By Roger Aronoff
On June 30, 2011
President Obama’s Middle East policies continue to unravel as he pursues a dangerous and duplicitous policy. It may have worked while he was getting elected the first time as President, but evidence of failure is everywhere, as the Arab Spring turns into a frenzied death spiral where the winners, to the extent there are any, are radical Islamists including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and in Turkey, a re-election of the Erdogan government with growing ties to Iran. In Libya the U.S. and NATO are caught up in a quagmire that was supposed to involve heavy U.S. involvement for “days not weeks,” followed by a supporting role only. According to President Obama, who never sought Congressional approval under the War Powers Act, the mission was to protect civilians and enforce an arms embargo. It has now shifted to heavy bombing of Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s compound with the clear intent to kill him or drive him out, precisely what Obama said the mission was not about. And the U.S. has continued an active role in the bombing campaign.
Whether President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world since becoming President has provoked the turmoil that now exists, or has kept it from getting even worse than it is, is open to debate. But today, virtually every country in that region of the world is either dominated by radical Islamists, often with ties to Iran, or is in turmoil with the current government in jeopardy of being swept away onto the ash heap of history.
So what to do? Step up pressure on Israel, of course, to make a deal with the newly formed alliance between the supposedly moderate Fatah of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza. The opportunity for peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been dramatically set back by an Obama policy that is either a case of deliberate undermining for ideological or political reasons, or else the work of rank amateurs. And America’s mainstream media are largely supportive of the Obama narrative that is driving this dangerous and misguided policy.
The problem for Obama is that this is no longer 2008, when while running for president, he said in his speech to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) that Jerusalem “must” remain the “undivided” capital of Israel. The next day, through an aide, came his true position, that Jerusalem was literally “not going to be divided by barbed wire.” That’s what he meant by “undivided.”
He still tries to parse his words to give himself credibility and wiggle room. That way, Israelis and American Jewish supporters might believe him when he says, for example, that his statement prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington in late May wasn’t a policy shift, rather it was the same, but unstated, position of past U.S. presidents.
It was during a May 19th speech at the State Department, just days before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that President Obama stated the line that generated so much discussion. After offering a cautiously optimistic view of the so-called Arab Spring, the subject switched to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Obama said,
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Netanyahu was reportedly told by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before his arrival that President Obama would be using that language. Netanyahu objected, but there was no turning back. Over the next several days, the two heads of state gave dueling speeches—Obama at the State Department and then at AIPAC; Netanyahu before Congress and at AIPAC. They met at the White House, and went before the cameras, where Netanyahu explained—some said “lectured”—to Obama about why those 1967 borders were not defensible, and not the basis for further negotiations.
Obama and others argued that he was boldly stating the obvious, a policy that had existed for many years. But when it comes to Middle East peace, nuance and code words abound, all fraught with historical context.
Caroline Glick, the highly regarded columnist and Deputy Managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, explained  the shift in policy. The claim that this didn’t represent a shift in policy “is exposed as a lie by previous administration statements. On November 25, 2009, in response to Netanyahu’s acceptance of Obama’s demand for a 10-month moratorium on Jewish property rights in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the State Department issued the following statement:
‘Today’s announcement by the Government of Israel helps move forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal [emphasis added] of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.’
Thus, in Obama’s May 19th speech, “he took ‘the Palestinian goal’ and made it the US’s goal. It is hard to imagine a more radically anti-Israel policy shift than that.”
And that was by no means all. “Until his May 19 speech,” wrote Glick, “the US agreed with Israel that the issue of borders is only one of many—including the Palestinians’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist, their demand to inundate Israel with millions of foreign Arab immigrants, their demand for control over Israel’s water supply and Jerusalem—that have to be sorted out in negotiations. The joint US-Israeli position was that until all of these issues were resolved, none of them were resolved.”
Up until the time that Netanyahu agreed to the 10-month moratorium in 2009, even the Palestinians weren’t making those demands of the Israelis. The Palestinians refused to negotiate with the Israelis during that period, and Israel has not extended the freeze. So Obama’s pressure on Israel ended up making conditions for an agreement that much more difficult.
Now he has done it again. Before the Palestinians will even discuss any of these other issues, as Caroline Glick pointed out, “Israel has to first agree to accept the indefensible 1967 boundaries as its permanent borders. This position allows the Palestinians to essentially maintain their policy of demanding that Israel make unreciprocated concessions that then serve as the starting point for further unreciprocated concessions.”
The fact is, under certain conditions, the ’67 borders, with swaps, could be the basis for negotiations, if only there was a genuine partner with which Israel could establish peaceful relations. But that became even less likely once Hamas and Fatah joined forces. A June 13th New York Times article made it clear that the alliance is having troubles, as the two sides to the May 4th Egyptian-brokered agreement can’t agree on even interim leadership. Again, the idea that this is the time for Israel to step up and make an agreement with the Palestinians, while all this is occurring, is absurd and unrealistic.
Obama’s implied position is that Israel should agree to his formula, because if they don’t, the United Nations is going to approve Palestinian statehood this September when a resolution is introduced in the General Assembly. The issue there, however, is that while the U.S. has no veto power in the General Assembly, the resolution would first require a recommendation from the Security Council. The U.S. has a veto there, and in the past has used it when necessary on behalf of Israel, sometimes quite grudgingly. In fact last February UN Ambassador Susan Rice issued the Obama administration’s first such veto, in this case a resolution declaring Israel’s settlements in the West Bank illegal. Rice stated at the time that with “the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.”
What Obama should have said is that the starting point for negotiations is the acceptance, and statement, that the Palestinian Authority, the official governing body of the disputed territories, must publicly, in word and deed, acknowledge the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Thus, they must give up the idea of the so-called “right of return.”
The Refugees and “Right of Return”
The right of return is the idea promoted by the Palestinians and many of their supporters that those Arabs who left Israel in 1948, shortly after the UN declared Israel a state, should be allowed to return to their original homes. There were an estimated 700,000 such Arabs who fled Israel at the time, but for the most part, they weren’t expelled from Israel. They left at the behest of the Arab countries that were about to invade and attempt to destroy the nascent state. And now, not only do they want the right of return for the remaining population of those 700,000, but for all of their descendants, something that has never been the case with refugees in the past.
Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, has studied the situation, and how it differs from other refugee plights; in fact, from all the other 135 million 20th-century refugees. According to Pipes , “In every other instance, the pain of dispossession, statelessness, and poverty has diminished over time. Refugees eventually either resettled, returned home or died. Their children…then shed the refugee status and joined the mainstream.
“Not so the Palestinians. For them, the refugee status continues from one generation to the next, creating an ever-larger pool of anguish and discontent.”
What explains the difference, according to Pipes, is the UN bureaucratic structure. One UN agency is the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was set up specifically for Palestinian refugees in 1949, and which defines Palestinian refugees differently from all other refugees.
“They are persons who lived in Palestine ‘between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict,’ wrote Pipes. “Especially important is that UNRWA extends the refugee status to ‘the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.’”
Pipes wrote that “the U.N.’s (inflated) statistics numbered 726,000,” though scholarly estimates are much lower, and as of 2004, he says that, according to a demographer, the real number of those 1948 refugees still alive is probably around 200,000.
According to UNRWA, the total, in 2004, was 4.25 million people, which included three generations of descendants and Palestinians who left in 1967. As Pipes argued in his article, the 200,000 actual refugees at that time comprised just five percent of the 4.25 million. “By international standards, those other 95 percent are not refugees at all. By falsely attaching a refugee status to these Palestinians who never fled anywhere, UNRWA condemns a creative and entrepreneurial people to lives of exclusion, self-pity and nihilism.”
He pointed out that things are made worse by the policies of Arab governments, who use this to their advantage. “In Lebanon, for instance, the 400,000 stateless Palestinians are not allowed to attend public school, own property or even improve their housing stock.” He argues that UNRWA should be shut down. The U.S. provides some 40% of its more than $300 million budget.
In addition, the General Assembly of the UN spends much of its time criticizing Israel. As of 2004, there had been 322 resolutions critical of Israel, compared to zero, none, condemning any Arab country.
But in spite of all this, the Obama administration is still pressuring Netanyahu to publicly accept the 1967 borders, with land swaps, as the basis for negotiations, and to then move on to the other key issues—right of return and dividing Jerusalem.
The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted  how Obama has undermined Israel’s negotiating position. “He is demanding that Israel go into peace talks having already forfeited its claim to the territory won in the ’67 war—its only bargaining chip. Remember: That ’67 line runs right through Jerusalem. Thus the starting point of negotiations would be that the Western Wall and even Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter are Palestinian—alien territory for which Israel must now bargain.”
Krauthammer continued: “The very idea that Judaism’s holiest shrine is alien or that Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter is rightfully or historically or demographically Arab is an absurdity. And the idea that, in order to retain them, Israel has to give up parts of itself is a travesty.” He took note of Obama’s statement that “The status quo is unsustainable,” and that “Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”
“Israel too?” asked Krauthammer. “Exactly what bold steps for peace have the Palestinians taken? Israel made three radically conciliatory offers to establish a Palestinian state, withdrew from Gaza and has been trying to renew negotiations for more than two years. Meanwhile, the Gaza Palestinians have been firing rockets at Israeli towns and villages. And on the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turns down then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, walks out of negotiations with Binyamin Netanyahu and now defies the United States by seeking not peace talks but instant statehood—without peace, without recognizing Israel—at the United Nations.”
Mainstream Media Choose Sides
But much of the mainstream media—such as Andrea Mitchell of NBC and MSNBC, were appalled at the “disrespect” that they felt Netanyahu showed toward Obama at the White House.
Tom Friedman of The New York Times agrees with Obama that it is up to Israel to “take a big risk for peace.” He wrote, “The only way for Netanyahu to be taken seriously again is if he risks some political capital and actually surprises people. Bibi keeps hinting that he is ready for painful territorial compromises involving settlements. Fine, put a map on the table. Let’s see what you’re talking about.”
Writing for Time, Joe Klein was even more direct: “I have enough respect for Netanyahu to know that his positions are not just politically expedient; they are heartfelt. But they are terribly, perhaps disastrously, wrong.” Klein added this: “Why on earth would Bibi Netanyahu choose to be so boorish and provocative? Because he can be. He has the U.S. Congress in his pocket…”
The only remaining question, however, according to Krauthammer, “is whether this perverse and ultimately self-defeating policy is born of genuine antipathy toward Israel or of the arrogance of a blundering amateur [Obama] who refuses to see that he is undermining not just peace but the very possibility of negotiations.”
If the goal of the Obama administration is the peaceful co-existence between two independent and secure countries living side by side, Israel and Palestine, their actions and policies couldn’t have been more counterproductive. There would be little chance under normal circumstances that the Palestinians could get as generous an offer for statehood from this Israeli government as they have already gotten three times in the last 11 years. And on top of that you have the divided Palestinian government with both sides still openly hostile to Israel, Lebanon controlled by Iranian backed Hezbollah, Syria in a civil war, Egypt no longer a reliable ally in terms of upholding the Camp David Accords, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program advancing unabated.
So why is the U.S. wasting its prestige and credibility on a deal that isn’t going to happen? Could it be that it provides these countries the opportunity to blame the crises throughout the region on Israel, while the U.S. maintains viable relations with the oil-rich nations of the Middle East? Or is it something even more sinister than that?