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Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine

Obama decided there is no point in wasting his time and political resources on Palestine, and he is right. He can’t change Israeli society; no foreign intervention can do that

Obama’s stance regarding the recognition of the Palestinian state, and his strident pro-Israeli tone before the UN have been variously explained as symptoms of the power of the Jewish voters/donors/lobby, or of America’s declining stature and influence in the world (ignoring recent progress on Libya, Al Qaeda and Iraq). But there is a much simpler explanation.

Obama has reverted to the default (i.e. staunchly sympathetic towards Israel) US position, because he realized there is nothing he could do to improve the situation. Therefore, there is no point in wasting his time and political resources on this issue. And he’s right: the US president does not have the power to change the dynamic on Palestine, and he is not to blame for the impasse we face.

What could he have done? Critics say he could have recognized a Palestinian state, and voted according in the Security Council, or pressured Israel more, or offered his own peace plan. But if one runs through the scenarios, it is hard to see how any of these paths could have led to a significantly better result.

If the US administration were to recognize Palestine, this would certainly be a dramatic move, with substantial legal and symbolic consequences. But the US Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – would do everything in their power to derail this policy. And even if they don’t, it is very hard to see Netanyahu throw away both his ideology and his premiership to follow suit. If the occupation continues, what’s the difference? No wonder many Palestinians are quite skeptical about this path.

What about more pressure on Israel? This is the favorite hobbyhorse of the administration’s critics. Certainly, Obama could have dialed it up many notches. But nowhere near enough to make Netanyhau, or his coalition, change their stripes. Without support from Congress, there are few sanctions the President can apply, and it is not clear that even sanctions would have made the Israeli right budge, or caused its public support to collapse.

Surely, Obama could have presented a peace plan of his own? The idea is appealing as an abstract notion, but one soon gets stuck on the content. Remember that Olmert and Abbas exchanged competing proposals on borders, and a significant gap remained, even without getting to the issue of the holy places or Palestinian refugees. If Obama were to move towards the Palestinians, his plan would be rejected not just by the current government in Jerusalem, but by the opposition as well. If he were to move towards Israel, he would be denounced as a sell-out, and rightly so.

What these three scenarios have in common, besides ending badly, is the underlying dynamic and power relations. Even if Obama’s policy had been perfect (and it certainly wasn’t), that would not have been enough to make Israeli society accept the need to change its policy towards the Palestinians. America’s involvement will be critical when that happens, but relying on any external force to somehow compel this change is both counter-productive and dangerous. This is not the time to be disillusioned about Obama – it is time to be disillusioned about the whole notion of a foreign knight in shining armor riding to the rescue.

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    1. Michael Dorfman

      Obama decided there is no point in wasting his time for the public option too. And for the real financial reform, and for the jobs, and for everything else.
      Obama himself is a waste of time, a looser, and he must go to clear the way for the new left, tea-party style, not the corporative power addicts like Obama and his stuff.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Laurent Schuman

      And what is your concrete proposal to get rid once for all from the predominant position of the American “knight in shining armor riding to rescue ?”. Unfortunately, it is a little bit more than just a disapointing “notion”…

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      Although Roi is still pushing the old “progressive” myth that Israel can have peace if it would only decide to (why not pressure the Palestinians to compromise on their non-negotiable demands such as the “right of return” of the refugees”) but he is correct that no externally imposed solution can work.
      Sarkozy is pushing for acccelerated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a time deadline. All this would do is ignite a major war, just like Arafat at Camp David did when pressed to the wall to make a agreement he didn’t want, and just like HAMAS did when Abbas was negotiating with Olmert. The Palestinians don’t want a negtiated, compromise agreement, so either the PA, or their “armed wing” with HAMAS would set off violence to get them out of the predicament of having to make traitorous compromises.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Noam W

      Bush senior managed to make a much more conservative Shamir move, begrudgingly enough, to create a complete change of the game for about five years.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Peter

      The only answer is for the rest of the world to impose sanctions on Israel as was done to end apartheid in South Africa. As with white South Africans Israeli Jews are probably very susceptible to economic pressure by being hit in the wallet. After all Israel has had demonstrations about the cost of living and that many Israelis cannot make ends meet. Once sanctions started to bite white South Africans gave up very quickly. It will be the same with Israelis.

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    6. AT

      NOam: Bush Sr. had the Congress behind him in his moves. Remember to, at the time, the evangelicals were not as powerful as today, so pressuring Israel wa not seen a political dynamite. T is the evangelical vote Congress is now pandering to, not the Jews.

      Ben: whether Israel can have “peace” is debatable. But looking at many similar conflicts across the world, accommodation and stability is within reach if Israel gives up on the settlement project. Your tribal enemy doesn’t have to love and embrace you. They just need negative and positive incentives to focus on their own problems. Palestine the state is the positive incentive missing. The negative incentive is the Israeli army. Ending the settlements will also increase internal cohesion in Israel, thereby strengthening the army.

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    7. Obama had Congress behind him when he demanded a total, open-ended settlement freeze – he should have stuck by it and punished Bibi if he didn’t comply, but he let Bibi wheedle him to death. At the same time, Obama should have put the 67-borders-w/land-swaps demand on Bibi, and punished him if he didn’t comply. Obama didn’t have the guts, is all. The poor bastard really believed he could change the world by gentle persuasion. Look where he is now.

      Reply to Comment
    8. aristeides

      There are things a US president can do without the consent of Congress. He just has to be willing to live with the consequences. A UN vote is one of those things.

      When LBJ pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he knew the southern Democrats would bolt his party, but he was willing to have this happen as the price for doing the right thing.

      Barack Obama is too craven to do the right thing. I wouldn’t blame him for trying and failing, but I sure as hell blame him for refusing to try.

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    9. Ben Israel

      You are apparently quoting without realizing it General Evelyn Barker, commander of British forces in Palestine, during the Jewish underground uprising of 1946-7 against British rule. The attacks by the underground were so effective that Barker gave orders that British troops were to have no contact with Jewish businesses (cafes, stores, restaurants, etc). He said “we will teach the Jews a lesson by hitting them in the place that hurts this race the most…in the pocket”. He was reprimanded for saying that and the order was cancelled.
      I see you feel the same way. I read an extensive report about sanctions against South Africa. The report concluded that the the sanctions pretty much hit only the black population, the whites were not effected, and sanctions had little to do with the end of the Apartheid regime. The regime ended because South African businessmen showed that the apartheid system was grossly ineffecient economically, and with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the ANC agreed to drop its plan for confiscation of white property. This gave the whites enough confidence to give up power. As I said, sanctions had little to do with it. The article also showed that sanctions almost never get countries to change their policies. This was true also of Rhodesia.

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    10. Obama is a mediator, not a savvy pusher/cajoler.

      He’s not using Biden effectively, who is a savvy pusher/cajoler.

      He should be personally willing to be a one-term president, so that he can work from his strategic convictions rather than from strategic campaigning.

      In the US, the process of campaigning is almost a larger test than the actual job. It takes almost as much time.

      The executive branch on its own, can be very effective, especially on a diplomatic issue. And, if free to pursue the best, rather than the marketable, it will at least pursue the best, and likely also be marketable.

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    11. Roi, Obama could have punished Bibi any number of ways – George Bush held up loan guarantees, Gerald Ford threatened to “reevaluate” the US-Israel relationship, Ford, if I’m not mistaken, held up spare parts for military equipment. Obama could have cut the $3 billion a year, he could have warned that he wouldn’t veto UN resolutons, he could have spoken very simple truths about the occupation that would have made the atmosphere a lot hotter for Israel. He would have had a political fight on his hands, but other presidents have been up to it – Obama didn’t have the guts.

      Reply to Comment