Barack Obama had worse failures to address in his State of the Union message on January 27, but only a few days earlier he had owned up to the most foolish miscalculation that his administration had made in its first year in power. In an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine, he confessed that he had not understood the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
“The Middle East peace process has not moved forward.... It is not where I want it to be,” Obama said. “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”
But why didn’t he anticipate them? Is there really nobody in Washington who could have told Obama the truth about the Middle East? Every non-American commentator who knows anything about the region has been saying for the past year that there is absolutely no chance of a breakthrough at the present time. In fact, it is probably dead for a generation.
For example, Obama wanted the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to enter into direct peace talks with the Israeli government, even though he knew that Abbas only ruled around 60 per cent of the Arab population of the occupied territories. The other 40 per cent, in the Gaza Strip, are under the control of the radical Islamist movement, Hamas, which rejects a permanent peace settlement with Israel.
So what was Abbas going to do? Sign a peace treaty with Israel, and get the Israeli army to impose it on the Gaza Strip? Why would he sign a “separate peace” with Israel and turn himself into an eternally reviled traitor to the Palestinian cause just to serve Obama’s agenda?
Similarly, why would even the most pro-peace Israeli government make a deal with Abbas, who cannot deliver the assent of all, or at least most, of the Palestinians? Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister’s coalition is not particularly “pro-peace”. It depends on the hard Right and the settler parties for its majority in the Knesset (parliament), and it is not going to sacrifice its vision of a greater Israel to the whim of some passing American president.
It is Israel, not the White House, that controls America’s policy on Arab-Israeli issues, due to its huge influence in Congress. Only one president of the past generation, George Bush Senior, has successfully defied Israel. His threat of sanctions had brought the Israelis to the negotiation table after the Gulf War of 1990-91 — but he is convinced that that is why he lost the 1992 election.
Obama has had to re-learn that lesson over the past year. He began by backing the Palestinian demand that Israel halt new settlement-building in the occupied territories before the start of peace talks. For forty years, Palestinians have watched more and more of their land disappear under Israeli settlements, and they are a bit sensitive on the subject.
Netanyahu simply said no. Then, after six months, he made a tiny concession — Israel would not start any new building projects in the more rural parts of the West Bank for ten months, although it would continue work on all current projects. Also, it would not accept any limitations on its freedom to build new Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. This was virtually meaningless, but Obama had learnt his lesson by then. It gave him an excuse to switch his position, and demand that Abbas drop his preconditions for entering peace talks too, as if Netanyahu had dropped his.
What deluded adviser told Obama that there was any point in embarking on this foredoomed enterprise? It could be almost any of the recognized “experts” on the Middle East in Washington. They have been spouting nonsense for so long that it sounds like sense to them.