THE SPINE APRIL 27, 2010
Barack Obama came into office with one messianic mission. It was to bring statehood to the Palestinians. Of course, even he understood that he couldn’t quite put it that way. But statehood for the Palestinians necessarily also meant Palestinian peace with Israel, an aim worthy enough for any American administration. So that became his primary foreign policy mission. Still, the fact is that he saw the shadings of the conflict only through the eyes of the “disinherited.” And they really had nothing much to give in any transaction. Ipso facto, it was from the Jewish state that all the concessions were to be had.
However committed he was to this formula, the president required another rationale to make his pitch sound like a genuine argument. He found it in the security interests of the United States. As it happens, having put the Muslim world at the very center of the American universe through signs and secret signs, he was able to make Israel bear the burdens of our troubles or, rather, to make it responsible for our failures in diplomacy and our casualties on the battlefield. Indeed, Obama may actually believe that this Islamic atrocity or that (or, for that matter, all of them) can be attributable to Zionism, about which he has never, never said a good word.
There is a long (pseudo)realist tradition in American foreign policy that puts the Jews at odds with our national interest. Eisenhower’s foreign policy tutor, John Foster Dulles, thought he could lure Gamal Abdel Nasser away from his Third World revolutionary fantasies if only Israel would not stand in the way. James Baker, who found ample common cause with Saddam Hussein, found the Israelis awfully incompatible. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, about whom I’ve written several times, are the shoddy intellectual heirs to this morally corrupt tradition.
There is, to be sure, another line of so-called realism about the Middle East. Two of its major intellectual figures have now written what I take the liberty of calling apostasies from their previous calling. They are Richard N. Haass and Aaron David Miller, with whom I’ve quarreled (maybe even intemperately), but whom I’ve always taken to be absolutely honest.
Now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Haass is the author of “The Palestine Peace Distraction,” a longish op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.
... it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.
The Palestinian impasse did nothing to dissuade Arab governments from working with the U.S. to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the Gulf War when they determined it was in their interest to do so. Similarly, an absence of diplomatic progress would not preclude collaboration against an aggressive Iran. Just as important, a solution would not resolve questions of political stability and legitimacy within the largely authoritarian Arab world.
Alas, neither would terrorism fade if Israelis and Palestinians finally ended their conflict. Al Qaeda was initially motivated by a desire to rid the Arabian Peninsula of infidels. Its larger goal is to spread Islam in a form that closely resembles its pure, seventh-century character. Lip service is paid to Palestinian goals, but the radical terrorist agenda would not be satisfied by Palestinian statehood.
What is more, any Palestinian state would materialize only amidst compromise. There will be no return to the 1967 borders; at most, Palestinians would be compensated for territorial adjustments made necessary by large blocs of Jewish settlements and Israeli security concerns. There will be nothing more than a token right of return for Palestinians to Israel. Jerusalem will remain undivided and at most shared. Terrorists would see all this as a sell-out, and they would target not just Israel but those Palestinians and Arab states who made peace with it.
The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.
How does this argument conclude?
The Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided; the Israeli government is too ideological and fractured; U.S.-Israeli relations are too strained for Israel to place much faith in American promises. The West Bank is the equivalent of a fragile state at best. What is needed are sustained efforts to strengthen Palestinian economic, military and governing capacities on the West Bank so that Israel will come to see the Palestinian Authority as a partner it can work with.
Also needed are efforts to repair U.S.-Israeli ties. The most important issue facing the two countries is Iran. It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran's nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.
This is cold comfort for Obama.
And the other essay, “The False Religion of Mideast Peace,” by Aaron David Miller in the May-June issue of Foreign Policy should be even colder comfort Obama. Miller subtitles his piece, “And why I’m no longer a believer.” The personal quality of the writing gives it the authenticity of a confession. But it is analytically audacious and the history on which it rests is both straight and compelling.
Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Fortuna might still rescue the president. The mullahcracy in Tehran might implode. The Syrians and Israelis might reach out to one another secretly, or perhaps a violent confrontation will flare up to break the impasse.
But without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere, it's going to be tough to re-create the good old days when bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders strode the stage of history, together with Americans, willing and able to do serious peacemaking.
I remember attending Rabin's funeral in 1995 in Jerusalem and trying to convince myself that America must and could save the peace process that had been so badly undermined by his assassination. I'm not a declinist. I still believe in the power of American diplomacy when it's tough, smart, and fair. But the enthusiasm, fervor, and passion have given way to a much more sober view of what's possible. Failure can do that.
The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.
These are heavy-weight defections from what has become a big cliche. Alas, cliches are the mark of Obama’s foreign policy. The fact is that almost everybody who knows anything knows this. And the wisdom is seeping into the body politic.
Our allies wonder why the president is so disdainful of them. Our antagonists read the tea leaves. Soon Obama will be alone with his mirror. His diplomacy is already a disaster.