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What's Obama's Score on Mideast Peace?

posted on: Oct 17, 2009

Barack Obama: a. deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for pointing the world toward peace b. hardly deserves the Prize, since he has no concrete achievements yet to merit it.

The right answer? Take your pick.

In his brief remarks just hours after the Prize was announced, the president mentioned only one conflict that he has an “unwavering commitment” to resolve: Israel and Palestine. So here is one good test of the Nobel committee’s wisdom:

Barack Obama is: a. giving in to Israeli pressure, thus bungling any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement b. patiently guiding Israelis and Palestinians through a long, delicate negotiation process to a settlement that neither side may want but both will be forced to accept.

Again, take your pick. There are seasoned observers and pundits making a good case on both sides.

The pessimists seem to have a stronger argument on the face of it. Journalist Helena Cobban [] points out that since “Obama has never moved beyond words in his push to freeze settlement construction, there seems little reason to hope he would do so in his pursuit of the broader peace settlement, either.”

The US effort to bury Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on last winter’s attack on Gaza, offering evidence of Israeli war crimes, adds to her case. “The sheer rapidity and partisanship of their response to the Goldstone Report was breath-taking,” Cobban told me. Nearly everyone in the administration “worked speedily to consign the report, sight unseen, to the trashcan.”

Cobban’s colleague at Inter-Press Service, Jim Lobe, quotes Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University and co-author of “The Israel Lobby”: “Obama underestimated the tenacity of Netanyahu, and the administration did not seem to have thought through what they would do if they didn’t get the cooperation they wanted (on settlements).” If they couldn’t get cooperation on settlements, Walt asks logically, how can they expect cooperation on even tougher issues like Jerusalem and the right of return?

Lobe also quotes veteran US diplomat Aaron David Miller, who adds up the score this way: “Netanyahu 1, and Abbas, Obama and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, zero.” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, agrees: “You have the Israelis crowing and the Palestinians looking humiliated in the face of hardliners. That’s not a good place to be. We’re now in a somewhat more difficult situation than we were before these discussions began.”

In Miller’s view, the US looks humiliated too. “A superpower pays a price any time a tinier power says no,” he told Politico, which gives Obama’s Middle East policy only a grade of C-plus, warning that “it’s still not clear whether the White House is ready to make the intensive effort to get real compromise on the core issues.” And that grade was assigned before the administration bowed to Israeli pressure on the Goldstone report.

Cobban adds to the critique by finding “worrying signs of discord among the team consisting of Obama and top peace-team members…. Obama’s shift in focus from the settlement freeze to the final-status issue signaled the president’s frustration with the approach that Mitchell has used until now.”

Moreover, “Obama had spelled out that peace is ‘in the interests of the United States.’ But [Rahm] Emanuel told [Charlie] Rose that the US ‘can’t want peace more than [the parties] want it.’ That was a formula frequently used during the Clinton and Bush II administrations to signify that, if a difference should emerge between Washington and Israel over the peace diplomacy, then Washington would back down.”

Speaking for all the pessimists, Cobban concludes that with Fatah and Hamas “still at loggerheads, the Obama administration apparently split and anyway unwilling to confront Israel on key issues, and Israel’s peace movement now a mere shadow of its former vibrant self, the prospects for rapid success in the diplomacy look very dim.”

Yet, her dim view is tinged with an optimistic belief that (as she told me) everyone is reformable. “But I really hope it doesn’t take another big crisis to wake [Obama] from his nine months of inaction,” she added. “By then, matters might get very much worse, very rapidly indeed.

Lobe, too, sees a ray of light: The refusal to curb settlement expansion “may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory for the hard-line government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.” As Zogby told Lobe, “Netanyahu is a master-maneuverer who uses every situation to his advantage, but I’m confident that Mitchell is quite attuned to that. And, in any event, we’re a long way from the end of the game.” If Fatah and Hamas can find a way to some kind of unity, for example, they could dramatically change the rules.

Zogby mentions another potential game-changer: “The de-linking of settlements from final status could be a change in tack.”

Analyst Daniel Levy argues that this is indeed the case. “What we have been witnessing thus far, including today, has been a table-setting exercise,” he observes. Obama’s strategy is heading toward “the presentation and active promotion, at the appropriate moment, of an American plan for implementing a comprehensive peace” – which is exactly what Netanyahu hopes to avoid. His “preferred approach was to focus on interim issues and confidence-building measures (CBMs) and to avoid negotiating the core issues (territories, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.).”

But here’s the cleverness of the US approach, in Levy’s view: “The settlement freeze focus has made Netanyahu’s natural comfort zone – the interim/CBM world – a prohibitively uncomfortable place to inhabit. So paradoxically, it is Netanyahu who now feels compelled to embrace and prefer negotiations on permanent status end-game issues…. The border component of the two-state deal becomes the default solution to what the Americans have established, possibly in a premeditated way, as the never-ending settlement freeze” debate.

The Los Angeles Times suggests that this was indeed premeditated: “US officials said privately that they never had expected to win a total settlement freeze.” That may be just an after-the-fact excuse for an administration that decided to back down. But it may be the truth.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian, also sees long-term strategy at work in the White House, claiming that the “panicking” pessimists “may be forgetting both the mess that [Obama] inherited and his leadership style. He plays the long, slow game, advancing gradually. So, yes, there was no overnight fix in New York, but that was never on the cards.”

Freedland adds to his case some obvious but often overlooked points. Obama is clearly committed to this peace process: “Unlike most US presidents keen to play Middle East peacemaker, he has not tackled this in his last year, but in his first.” And “Obama’s achievement [at the UN] was modest, but it was not nothing. In the end, both Netanyahu and Abbas had to bend to his will…. By announcing that Hillary Clinton – rather than just his envoy, George Mitchell – will report back to him in mid-October, he has ratcheted up the engagement a notch.” Obama’s decision to mention only Israel-Palestine, among all the world’s trouble spots, in his Nobel acknowledgment remarks underscores Freedland’s point.

In the end, Freedland concludes what any objective observer might conclude: “I’m not sure which view – the ever-shrinking Obama whose credibility is eroding fast, or the careful tortoise who will eventually overtake the hare – is right. It’s too early to tell.” And he adds some good advice: “Either way, Obama needs to shake off that first perception [of eroding credibility] before it congeals” – because if the perception of failed credibility gets locked in, in the Middle East or in the United States, Obama will never be able to force the two sides to make peace.

But the principle that Werner Heisenberg taught physicists long ago is equally true in the realm of politics: There is no such thing as purely objective perception. Whenever anyone observes and reports what they observe, they change the system under observation. We are all participant-observers; we can all choose, to some extent, the perspective from which we see things.

In this case that’s good news. It offers all of us a chance to help shore up Obama’s credibility, and thus move the peace process along.

It all comes down to momentum. If there’s a growing sense that Obama and his administration ultimately can keep the process under control, despite the roadblocks and setbacks – that these are all to be expected in any such long, arduous negotiating process – then Obama’s credibility and power to shape the final outcome will rise. An expectation of success will rise too. And in politics, expectation is a huge part of reality; the person or policy that is assumed to be the winner usually ends up the winner.

So every optimistic assessment of the possibilities for peace contributes to the possibility of peace. On the other hand, every hand-wringing pessimistic take on the situation can easily (if unintentionally) encourage a “Why bother?” attitude. If progressives let the issue go and turn to other matters, there will be no one pushing the administration to put pressure on the parties – especially Israel, which has to move the most if there is ever to be any real peace.

Since the facts do not dictate either view, it makes sense to see the glass as half-full, to insist that it’s worth the effort to keep pressing the administration to demand a just and lasting peace.

The most optimistic analysis says that we are smack in the middle of an intensive negotiation process, where every party’s next move is unpredictable and therefore open to political pressure. But one truth remains clear. As Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says: “Everyone depends on America, its money, its military aid, and its moves vis-à-vis Iran.” Obama still heads the government that is, despite its limits, the world’s 800-pound economic and political gorilla.

When that government gives way to Israel on any specific issue, it may well be making a tactical and moral error, and it should be called to account. But that doesn’t mean the Israelis have the Americans under their thumb. We should shake off the ingrained tendency of so many progressives to view Israel as an almighty power pulling the strings in Washington.

Obama has been dithering and wavering, not because of Israeli strength, but because he has no clear read yet on the domestic political costs of leaning hard on Israel – a course that has always been considered suicidal for American politicians. Now times have changed. How much? That’s the question the White House has not yet answered for itself. Hence its frustrating hesitation, which looks so much like weakness.

Optimists need not, and should not, put a stamp of approval on every step Obama takes. Many are quite rightly outraged at Israel’s flouting of international law. They should be just as outraged at the administration holding Israeli-Palestinian peace hostage to its cold war against Iran.

But we should all recognize the urgent need to mobilize the public and make the voices for a just peace heard more loudly in Washington. That’s the only way to make the Obama administration bring the Israelis to heel. The first step is to persuade the public that speaking out on the issue can make a difference. That’s why it makes sense to choose a more optimistic view, not about Obama’s actions so far, but about his ability to change his ways and to make others change their ways.

Ira Chernus
Truthout OpEd