By Barry Rubin
A Muslim friend who I greatly respect wrote me that he doesn”t understand why I’ve been complaining about Obama’s speeches. I suggested that the problem is he has been reading media coverage which tends to revolve around one sentence in the State Department speech. All I do is read the entire texts carefully and analyze them. People are saying that Obama’s position is the same as Bush’s or that he said nothing new.
Honest, if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so upset that he would publicly disagree with the U.S. president he–and others in Israel–have a reason for doing so. It is, after all, our lives are on the line.
Consider this: Israel is on the verge of having four hostile and radical regimes as neighbors–Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, a Hizballah-dominated Lebanon, and Syria (which might get worse). It’s nearest ally, Turkey, has become completely hostile and is dominated by an Islamist regime that–let’s face it–doesn’t like Jews generally. Its biggest enemy in the region–Iran–is increasing its influence and heading toward nuclear weapons. At that same moment, the United States ia acting weaker, less reliable, and less friendly toward Israe than at any time in decades.
And it is at this moment that Obama asks for more concessions and risks. And who are the concessions to be made to? A radical nationalist PA which is now in partnership with the openly genocidal Hamas.
Yet despite the previous two paragraphs, there are those who would characterize Israel’s position as completely unreasonable. Indeed, Obama implies that if Israel makes concessions and turns over almost all of the West Bank to the PA as soon as possible, all of these problems will go away.
In most of the media, people who know nothing about such matters are ridiculing Israel, arguing that it has nothing to be upset about. Yet they never respond to the specific questions and problems that I’m raising. They just ignore them completely.
I regret that one sentence in President Barack Obama’s speech at the State Department has become virtually the sole topic of debate about those talks. As I’ve pointed out—here and here and here–there are more than a half-dozen bigger problems and a lot of scary things in his State Department and AIPAC speeches that indicate his thinking on the issue more than anything he’s ever said before.
Obama likes the focus on that one sentence because—as he spent so much time in his AIPAC speech asserting—he can claim to be misquoted. But let’s spend a moment on the problem with that one sentence.
Obama can claim he stayed within traditional U.S. policy yet that is misleading. One of the main formulas used has been that the two parties will determine the borders in negotiations. Since the Palestinian Authority wants the 1967 borders precisely while Israel wants changes this formula preserves Israel’s leverage. Israel can ask for more then use that as leverage to get less—but get what it needs.
Obama limited Israel’s leverage in two ways:
1. The 1967 borders with presumably minor changes.
2. Israel must also give territory in order to claim any parts of the West Bank. While Israel had mentioned the possibility of swaps now it is mandatory.
It isn’t as if nobody has thought of these two points before. But up until now that was the way negotiations might end. What Obama has now done is to make this the starting point. Within hours of his speech, the PA demanded that Israel must accept the 1967 borders (with no changes) before it would negotiate!
So objectively, Obama’s position has hurt any prospects for peace or even…holding talks at all.
It’s equally true that the PA doesn’t love Obama’s formulation. Yet the problem is that it knows it can always push for more–as it is now doing–and that no European or American government will pressure them to make concessions. Israel’s situation is the opposite: international pressure continually seeks to erode its position.
The administration of Obama’s predecessor promised Israel that it could keep “settlement blocs,” that is, areas of large-scale Israel Jewish population (all very close to the pre-1967 borders), would be annexed by Israel. At first, the Obama Administration rejected that pledge. Such behavior is totally against international diplomatic practice, in which governments must maintain their predecessors’ commitments. Israel remembers how the Obama Administration reneged on that commitment. And that’s not the only one.
When Israel agreed to Obama’s request for a nine-month freeze of construction on settlements, the U.S. government secretly (though it was signaled subtly in public) reinstated that commitment. Obama might have mentioned that in one of his two speeches, thus showing Israel that he does back some substantial, but small-scale, changes. But he didn’t do so.
Remember, that the totality of Israel’s claims for border changes relates to only three to five percent of the entire West Bank.
So isn’t Obama right in saying that he was misquoted since he did talk about land swaps and the need for both sides to agree on the future borders? Yes, his formulation could be within acceptable boundaries.
Why then are people up in arms on that sentence? First, journalists and “experts” are lazy and didn’t read or analyze the full speech. It is easier to repeat what everyone else is saying.
Second, almost unnoticed has been the truly shocking peace plan proposed by Obama:
Step one: Israel withdraws from (all?) the West Bank in exchange for paper security guarantees by the PA.
Step two: The two sides negotiate remaining issues.
Do you realize the implications? If Israel pulls out of all of the West Bank isn’t it going back to the 1967 borders? Supposedly, this is temporary, pending a comprehensive agreement? Ha-ha.
In other words, Israel will give up real assets in exchange for promises made by a counterpart (which includes Hamas which has made clear it won’t accept anything less than Israel’s extinction!) and guaranteed by a (former?) great power whose leader has a record of not keeping promises.
But remember that this is all part of Obama’s wider theme: It is in Israel’s interests to make a lot of concessions as fast as possible so that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will end and then Israel (with reduced territory and a new hostile, much bigger, neighbor!) will be more popular in the world and more secure in the Middle East.
The moment when Israel is about to have three hostile and radical Islamist neighbors (Egypt, Gaza Strip, Lebanon) with the possibility of a fourth (a possible Syrian revolution) is not the time to demand concessions to a fifth, half-Islamist, half-radical nationalist one.
The real difference between Obama and George Bush in terms of their personal quality as presidents is that when Bush said or did something dumb or dangerous he was denounced by media and opinion makers. When Obama does the same thing, he’s praised for his brilliance. At least withering criticism gave Bush’s Administration an opportunity to improve. Obama keeps wading deeper into the swamp, smugly asserting that he’s heading in the right direction.
Third, this specific spat merely symbolizes Israel’s mistrust of Obama and his attitude toward it. On a half-dozen occasions Obama has broken promises to Israel while accepting PA slaps in his face with no complaints and even more support.
Moreover, Israel faces a dangerous regional problem largely due to Obama’s policies. The moment Egypt is about to become hostile, Iran’s influence is advancing and it will soon get nuclear weapons (no matter what Obama says), Fatah and Hamas reunite, and Hizballah is about to take over Lebanon is not the ideal moment for Israel to take more risks and make more concessions.
And despite Obama’s tougher language in his State Department speech, the truth is that he is still passively accepting, without sanctions or pressure, the fact that his PA client has just united with an openly antisemitic, genocidal, terrorist group that makes no secret of planning to wipe Israel and Israelis off the map.
Imagine an ally demanding that the United States make concessions to a government in which al-Qaida was a coalition partner and you get a sense of what Obama’s policy means to Israel. Obama has been slow to act on Iran, soft on Syria, willing to deal with a Lebanese government that includes Hizballah, helpful to Hamas, almost uncritical of the PA, and generous to the Muslim Brotherhood. Only in Israel’s case does he, personally, strike a different tone. That might be an exaggeration but it isn’t a big exaggeration.
Obama’s total ignorance or ignoring of Israel’s past experience is chilling. After more than two years in which Israel has done most of what Obama has requested (not everything, certainly, but quite a lot), he has shown no reciprocity in his own statements. For example, he might have praised Israel for its freeze of construction on settlements but he didn’t.
No one even noticed that in his AIPAC speech, Obama didn’t cite a single specific thing that Israel has done for praise: not the risks and costs of the Oslo process; not the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon; nothing at all. His praise was vague, general, and just a copy-and-paste job of what past presidents said.
Finally, a president is supposed to express himself clearly. Afterward, he can’t tell other countries and his own people they are too dumb to understand him. When a leader talks like that it should raise a red flag that something is wrong. And voters should give him a red card.*
The last time I heard something like that was the day after the last Turkish election when an opposition party leader was asked on television why his side lost. ”Because the voters are stupid,” he replied.
Another diplomatic no-no is to make a major speech affecting the survival of someone else’s country when its leader is flying to your capital for meetings, especially when done without full prior consultation.
Obama never lacks for apologists who dominate the cameras and printing presses. Ridiculous things are said to excuse his two speeches and obfuscate the serious problems with both. In the face of a dangerous tidal wave, Obama proclaims it a perfect day to go to the beach. And he tells Israel that it should swim further out, beyond the warning signs.
As I read the AIPAC speech I was reminded of an incident during the 1930s. A famous children’s show host on radio had just finished a broadcast. Thinking the microphone was off, he said, “That ought to hold the little bastards!” Those words went out over the air and children who toddled off to ask parents what “bastards” meant. Ah, those were more innocent times.
I’m not claiming this is what Obama said after the AIPAC speech but I think the story gives a sense of his cynical attitude toward Israel and the Jewish voters.
1. Israel gives up all West Bank first and then negotiates on borders.
2. Israel loses leverage for getting something in exchange for basically accepting 1967 borders.
3. Encourages the PA–as has now happened–to demand Israel accepts 1967 borders before negotiating.
4. Would rule out the Jordan Valley security zone he wants.
5. Palestinians don’t have to accept an end of conflict, no right of return, or Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for getting a big thing they want. In short, Israel is being pressed toward a concession. What is the PA pressed to do? To talk with Israel and thus get a big concession!
6. In discussing swaps, Obama didn’t mention settlement blocs so he has dropped assurances to Israel that it would get specific pieces of land it wants.
7. And of course he cannot be depended upon to back Israel on its needs but he can be depended on to demand more Israeli concessions.
8. The regional situation is very dangerous and it is not a time to be turning over territory to an unstable, hostile entity.
*Note: In football (soccer), A player committing a very bad foul is given a red card by the referee, which means he’s thrown out of the game.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/ His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.