Why Obama Is Picking The Wrong Fight
Thu, 04/01/2010
Editor and Publisher
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 Assessing the alarmingly tense relationship at the moment between Washington and Jerusalem, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Chelm stories. 

It’s the one about the man walking down the street one night when he approaches his friend, who is positioned under a bright street lamp and searching for something on the ground.

“What did you lose?” he asks. “Can I help?”

“Thanks,” his friend says, “I’ve lost my good watch.”

“Where do you think you lost it?”

“Across the street, and way over there,” his friend says, pointing far off into the distance.

“Then why are you looking here?” the man asks.

“Oh,” his friend says, “because the light’s much better.”

The current U.S.-Israel standoff is no joke. Far from it. But I can’t help thinking that President Barack Obama, in his desperate search for a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, is looking deliberately in the wrong places, picking on Israel — not because it makes sense — but because he can. And because it’s more expedient than pressuring the Palestinians and upsetting the oil-rich Arab nations.

The president is no fool, and I believe he wants to broker a peace deal in the Mideast. But based on his actions in attempting to jumpstart negotiations since taking office, he has shown a disturbing lack of appreciation of the complexities of the issue. And in his haste he has weakened his most vital democratic ally in the region and strengthened those most resistant to Western values, compromise, stability and peace. 

Nobody is blameless here. While the administration has taken on the role of bully rather than honest broker, the Netanyahu government can be criticized for, at best, incompetence. It embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during his trip to Israel with the ill-timed announcement of increased housing in Ramat Shlomo in east Jerusalem, which set off this most serious crisis in U.S.-Israel relations in many years. 

At worst, Netanyahu could be accused of a dangerous degree of chutzpah in discounting or dismissing consistent calls for months from Washington — Israel’s greatest and virtually only benefactor and supporter — to dismantle illegal settlements and bolster the shaky government of Mahmoud Abbas.

But Obama is guilty of chutzpah himself in thinking his very public pressure on, and now humiliation of, Netanyahu can force a change of government in Israel that would emerge more centrist and, presumably, more accommodating of the Palestinians.

As we are already seeing, though, such unseemly efforts to weaken or unseat the democratically elected leader of another government will only backfire, moving Israelis further to the right. And neither Kadima’s Tzipi Livni nor any other credible Israeli political leader would concede the centrality of Jerusalem prior to face-to-face, final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.

Lord knows there is enough misunderstanding, frustration, hurt, sense of betrayal and anger to go around between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. But Obama has picked the wrong fight — twice — since taking office. 

First he called for a “settlement freeze” that not only failed to define either complex term but did not distinguish between isolated West Bank outposts and major, heavily populated areas that everyone in the region recognized would remain part of Israel at the end of negotiations. This blunder set talks back for a year when the Palestinian Authority, which had never used settlements as an excuse not to negotiate, followed the president’s lead and refused to talk until all settlement activity ceased. 

Netanyahu, under pressure, did put into place a 10-month freeze in the West Bank, a major compromise for him that at the time was heralded by Washington as worthy step. But that was four months ago.

Now, in another misguided step, Obama has pushed for an end to housing plans for east Jerusalem, seemingly unaware that Ramat Shlomo, the controversial center of the latest dispute, is set between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Ramot and would remain part of Israel according to every peace plan that has been discussed.

Even more disturbing than picking the wrong fights, Obama has picked on the wrong party in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Where is the condemnation — or even mention — of the Palestinian Authority in all of this mess for failure to endorse a two-state solution or acknowledge the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region, and for its praise of suicide bombers as “martyrs?”

Why should the Palestinian Authority engage in serious talks with Israel, leading to compromise — like giving up the dream of settling countless descendants of the 1948 refugees within Israel rather than a new Palestinian state — when Washington is applying all of the pressure on Jerusalem?

The rhetoric we heard from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC conference, and that we hear from the president, is painstakingly symmetrical in its praise or criticism of Israel and the Palestinians. (And of course by “Palestinians” here I refer only to the PA, not the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza, which is another story, and critical to understanding why real peace in the region is such a distant dream for now.)

But there is little symmetry to speak of when discussing Israel and the PA. Israel is a democratic ally and vital strategic partner that has consistently been willing to make painful sacrifices for peace, and has made peace with Egypt and Jordan. The PA remains a group founded on and still connected to armed struggle, one that has carried out murderous attacks on innocent civilians, demonizes Israelis and Zionists and has refused every peace-making effort over the years.

What’s needed now is for Washington to step back and heed its own advice: for decades we heard, and agreed with, the message that peace will only come through direct negotiations between the parties themselves, when they are ready. That’s how peace was brokered between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan.

The status of Jerusalem will be on the table if and when the Palestinians and Israelis sit down to talk. As will all the other difficult issues. But for now, Obama has managed to give the Palestinians every reason and excuse not to negotiate directly, leaving the impression that Israel is intransigent and the Palestinians willing to compromise, when the very opposite is true.

As long as the president searches for peace like the man from Chelm, he’ll be looking in the dark. 

 

 

 

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

Read Gary Rosenblatt’s Editor’s Blog, with new entries daily, at http://israeli-us-politics.net/ . Check out the Jewish Week's Facebook page and become a fan!

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Mr. Rosenblatt, you seem to be missing the point. President Obama is a Community Activist at heart and philosophy. So is PA President Abbas. Just as the EU and many Eastern and Western Governments and the majority of the Western media morally supports the PLO as a liberation movement and calls PLO terrorists "activists" and acts of terror as "activism," we now witness our Far Left Democrat President embracing this dialectic wholeheartedly. The Jewish Community ignored Barck Obama's comments and affilations with Palestinian Members of the PLO in Chicago and his affiliation with an anti-white Church Leader. It is therefore disingenious to say that the Obama Administration is misguided. President Obama is a very shrewd politician and he is clearly setting and accomplishing his objectives for American Israel relations. As time moves on we see more and more of his plan to marginalize Israel. Perhaps he plans to turn Israel into a South African Pariah State and will endorse UN Security Council efforts to demilitarize and disassemble the State of Israel. The question will soon be will the Democrat Jewish Community stay silent and support this strategy because of the Jewish Community's overwhelming support for single payer national health care, public financing of abortion, increased funding for welfare and minority social programs, and minority job preferences. If the Jewish Community overwhelmingly supports the fundamental change of American Society and the redistribution of wealth to support President Obama and the Democrat Party agenda, why should it not support a similar change in America's relationship with Israel?
It is good to read a pro-Israel analyst who doesnt fall down into the gutter that is currently riding Jerusalem Post and other media. Compliments for that. Having said that, I think the author fails to link the Israeli situation to the larger strategic framework. The US is engaged in two countries inside the muslim umma, and are working on all levels with muslims. Abe Foxman can deny it all he wants, but the recent humiliation of Turkey and Dubai as well as the continued overflights of Lebanon and the threats against Syria is affecting the cooperation from the US allies. Combine this with the Nethanyahu governments open insults of the president (The likud MPs routinely refer to him as "Hussein", par example), the open racism and violence from the settlers and its like you have a Israeli government and people that seems hellbent on humiliating the sitting president at any given oportunity. Its like they refuse to accept that Sarah Palin isnt president. And there they have a big problem.
Excellent article Gary! The only thing I would suggest in the way of change is as follows: Do define what Israel is and does vis a vis dealing with the Palestinian issue. Do not do the same regarding the Palestinians. In other words do not get into a "we are going all these positive things and the other side is not" monologue. Let Obama decide for himelf. Let us simply represent ourselves accurately and assertively and not excoriate the other side. It simply puts Obama in the position of trying to level things as he sees his role of "honest broker" dictates in a way that may ignore the actualities. If we don't diss the other side he doesn't have to defend them and he's more likely to come to logical, objective decisions. In this case, whoever whines least is most likely to not have a "mandatory spanking" put upon them.
Maybe Biden could not have remained silent after the announcement. But you gotta wonder why Biden’s team did not privately press Netanyahu to come up with something useful to Obama that would have allowed Biden to remain silent. Maybe Biden’s team tried that first. More likely, they overestimated the opportunity.

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