Thursday, December 2, 2010

Editor's Notes: Exposed by WikiLeaks


Obama, we now know, had the diplomatic cables to prove that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no obstacle to wide Arab backing for the toughest possible measures against Iran.

After the first meeting between newish President Barack Obama and new Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May of 2009, I wrote in these pages about the “acutely uncomfortable clash of divergent outlooks” so readily evident at their media conference.

I noted that while the Netanyahu camp had “rushed to talk up a purported meeting of minds over Iran,” it was plain that there was a gulf between the two men on the issue. Specially, I wrote, it had been Netanyahu’s hope that he would persuade Obama of the imperative to halt the Iranian nuclear drive “as a precondition for encouraging Arab moderation and thus enabling progress with the Palestinians, and on this he failed.”

Instead, I pointed out, “Obama insistently placed tackling the Palestinian issue – which has defeated even the most generous and flexible Israeli governments – on the road to fixing Iran.”

While Israel had argued internationally that stopping Iran would enable headway with the Palestinians, and other foreign heads of state, senior ministers and diplomats had politely suggested it was best to try to chivvy both processes along simultaneously, Obama, I observed, “has gone all the way over to the other side, and done so in public.”

I was referring to the president’s assertion, publicly contradicting Netanyahu, that, “If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis – then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

In that column and many others since, I have often come back to Obama’s unconvincing assertion that Netanyahu, and much of Israel besides, has the Iran- Palestinian equation wrong. I often noted how illogical it seemed for Obama to argue that there was a good prospect of dramatic progress on the Palestinian front even while Iran, and by extension, Palestinian extremists, were in the ascendant, and how much more room for optimism there would be on the Palestinian front if Iran had been faced down, its nuclear march halted, and relative moderates throughout the region emboldened and empowered.

To my mind, the president’s thinking defied common sense. Now we know, however, that it also defied the concrete information he was receiving from his own diplomats.

THE OBAMA administration, it is now clear for all to see, was not pressing a reluctant Netanyahu to make settlement-freeze and other concessions to the Palestinians in part because it truly believed this would be helpful in generating wider support for tackling Iran.

Not at all. The United States, we now know courtesy of WikiLeaks, was being repeatedly urged by a succession of Arab leaders to smash an Iranian nuclear program they feared would destabilize the entire region and put their regimes at risk. Their priority was, and is, battering Ahmadinejad, not bolstering Abbas.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in 2008, had not urged the US to chivvy those recalcitrant Israelis toward concessions to the Palestinians as a pre-condition for grudging Saudi support for a firmer US-led position against Iran. Anything but. Never mind the Palestinians, the king simply implored Washington to “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake.”

Likewise, with minor variations in the course of the following year, the rulers of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.

We are now starting to hear, courtesy of WikiLeaks, what Jordan and Egypt had to say on the matter too.

Obama, that is, was not the prisoner of a misconception, convinced in absolute good faith that if he could deliver Israeli concessions at the negotiating table he might stand a greater chance of getting the Arabs on board for the battle with the mullahs. No, he had the diplomatic cables to prove that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict was no obstacle to wide Arab backing, indeed wide Arab entreaties, for the toughest possible measures against Iran, emphatically including military action.

Either the president, it can be concluded, was so attached to his misconception that he refused to let the concrete information he had on Arab leaders’ thinking get in the way – sticking to his view of the region in defiance of the facts.

Or, more plausibly, he had internalized full well that he didn’t actually need the cover of a substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace process to generate Arab support for tackling Iran’s nuclear program, but chose to pressure Israel just the same, as a tactic, because he felt Israel was not being sufficiently forthcoming on the Palestinian front.

Neither explanation sits well, to put it mildly.

TELL NETANYAHU – who at the time of their first meeting had yet to endorse the two-state solution, and who is extremely unlikely to repeat the peace offer that Ehud Olmert had spurned by Abbas – that you feel he should be doing more? That’s fair enough.

What’s not fair enough is to indicate to the Israeli prime minister, when it’s patently untrue, that he ought to put aside some of his skepticism and take risks for peace because otherwise Israel might impede the US’s capacity to thwart the genocidal enemy, Iran.

In that May 2009 column, I noted that “If building international, and more specifically regional pressure on Iran is perceived to be contingent on dramatic progress toward resolving our vexed conflict with the Palestinians, the outlook may be bleak indeed. To judge by the fate of Israel’s peace overtures since the early 1990s, the Iranians, one can only fear, would be up to their eyes in enriched uranium before there’s a breakthrough here.”

So now here we are 18 months later. The peace process is deadlocked and Iran is indeed a good deal closer to the bomb. And the Obama administration has been pressing Israel for a second settlement freeze, even though Abbas wasted the last one, even though Netanyahu has demonstrably sought to encourage reconciliation by improving the economic climate on the West Bank, and even though Israel’s uncertainty about its Palestinian partner is magnified every time Fatah derides the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state or the PA endorses “research” denying Jewish sovereign history here.

Until WikiLeaks, the US was presumably still reminding Israel of its view that the “linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process… runs the other way.”

That the route to thwarting Teheran runs via Jerusalem. That, whatever Israel’s misgivings, it should consider giving ground on the Palestinian front in part because of the demands of the wider struggle against Iran.

What’s the president going to tell Israel now?

Has the Obama Administration Failed Again?: No Freeze, No Talks, No Competence
By Barry Rubin

December 1, 2010

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While the outcome still isn't clear, it seems that a new example of failure and humiliation is unfolding for the Obama Administration's Middle East policy.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the president's high-profile effort to restart Israel-Palestinian talks will succeed during the remainder of 2010 or even well beyond that time.

This Administration has had a very clear idea of what it wanted to achieve:

1. A comprehensive Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli peace.

2. Getting rid of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the belief that this will reduce terrorism and strengthen US power in region and US interests.

3. Getting rid of the conflict to get Arab support on Iraq, Iran, and Aghanistan.

The embarrassment is taking place due to faulty assumptions about these goals and how to achieve them:

--That a high-profile effort would serve U.S. interests. By showing American engagement on the issue, the Administration thought it would please Arab and Muslim-majority countries so as to gain their support on other issues. This didn't work.

--That, at best, a high-profile campaign would be likely to succeed in bringing rapid progress toward comprehensive peace. That obviously isn't working.

--That , at minimum, they could at least get the two sides to sit down to pretend talks where nothing actually happened but at least it could be portrayed as a diplomatic achievement. Even that isn't working and that's really embarrassing.

Part of the problem is due to the Administration's additional wrong assumption that the Palestinians are eager to negotiate and get a state plus the belief that the current Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership could deliver a deal. In fact, both of these ideas are wrong, too. The PA leadership can't--and doesn't want to--deliver even on holding talks that go nowhere.

Most of the Palestinian leadership and the masses, too, are still locked into the belief that a combination of struggle and intransigence will bring them total victory some day in wiping Israel off the map. And even though they are more moderate than this, neither "President" Mahmoud Abbas nor Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are strong or determined enough even to attempt to change that orientation.

Another part of the problem is the Administration's mistaken view that it could pressure or bribe Israel and the PA into doing what it wants. Yet since neither side has faith in the Obama Administration, both know that it's weak, and Israel has seen that Washington doesn't keep commitments, their incentive for cooperation is reduced. In the PA's case at least, the United States doesn't even put on any pressure or criticism. In Israel's case the Administration has not put on the level of pressure that its more extreme officials (and outside supporters) would like to see, though that wouldn't work either.

But even that's not all. There's every indication that the Administration has incompetently handled the actual negotiations about holding negotiationsy. It focused on getting Israeli concessions without firming up the PA side, thus allowing the PA to demand more. The offer to Israel was presented in a confused manner and it still isn't clear what precisely is to be given in exchange for a three-month construction freeze.

Moreover, part of the package that led people to say that it was so "generous" that Israel was being "bribed" seems to consist of things that the United States has always provided, like support in the UN or maintaining Israel's strategic advantage over its enemies.

The whole thing has turned into a mess and this isn't the first time that's happened in Obama policy on the issue. To cite just four examples, there was:

--The raising of the construction freeze idea in the first place;

--The position that promises made by the Bush Administration would not be fulfilled by his successor;

--Praising Israel for a construction freeze that didn't include Jerusalem and then screaming when Israel fulfilled the agreed conditions;

--And announcing last year that intensive Israel-PA negotiations would begin in two months when no such agreement had been made by the PA.

Yet even that's not all. Why did the administration seek a three-month freeze (originally a two-month freeze) at all? What was the purpose of this clearly useless goal? After all, even if the Administration obtained the freeze there would only have been twelve weeks of stagnant conversation-purchased by the United States at a high price-followed by the break-down of the talks. As an election ploy the idea at least made sense but if that was the motive the whole frantic exercise is now useless.

So far the Obama Administration has achieved a remarkable record of failure on this issue. It is, of course, understandable that the U.S. government was unable to solve the long-standing conflict--though making over-optimistic claims over what might be achieved was a self-inflicted wound--but it actually succeeding in moving the diplomatic process backwards.

Has the Obama done much harm regarding Israel-Palestinian issues? Directly, not so much since there was never much chance for dramatic progress. Yet for the Obama Administration's own reputation and credibility in the region this has been disastrous. Finally and worst of all, it isn't clear that the current government has learned anything from the experience.

The above article could be taken as a highly critical bashing of the Obama Administration. But the sad thing is that it is totally accurate albeit not--in order to save time and to promote clarity--cloaked in bland language.

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