Thursday, January 21, 2010

Elliott Abrams/ Obama Mideast policy is All Process, but No Peace

(Elliott Abrams-Weeklystandard).Peace in the Middle East has been on the Obama administration’s mind from the beginning. Two days after his inauguration the president traveled to the State Department to announce the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the administration’s approach as “an intensive effort from day one.”

Here was the plan: Israel would freeze construction in all the settlements and in Jerusalem; Arab states would reach out to Israel in tangible ways visible to their own publics and to Israelis; and the Palestinians would do better at building political institutions, ending incitement against Israel and fighting terror. With these achievements in hand the administration would lead the parties into peace negotiations to be concluded within the president’s first term. Nobel Prizes would be the frosting on the cake.

That’s not how it turned out, except for the Nobel Prize. As the Obama administration begins its second year in office, its Middle East peace efforts are widely regarded as a shambles. Its initial goals have all been missed. Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab governments have lost confidence in American leadership. The challenge for Year Two will be how to get out of this mess and on to a more positive track—but that will require some candor inside the administration in assessing what went wrong.

From the start the White House—led by the president himself and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—has pushed hardest for Israeli concessions, a reversal of the standard pattern where the legendary Arabists in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau criticize Israel while top officials defend her. This time, those at the top—including Mitchell and Clinton—publicly and repeatedly demanded a total Israeli construction freeze. And this time, the experts in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau and in U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East were the voices of caution and realism, for whatever their biases they knew Obama’s approach wouldn’t work. The Arabs would not step forward. Israel’s coalition politics would not permit adoption of a total freeze. What’s more, once we demanded it as a precondition for new negotiations, Palestinians could demand no less.

In Israel, there is deep suspicion of the Obama administration, both at official levels and among the population at large. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to impose a partial settlement freeze should not have been a surprise despite the months of friction with Washington; for any Israeli government, relations with the United States are a central strategic matter, while a (partial) moratorium in West Bank construction is not. It is fair to say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as much responsible for this freeze as Barack Obama, for in the coming year Israel may have to deal with the Iranian nuclear program—and therefore needs to avoid tension with Washington whenever possible. One official of a previous Israeli government put it this way to me: “Bibi agreed to this freeze to enable Israel to concentrate on Iran without the daily background noise about the settlements.”

Israel will always go far to keep relations with Washington on an even keel but that feeling is especially strong these days.

So the Obama administration’s Middle East adventures in 2009 came to a close with Netanyahu, whom the administration has never much liked or treated well, stronger politically; and Abbas, whom the administration wished to strengthen, weaker and talking of retirement. In Arab capitals the failure of the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program is understood as American weakness in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, making additional cooperation from Arab leaders on Israeli-Palestinian issues even less likely. A strongly pro-American former Israeli official shook his head as he evaluated the Obama record in 2009: “This is what happens when -arrogance and clumsiness come together.”

But who will tell the president that his judgments have been wrong and his policy is failing? Does he recognize how much bad advice he was given last year? Who among the senior figures is likely to say to this president that George Mitchell is now associated with a policy disaster or that Rahm Emanuel’s read on Israeli politics proved 180 degrees off course?

The Obama administration rarely demonstrated the ability to shift gears and change policy in its first year. Even in the face of historic events such as the continuing demonstrations against Iran’s regime, it stuck devotedly to prior plans. Can there be a learning curve? Will someone tell the president the policy isn’t working and big changes are needed? Or can change come from the top down, if the president himself comes to realize what underlings are reluctant to tell him? Middle Eastern officials aren’t the only people who still can’t figure out the workings of the Obama White House; the mixture of campaign stalwarts, career bureaucrats, old Chicago friends, and outside advisers remains opaque. Obama White House personnel like to say the Situation Room has no windows precisely so that people can’t see in. In fact it has three windows that look out at the Executive Office Building, but the error is telling: They want to preserve the sense of mystery. The problem is, the main mystery in the Middle East is whether they’ll cling to a policy that has already failed or open their minds to one that has a chance of bringing serious progress.