Worldview: U.S. politics join Mideast fray

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds his hands to his face as President Obama speaks during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters on Wednesday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds his hands to his face as President Obama speaks during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters on Wednesday. (SETH WENIG / Associated Press)

Obama has made mistakes, but election season here has bad effects there.

Posted: September 22, 2011

"Peace is hard," said President Obama, at the United Nations, in what seemed like a cri de coeur. "Remember, peace is hard," he repeated again.

That phrase was an epitaph for his failure to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, or to prevent the latter from seeking a U.N. vote on independence.

The speech Wednesday was also a sad comedown for a president who pledged two years ago in Cairo to revamp America's relationship with the Arab world and promote peace among Israel and its neighbors. It offered no new framework and no new ideas or formulas.

But it did make one thing clear: Bitter domestic politics will doom any further U.S. efforts to revive serious peace talks - at great cost to Israel and America's interests in the Middle East.

"I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress [in talks]," the president said. "So am I." Yet Obama persisted in recent weeks in a fruitless effort to dissuade the Palestinians from submitting their U.N. resolution. It would have been far more effective to try to shape the resolution's language in a way that could renew talks.

Political hysteria over the resolution ruled out such an approach, even though prominent Israeli security experts endorsed it. The Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Israeli policy group that advises government ministers, issued a paper calling a possible declaration of Palestinian statehood "An Unparalled Political Opportunity" - one that Israel should seize.

The institute argued that such a resolution could "anchor the principle of 'two-states-for-two-peoples' " pending new talks. This speaks to Israel's concerns that it be recognized by the Palestinians as the home of the Jewish people.

But any rational consideration of the resolution by U.S. politicians became impossible in this election season. Emboldened by a special-election victory in a heavily Jewish congressional district in New York, Republican candidates want to paint Obama as anti-Israel and peel off normally Democratic Jewish voters. They also want to appeal to Israel's evangelical supporters here.

Thus Republican presidential wannabe Rick Perry thundered - in New York on Tuesday - that Obama's stance toward Israel was "naive, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous." Misguided? That description fits Perry's views to a tee.

The Texas governor proclaimed Israel should have complete control over Jerusalem and the right to keep building Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Never mind that settlements chop the West Bank into cantons and rule out any viable Palestinian state. Never mind that peace talks have been premised on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian.

Perry's positions, and similar tacks by other candidates, preclude any future peace talks. Yet who cares about on-the-ground realities in election season? Not Perry, not other Republicans, nor many Democrats, including, in this case, Obama.

Domestic pressures rule the peace process moot.

Of course, Obama has made mistakes in handling the Palestinian question. He should have visited Israel early in his presidency. He could have picked better staffers to work on the issue.

But it's bizarre to watch Republicans attack the president for dissing Israel when he's repeatedly pledged an unshakable commitment to Israel's security. He clearly means this.

Moreover, his call for peace talks based on 1967 lines with agreed territorial swaps echoed a formula endorsed by previous Israeli prime ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of this formula, and of advances made by previous negotiators, helped derail the talks.

Pro-Israel politicians rightly point to Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group that now controls Gaza and directs rockets at Israel. They ask how peace is possible with a group that doesn't recognize Israel. But history has shown that Hamas was weakest when the peace process was strongest. The best way to undercut Hamas is to strengthen the Palestinian leaders on the West Bank who do recognize Israel - by renewing talks.

Indeed, those politicians who block talks are effectively helping those who would harm Israel. In the midst of a regionwide Arab Awakening, an end to peace talks guarantees that Egypt and Jordan will face more public pressure to downgrade relations with the Jewish state.

Moreover, U.S. opposition to the U.N. resolution will undercut its influence in the region and its ability to mediate on the peace issue. If Obama vetoes a Security Council resolution for Palestinian statehood, widespread Arab hostility toward America will deepen. (Had the United States taken a more constructive approach to the U.N. resolution, it might have avoided a Security Council showdown.)

Congress is now threatening to cut off U.S. funds to the governing Palestinian Authority, without even realizing that this will hurt Israel. Much of this money goes to train West Bank security forces that help Israel battle Hamas. If the Palestinian Authority collapses from lack of funds, Israel will have to resume responsibility for administering the West Bank.

Those U.S. politicians who care about Israel might do more good if they actually studied the issue. Otherwise, their embrace may harm Israel more than it helps.

E-mail columnist Trudy Rubin


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