Why is Obama so tough on Israel and timid on Syria?

June 19, 2011

One of the hallmarks of the Arab Spring has been the emergence of a new and more modest American foreign policy. The Obama administration has insisted on not taking the lead in promoting democratic change; it has declined to act unless not just the French and British but the Arab League go first. It still can’t bring itself to say that Bashar al-Assad, a dictator and implacable U.S. enemy who is using tanks and helicopter gunships to slaughter his people, is not qualified to lead Syria to democracy.

Yet there is one big exception: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a Middle Eastern front that has remained mostly quiet in 2011, the position of the United States is: a) it possesses a detailed solution; b) action must be taken immediately; and c) it doesn’t matter whether the people concerned — Israelis and Palestinians — are agreeable or ready.

Obama the timid suddenly turns tough when the “peace process” comes up. He has spoken in public on Syria just twice since its massacres began three months ago. But he chose to spell out U.S. terms for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without the agreement of Israel’s prime minister, on the eve of meeting him at the White House and with only a few hours’ notice — arguably the most high-handed presidential act in U.S.-Israeli relations since the Eisenhower administration.

Now, with prodding from the European Union, Obama is attempting to strong-arm Israelis and Palestinians into beginning negotiations on the parameters he set. The talks must be agreed to this month, says Washington; they should begin by September. U.S. and European envoys were shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah last week in an attempt to extract a “yes” from Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.

It would be wonderful if this imperialist diplomacy succeeded. If it does, it will disprove the Obama administration’s nascent doctrine about the limits of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East.

Consider the two parties who would be dragged to the negotiating table. Netanyahu heads a right-wing coalition that would almost certainly collapse if he agreed to Obama’s terms — which, in any case, he opposes. A senior Israeli official last week gave me a long list of fixes he said would be needed before his government could accept the Obama formula — and even then, he added, the proposal wouldn’t fly “unless there was a deep reservoir of mutual confidence” between the two leaders, “which doesn’t exist.”

Then there is Abbas, who at 76 is planning his retirement. He has committed himself to spending the next year seeing through a reconciliation with the Hamas movement, arranging elections for his successor and seeking recognition for Palestine at the United Nations. For two years he has refused to negotiate with Netanyahu, whom he despises. Even Yasser Arafat appeared more disposed than this Palestinian leader to make the wrenching concessions needed for a deal. And who would guarantee that the Palestinian president elected next May would pick up where Abbas left off?

What’s extraordinary about Obama’s initiative is not its details, which don’t differ meaningfully from the ideas of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or, for that matter, several of Netanyahu’s predecessors as prime minister. It is, rather, its superpower chutzpah — the brazen disregard for the views and political posture of this Israeli government, and the fecklessness and disarray of the current Palestinian leadership. Never mind, goes the implicit Euro-American line: We will make this happen.

What could account for such an attitude, given the timorous approach to the rest of the region? Part of it is understandable frustration with years of Israeli-Palestinian impasse, which is magnified by the conviction in much of official Washington that the terms for peace are well known and widely accepted, and need only be implemented. Part is legitimate worry that the Israeli-
Palestinian front, though quiet now, could explode later this year after a United Nations vote, helping extremists in places such as Egypt. Yet the damage to U.S. interests from a U.N. resolution on Palestine would pale compared to the consequences of an Iranian-backed victory by Assad in Syria or the failure of NATO in Libya. Those crises have not moved Obama to lead.

There is, in his diplomacy, an implicit conviction that the United States must first of all deal with the sins of its own client. “Here are the facts we must all confront,” Obama declared in his speech to the AIPAC conference last month, before proceeding to deliver a lecture about Palestinian demography, Arab politics and the United Nations. It wasn’t that he was entirely wrong. But it’s revealing of this president that he is determined to speak truth to Binyamin Netanyahu — and not to Bashar al-Assad.

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