As usual, the events in the Mideast and North Africa have been tumultuous, surprising, and chaotic.
Unrest and revolution have swept the entire arc of North Africa and have crossed into the Mideast. The Tunisia revolution was characterized by a demand for freedom and for democracy. The Mubarak autocracy imploded as his people rose up against years of repression. Yemen, a disaster in its own right, yearns for peace and democracy. The Syrian regime is teetering under Assad the younger, who has vacillated between conciliation and massacre. In none of these upheavals, however, are Israel or the Palestinians central to the events.
Nevertheless, the wise men and women in our State Department have assessed these facts and come to the conclusion that it is Israel that must yield. As he has declared on many occasions, President Obama again insists solving the Israel-Palestinian problem is the linchpin to regional peace. Meeting recently with King Abdullah of Jordan, the president attempted to link the Jordanian-Palestinian problem by tying the situation in Israel to instability in Jordan. Obviously, instability in Jordan is based upon internal political dissatisfaction with the monarchy, and not the conflict with Israel.
An objective assessment, however, shows that demographic trends and yearnings for freedom (and some form of democracy) have been the crosscurrents of change in the Arab Spring, not Israel and its settlements. Virtually none of those voices, from the Arabian peninsula to the Mediterranean surrounding North Africa, have been directed at Israeli actions or inactions. Yet, our government continues to tie the two together.
While we have geopolitical interest in stabilizing the region and maintaining ties and “friendship” with certain “moderate” Arab states, change in those states is rarely forthcoming.
Our government was nominally upset with repression in Bahrain. We are similarly concerned about Wahabi Islam’s domination of Saudi Arabia. But, at the end of the day, our government’s concern is directed at our most stable and trusted ally. They have prodded, pushed, cajoled, and forced Israel into a compromised position to make peace.
In his May 19 speech on the Middle East and at the AIPAC policy conference days later, Obama started with lofty goals for peace. Instead of simply lauding the Arab Spring, he focused on the intractable “conflict between Israelis and Arabs” which “has cast a shadow over the region.” (Coincidentally, on the same day the president lashed out at Israel, the United States announced a record arms deal with Saudi Arabia.)
Yet the president’s consistent concern that there is linkage between the democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa “and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is not supported by fact or reality.
I applaud the president for repeating our deeply rooted friendship, shared history, and shared values with Israel. But his overall comments may have undermined Israel’s ability to make peace. He has now placed a firm marker on 1967 borders — far more limited in scope than his predecessors — and ducked the issue of Arab “right of return” entirely.
In addition, while the president said it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action at the table, he clearly drew a line in the sand by stating that the 1967 lines should form the basis for borders between both states, even with “land swaps.” Facts on the ground as well as other economic and geopolitical realities make those lines, 45 years later, untenable.
Building in Har Homa and other contiguous areas to Jerusalem or, even in Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem, is simply not a basis for criticizing Israel. When Israel voluntarily withdrew from the Gaza, it forcibly evicted its own citizens and destroyed their homes because it had made a strategic judgment to leave. Israel can be expected to make similar hard choices when it is able to negotiate with a real partner.
The president acknowledged Israel’s dilemma when he spoke of the Palestinian Authority’s pact with Hamas: “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?”
Perhaps Obama could have gone further, and asked a few more questions: How can Israel proceed without a partner able to govern its own territory, and develop and administer infrastructure, able to provide legitimate education to its people, and able to come to the table, negotiate, and make peace? By avoiding intractable internal issues among the Palestinians, the president has left Israel more exposed to international criticism and ostracism and given a generally free pass to the PA on key issues.
Frankly, when the president stated that the choices facing Israel and the Palestinian entity are the same choices that affect the “entire region — a choice between hate and hope,” he missed the mark widely. He said this is a choice between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. These comments are simply insulting to Israel, its people, and its leadership. Yes, the region has served as the cradle of civilization but suggesting that democratic Israel is in the same “crucible of strife” as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other autocratic countries in the region paints with too broad a brush. My concern at the end of the day is that the Arab Spring may lead to an Israeli Winter.