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The Mideast History Lesson Obama So Desperately Needs

Posted By Seth Mandel On May 27, 2011 @ 12:12 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 21 Comments

After President Obama surprised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week with a now-infamous statement of principle about the 1967 lines, Netanyahu responded with what news outlets characterized as a “history lecture.”

Though the outlets—ranging from the French Press Agency to the Chicago Sun-Times—meant the phrase derisively, a history lesson on the 1967 lines was exactly what the moment called for. And a lesson on the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the early negotiations that led to the Oslo process would, for instance, enlighten the president on just why his strategy for Mideast peace is backwards, and doomed to fail.

Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in 1977 immediately entered the history books as a moment of triumph for political courage and for the power of diplomacy. It held the promise of a Middle East where Israel’s existence is a recognized reality, and it offered a glimpse of what Arab statesmanship could accomplish. Grand gestures weren’t meaningless after all.

But there was one prominent American who disagreed. After the Egyptian president’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem U.S. President Jimmy Carter said, “a separate peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is not desirable.”

In retrospect, of course, it has been very “desirable” for Carter’s otherwise dismal foreign policy record. Historian Arthur Herman explained in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 how that came to be:

“But by the autumn of 1978, the rest of Mr. Carter’s foreign policy had crumbled,” Herman wrote. “He had pushed through an unpopular giveaway of the Panama Canal, allowed the Sandinistas to take power in Nicaragua as proxies of Cuba, and stood by while chaos grew in the Shah’s Iran. Desperate for some kind of foreign policy success in order to bolster his chances for re-election in 1980, Mr. Carter finally decided to elbow his way into the game by setting up a meeting between Sadat and Begin at Camp David.”

When it became inevitable, Carter took the credit. It should be noted that there is much value in a White House reception for such a deal. It communicates the notion that American moral and physical power stand behind the agreement, giving it extra weight in the international arena. But the fact remains that because Carter wanted a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, he actually opposed the Egypt-Israel deal.  Against it before he was for it, so to speak.

The agreement was the result of diplomacy and negotiation undertaken by the Israelis and the Egyptian government. Only after it became a formality did the U.S. get involved.

A similar path took shape on its way to the Bill Clinton-endorsed Oslo process—the declaration of principles of which were signed at the White House in 1993. As Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin write in Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, what became the Oslo process began in earnest in 1991, when Israeli scholars Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak met with Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi in Ramallah to discuss Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation. Ashrawi suggested the Israelis meet with PLO economist Ahmad Qurei in London in December of that year. Arafat approved.

“This was not just to be a meeting between two Israeli academics and a PLO economist,” the authors write. “Abu Mazin (Mahmoud Abbas) later wrote that the key factor in making the PLO pursue this channel was the relationship of Pundak and Hirschfeld through Yossi Beilin, a prominent figure in the Labor party, to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The get-together was arranged by Terje Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist who headed the Institute for Applied Social Sciences. That meeting’s success soon led to more rounds of secret talks between Israel and the PLO hosted by the Norwegians.”

The talks circumvented the U.S., which was what Arafat wanted anyway. (As Martin Indyk describes in his memoir of Clinton Mideast diplomacy, Arafat’s presence posed a continued logistical problem—at times comical—for the American administration since Arafat was an international terrorist.)

The Israelis involved produced glowing reports of Qurei’s constructive participation in the talks. “Without him, Oslo would not have happened,” one of the Israeli negotiators later said.

The talks moved along, and eventually the Clinton administration got involved. Once that happened, however, things quickly spiraled out of control. Arafat muscled his way into a more public role (he was always involved behind the scenes), and eventually hijacked the process, derailing virtually the entire Mideast diplomacy of the Clinton administration. (As the Bush administration prepared to take over, Clinton called Colin Powell and told him: “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me.”)

The lesson here is that the American administration can play a productive role in the peace process, but not an overwhelming one. History has shown time and again in the Mideast that negotiations must be done quietly and be free of outside interference. The more public the spectacle, the more it encourages the Palestinians to grandstand, stall, and manipulate.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson Obama has yet to learn. His version of American Mideast diplomacy is the reverse of what has worked, and the photocopy of what has failed. The predictable result is that the Palestinians refuse to come to the negotiating table, and are barreling toward a UN General Assembly publicity stunt that would effectively abrogate the Oslo process and introduce a level of anarchy into an already unstable region.

History suggests the president should reverse course immediately to salvage the process.  But this may be a lesson too far.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.

* Frontpage thanks our new cartoonist Amir Avni for the graphic representing this article. Amir graduated from Sheridan College with a Bachelor of Animation Degree in 2010 and was awarded a Certificate of Merit by ASIFA-Hollywood in 2009. He is currently finishing his Master’s Degree.


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