect of such an outcome would be to throw away all of Israel’s leverage on the remaining issues; free the Palestinians to do what they wanted; and exchange real strategic assets (land) for promises written on paper (security guarantees). Given the PA’s past practices and the European-American implementation of their own pledges, that would be very flimsy paper indeed.
Then there is Obama’s refusal to give credit to Israel for the ways it has already shown its desire for peace, readiness to make concessions, and willingness to take risks in order to resolve the conflict. He never mentions that Israel has already withdrawn from the Sinai Peninsula, returned small amounts of territory to Jordan, pulled completely out of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and given the PA all the Arab-populated portions of the West Bank (except a small area in Hebron).
Most annoying of all, in discussing what Israel has done “wrong” in the speech he said that Israeli settlement activity is continuing. Since Israel froze construction for nine months at Obama’s request (and the PA then refused to talk) one might expect some gratitude on the president’s part for Israel’s cooperation and some criticism for the PA’s refusal to do what Obama asked.
If Obama refuses to acknowledge, much less reward, Israeli cooperation and concessions in the past, Israelis and Israeli leaders know that he won’t do so in future. If Obama refuses to maintain past U.S. pledges to Israel—like the country being able to annex settlement blocs and support for Israel being recognized by the PA as a Jewish state in a peace agreement—Israelis have no faith in any promises including security guarantees he offers in future.
Given all this, it is ironic that the big controversy was regarding Obama’s sentence on borders. What he said is completely in line with past U.S. policy. He didn’t demand Israel return to the 1967 borders but called for those serving as the basis of an agreement with mutually agreed changes. So Israel would have to accept any future borders. Since Israel won’t agree to return to the 1967 borders, then, that will never happen.
Israel is not going to allow a president with no credibility, who clearly doesn’t understand what’s at stake, fails to support his Arab allies, is soft on his Iranian and Syrian enemies, doesn’t learn from his past errors, is sacrificing U.S. interests in the region, and pays no attention to what’s happening in Egypt, to determine its future.
And it isn’t just Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who thinks that way. There’s a national consensus on the issue. For almost two and a half years, Israel has played along with Obama, working hard to avoid friction, because the relationship with the United States is of tremendous importance. There was some hope that Obama would learn from experience or, at least, the bilateral relationship could muddle through his four-year term.
Now, however, in large part because of the revolution in Egypt definitely headed toward radicalism and probably toward Islamism, and the PA’s readmission of Hamas—as well as Obama’s failure to learn much about the Middle East and Israel’s situation—that effort has come to an end.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available here.