Obama's Opening Gambit

[Middle East Strategy at Harvard] Michael Doran - American presidents have been trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict since the days of Truman. Sooner or later, every one of them has learned a harsh lesson about the limits of American influence. There is no reason to believe that President Obama's experience will be any different. In fact, his opening gambit in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking suggests that his own lesson may already be upon him. The President has called for a halt to Israeli settlements, and his advisors have repeatedly explained that this policy includes an end to so-called "natural growth," meaning construction and population expansion within the boundaries of existing settlements. Obama's ban on natural growth nullified an understanding that President Bush had reached with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israelis agreed not to appropriate any new Palestinian territory; in return, the Bush administration gave the nod to natural growth within existing settlement blocs. Out of a mix of motives, Obama reversed this policy and chose to take an early, categorical, and public stance in order to launch a shot across the bow of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the 1990s, Netanyahu's recalcitrance had been a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration. The former Clintonites advising Obama no doubt relished the idea of immediately knocking Netanyahu back on his heels so as to begin negotiations from a position of strength. Shortly after Obama's address from Cairo, Netanyahu delivered a speech of his own, presenting himself to the Israeli public as the representative of a mainstream consensus on national security. Approximately two-thirds of all Israelis support the position that their prime minister staked out. On the specific issue of settlements, Netanyahu reaffirmed the basic lines of the Bush-Sharon agreement: natural growth, yes; settlement expansion, no. "We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements," he said. "But there is a need to have people live normal lives and let mothers and fathers raise their children like everyone in the world." He now turned to his critics in Washington with a warning of his own: "Do you really want to fight with three-quarters of the Israeli public over the building of kindergartens?" Israeli pundits have noted the conspicuous absence of a pro-Obama coalition on the Israeli political scene - this, despite the fact that the Israeli Left detests the settlements as much as or more than Obama himself. Many Israelis simply do not understand how the country's security dilemmas fit into Obama's larger scheme. With respect to the issue of gravest concern, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama's strategy remains worryingly opaque. With respect to the Palestinian question, many Israelis are skeptical about the power of any American president to overcome the Hamas-Fatah split, and to create conditions on the Palestinian side that will achieve a two-state solution capable of guaranteeing Israeli security. Many Israelis fear that the administration aims to buy goodwill from the Muslim world by distancing itself from Israel, and they wonder whether settlements are not simply the first of many concessions that will be demanded. Many Western diplomats tell themselves that peace is nearly at hand, but the parties on the ground - Arab and Jewish alike - are highly skeptical. And for good reason. The power of Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria, supported by Iran, looms in the background. It is highly unlikely that, in the next four years, a major breakthrough will take place. The central strategic challenge for the U.S. in the Middle East is diminishing the power of the Iranian-led alliance. The peace process is not as effective a tool for addressing this challenge as the administration believes, because the disarray of Fatah and the power of Hamas will not allow significant, forward movement. Everyone in the region knows thi

2009-07-17 06:00:00

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