Barack Obama had worse failures to address in his State of the Union message last week, but a few days earlier he owned up to the most foolish miscalculation that his administration had made in its first year in power. In an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine, he confessed that he had not understood the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
“The Middle East peace process has not moved forward. ... For all our efforts at early engagement, (it) is not where I want it to be,” Obama said. “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”
But why didn’t he anticipate them? Is there really nobody in Washington who could have told Obama the truth about the Middle East? Every non-American commentator who knows anything about the region has been saying for the past year that there is absolutely no chance of a breakthrough in the peace process at the present time. In fact, it is probably dead for a generation.
The answer, I fear, is that there really is nobody in Washington who can tell President Obama the truth about the region. Nobody, that is, who would be allowed through the cordon of academic experts, think-tank pundits, and State Department and Pentagon officials who devoutly believe in an orthodoxy that sounds quite reasonable on the Potomac, even if it makes no sense whatever in terms of Middle Eastern reality.
For example, Obama wanted the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to enter direct peace talks with the Israeli government, even though he knew that Abbas only ruled around 60 percent of the Arab population of the occupied territories. The other 40 percent, in the Gaza Strip, have for the past several years been under the control of the radical Islamist movement Hamas, which rejects a permanent peace settlement with Israel.
So what was Abbas going to do? Sign a peace treaty with Israel, and get the Israeli army to impose it on the Gaza Strip? He certainly hasn’t the military forces to do it himself. And why would he sign a separate peace with Israel and turn himself into an eternally reviled traitor to the Palestinian cause just to serve Obama’s agenda? No wonder he has been saying he wants to resign for the past year.
Similarly, why would even the most pro-peace Israeli government make a deal with Abbas, who cannot deliver the assent of all, or at least most, of the Palestinians? Yitzhak Rabin himself would not have signed a peace treaty with Abbas under current circumstances, because he would have understood that it could not last.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, does not bear even a passing resemblance to the martyred Rabin, and the coalition he leads is not particularly pro-peace. It depends on the hard right and the settler parties for its majority in the Knesset, and it is not going to sacrifice its vision of a greater Israel to the whim of some passing American president.
Netanyahu spent his last term as prime minister in 1996-99 sabotaging the Oslo accords that promised Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. He is an adroit politician who knows how to modify his rhetoric in English to mollify Washington, but he has not changed his basic position. Why should he? Washington cannot compel Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to do.
It is Israel, not the White House, that controls U.S. policy on Arab-Israeli issues, due to its huge influence in Congress. Only one U.S. president in the past generation, George H. W. Bush, has successfully defied Israel. His threat of sanctions brought the Israelis to the negotiating table after the Gulf War of 1990-91, but he is convinced that that is why he lost his 1992 re-election.
Obama has had to re-learn that lesson over the past year. He began by backing the Palestinian demand that Israel halt new settlement-building in the occupied territories before the start of peace talks. After all, the peace talks would be about granting Palestinians sovereignty over those territories, among other things. For 40 years they have watched more and more of their land disappear under Israeli settlements, and they are a bit sensitive on the subject.
Netanyahu simply said no. Then, after six months had passed, he made a tiny concession. Israel would not start any new building projects in the more rural parts of the West Bank for 10 months, although it would continue work on all current projects to expand the settlements. It would not accept any limitations on its freedom to build new Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
It was virtually meaningless: I promise not to steal from you on Thursday afternoons. But Obama had learned his lesson by then. It gave him an excuse to switch his position and demand that Abbas drop his preconditions for entering peace talks, too, as if Netanyahu had dropped his. Blame the Arabs for intransigence, and move on.
The question is: What deluded adviser told Obama that there was any point in embarking on this foredoomed enterprise? The answer, unfortunately, is that it could be almost any of the recognized experts on the Middle East in Washington. They have been spouting nonsense for so long that it sounds like sense to them. •
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.