Has Obama made a Devil’s Bargain with Israel?

"For Netanyahu the threat of peace has passed."

— Uri Avnery in Haaretz, Sept. 23, 2009.

The committee that awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Prize for Peace may have been indulging in wishful thinking, hoping he will live up to the honor by achieving peace in the Middle East. If so, those hopes are yet to be realized. In an abrupt turnaround this fall, the administration abandoned its demand that Israel freeze settlement construction, rejected a U.N. report on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, and responded to concessions by Iran with threats of harsher sanctions.

The most generous explanation of such behavior is that Obama hopes that by going easy on Israel he will convince the Israelis to grant substantial concessions to the Palestinians and refrain from military action against Iran. He had reason to worry on both counts. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unwilling even to slow settlement construction, and his hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warns that an attack on Iran is only a matter of time.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process Obama promises to pursue is so far a distant fantasy. His special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell made two visits to the Middle East this fall and left both times with the two sides further apart than ever. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists on a complete settlement freeze, claiming the settlements spreading across the West Bank split the territory in two and make a Palestinian state impossible. Netanyahu told Mitchell there will be no settlement freeze and repeated his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Instead of pressing an earlier demand by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a complete stop to settlements, Mitchell found himself negotiating the terms of a moratorium. That effort failed as well. He returned to Washington without achieving even a temporary slowdown.

The failure of Mitchell’s mission made Obama’s next effort sound even more hollow. At a meeting with Abbas and Netanyahu at the U.N. in late September the president urged both men to begin negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement as soon as possible. “Despite all the obstacles, all the history, all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward,” he told the two leaders.

The problem is that “all the obstacles, all the history” cannot be overcome without firm U.S. pressure on Israel. Ever since the Madrid peace talks in 1991 the Israelis have dragged out negotiations endlessly, while seizing more Palestinian territory and remaining unyielding on significant issues. Just before Mitchell’s second visit to Israel in October Foreign Minister Lieberman said on Israeli Radio, “Anyone who says that within the next five years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict simply doesn’t understand the situation and spreads delusions.”

Past negotiations have above all highlighted the vast discrepancy in strength between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama did not explain how the Palestinians could negotiate successfully with Israel when the president of the most powerful country in the world is unable even to persuade the Israelis to stop building settlements.

Israel’s American-born-and-raised ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, explained Obama’s apparent surrender by saying, “The administration recognizes that Israel has made major concessions in the absence of any substantial concessions on the part of the Arabs.” But Palestinians in the West Bank who watch Israel steal their land and uproot their orchards to make way for settlements, whose water is diverted to Israel, and who wait long hours at checkpoints, must have wondered what concessions Obama expected them to make.

The administration has been notably silent on Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza, even though the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically bans such collective punishment. The people of Gaza received an additional blow in late September, when the U.S. shunted aside the report of a commission authorized by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate war crimes committed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last December and January.

The commission, headed by internationally respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, who is Jewish, blamed both Israel and Hamas forces for the indiscriminate killing of civilians, but accused Israel of committing the far greater number of war crimes (see Ian Williams’ “What’s Next After the Goldstone Report?”in the November 2009 Washington Report, p. 12). The Israelis killed 100 Palestinians for every Israeli who died. The report also contained testimony of Israel’s deliberate destruction of shelters, schools and clinics, the use of white phosphorus, and the wanton killing of children. Although such crimes had already been documented by a number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and Amnesty International, Netanyahu denounced the report as “travesty,” a “farce,” and a “perversion” that “encouraged terrorism.” He vowed that no Israeli would ever be tried for war crimes.

The Obama administration stood firmly by Israel. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner called the findings of the Goldstone commission “deeply flawed” and accused the U.N. Human Rights Council of having “a fixation on Israel.” U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice called the report “one-sided and basically unacceptable,” and said, “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future.”

A focus on the future is of no help to the people of Gaza. According to a recent U.N. report, 70 percent of Gazans subsist on less than a dollar a day and 60 percent have no daily access to water (see p. 18). Because of the Israeli blockade it takes 85 days to get shelter kits into Gaza, where 20,000 people remain homeless. Pediatric hygiene kits face delays of at least 68 days, and truckloads of paper and textbooks have been “stranded indefinitely,” which means 130,000 children are being denied basic school materials.

The Obama administration evidently took seriously Netanyahu’s threat that forwarding the Goldstone commission report to the U.N. Security Council would “strike a fatal blow to the peace process”–”a process Netanyahu is dong his best to obstruct. Under what one diplomat called “tremendous pressure by the Americans,” the Palestinian delegation to the Goldstone commission and representatives of Arab states at first agreed to postpone action until next March.

President Abbas came under immediate attack for that decision, as Hamas and other Palestinians accused him of knuckling under to the U.S. and Israel and abandoning the people of Gaza. “The level of protest is unprecedented,” said Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Authority’s media center. Abbas quickly reversed himself, and on Oct. 14 the Palestinians officially endorsed the report, including its provision that the two sides conduct credible investigations into the charges against them. Two days later the Human Rights Council voted to send the report to the Security Council, authorizing it to monitor the investigations and send the case on to the International Criminal Court if they were not satisfactory. The U.S. is certain to veto any Security Council resolution aimed at Israel, but Abbas’ change of heart at least slowed his deepening split with Hamas.

The Obama administration is also siding more closely with Israel than with its allies when it comes to dealing with Iran. In late September Netanyahu telephoned key members of Congress urging the U.S. to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran. Shortly afterwards Secretary Clinton said on CBS that the administration was exploring ways to “broaden and deepen” existing sanctions.

In a major breakthrough at Geneva in early October, Iran agreed to open its nuclear enrichment facility at Qom to inspection and export some of its enriched uranium to Russia for conversion to fuel. Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, hailed Iran’s offer, saying, “we are shifting from confrontation into transparency and cooperation.” But Obama responded with an ultimatum. Insisting that Iran open all of its nuclear facilities and make scientists and their records available to inspectors, he warned that “if Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligation, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely.”

Europeans diplomats argue that stiffer sanctions such as an embargo on refined petroleum would cause misery to ordinary Iranians, weaken the Iranian opposition, and unite the country behind the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, Clinton traveled to Russia in mid-October to urge the Russians to support harsher sanctions (she was turned down), and the House Foreign Affairs Committee is working on a bill to punish foreign companies that export gasoline to Iran.

Nowhere in administration statements has there been mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Iran has long called for a nuclear-free Middle East, but that option is off the table as long as the U.S. remains pledged to guarantee Israel’s military dominance in the region. Eli Lake writes in the Oct. 2 issue of the Washington Times that Obama has promised Netanyahu he will observe President Lyndon Johnson’s agreement to allow Israel to maintain a nuclear arsenal without intentional inspections or pressure from the U.S. to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, former members of the National Security Council, recently talked with Iranians across the political spectrum and predict that ultimatums and harsher sanctions will not work. They point out that Iran is surrounded by U.S. forces–”in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf–”and they cite the desire of both reformists and conservatives to maintain a deterrent against American encirclement. In the absence of assurances from the U.S. that they will not be attacked, the Iranians want at least the capability of developing a nuclear weapon. They have had no such assurances from Obama.

In an op-ed column in the Sept. 29 New York Times, the Leveretts propose that the U.S. abandon threats of punishment and adopt a policy toward Iran calling for cooperation on security and economic matters, and a commitment by both countries to work toward peaceful resolution of regional conflicts. The Leveretts conclude: “Some may say that this is too high a price to pay for improved relations with Iran. But the price is high only for those who attach value to failed policies that have damaged American interests in the Middle East and made our allies there less secure.”

Failed Policies

When Obama took office last January he inherited the damage caused by those failed policies. The most intractable problem he faced was a war in Afghanistan that is becoming increasingly costly in terms of human life and resources, and creates additional enemies the longer it continues. The Bush administration’s misconceived effort to avenge a terrorist attack by 19 members of al-Qaeda by invading Afghanistan resulted in the overthrow of a Taliban regime that had restored a degree of stability and peace to a country suffering from years of anarchy and violence, and installed in its place a government headed by Hamid Karzai that is notorious for its corruption and incompetence. The United States is now a partner of that government.

George Packer, in the Sept. 28 New Yorker, quotes Sarah Chayes, founder of a development cooperative in Kandahar, as saying, “What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead we gave them warlords because we focused on counterterrorism.” An elderly Afghan man told Packer, “Our government is all corrupt. When the Taliban were in power, there was peace, there wasn’t one gunshot at that time. The last eight years we’ve had nothing.”

Many Afghans say that, however brutal, at least the Taliban provided justice. Thomas Friedman wrote in his Oct. 14 New York Times column that “the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurgency against the behavior of the Karzai government…And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing that government.”

As the war entered its ninth year Obama faced the choice of sending thousands more American troops to Afghanistan or adopting a counterinsurgency strategy that relies mainly on drone missile attacks and bombing. Both tactics have led to a sharp increase in roadside bombings and suicide attacks since 2006. Administration officials are also considering accepting the Taliban into the Afghan government if they renounce violence and are forbidden to retake control of Afghanistan. The Taliban are certain to reject such conditions.

The one option Obama said he would not consider was to end the fighting and bring home the troops. Having eliminated that choice, he is left with an open-ended war against a steadily expanding enemy in countries with unfamiliar cultures and languages, and where many of the inhabitants regard Americans as foreign occupiers.

In Pakistan, a poll by the International Republican Institute in early October found that 80 percent of the respondents opposed U.S. help in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism. As attacks by militant groups against security forces increased, and suicide bombings killed more than 100 people in the first two weeks of October alone, many Pakistanis saw America as the enemy. “They feel the Pakistani army is fighting for an American army and jihadists have a right to retaliate,” according to Farrukh Saleem, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

As the U.S. prepared to send $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan this year, officers expressed outrage at the aid bill’s requirement that the government exercise “effective civilian control over the military.” The military objects so strongly to having to cede power to the weak and ineffectual government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari that the headline in a leading Pakistani newspaper on Oct. 6 read, “Insult! Army Tells U.S. Military.”

The angry reaction by the Pakistani army to what it regards as unwarranted U.S. meddling, and the growing strength of the Taliban and other militants, should be a signal to Obama that pursuing national interests by means of military intervention can be dangerously counterproductive. The day the president will have earned his peace prize is the day America stops fighting an endless war on terrorism and devotes its efforts to eliminating the poverty, corruption, and oppression that cause it.