Friday, May 22, 2009

Why Obama, And What Took So Long?

(I wrote the following for this morning's Haaretz)

It may seem hard to believe, given America's vital regional interests, but the last president to develop a deal to mitigate Middle Eastern violence - and throw the full weight of his presidency and the international community behind it - was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1957. John F. Kennedy had no wars to respond to, and was largely concerned with preventing Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons. But ever since Johnson - since the Six-Day War, that is - one president after another has behaved as though America's role was limited to facilitating a negotiation between Israelis and their neighbors: a kind of regional Dr. Phil. Israel was the client state, yet presidents, in effect, worked to preserve its freedom of action. They might carp half-heartedly about settlements, or empower their secretaries of state to exert economic pressure about particular instances of foot-dragging (Kissinger on Rabin in 1975, or Baker on Shamir in 1991). But presidents did not - how did Colin Powell put it? - presume to want peace "more than the parties themselves."

Some have argued, notoriously, that the Israel lobby must be credited (well, blamed), if presidents have been relucant to lead. This view is too elegant for competent historians, and it also fails to explain why things are changing so fast in Washington. With Benjamin Netanyahu sitting edgily at his side this week, Barack Obama sternly included Americans and Europeans as interested parties in the regional goings-on, too. And he seems poised to sketch out a plan that will bear his stamp, beginning with his upcoming speech in Cairo. Obviously, he wants Israelis to imagine joining a bigger peace process than any they could themselves organize or scuttle. Why Obama and not his predecessors?

This is not the place to review the records of eight previous administrations. But there is an obvious taxonomy for presidents, at least with respect to this region, and Obama emerges as one of a kind. First, we might categorize presidents according to their knowledge of the region - if not their subtlety about the Arab world, then their sophistication about the developing world more generally. This may be compared with, say, a president spouting a Manichaean ideology in which preemption of dark forces takes precedence over any peace, which could anyway never be trusted. (The latter view was hammered into a platform by early neoconservatives during the late 1970s, one that cast America in a perpetual fight against evil - "evil empire," "radical evil," "axis of evil" - and cast Israel as America's biggest aircraft carrier.)

Second, we might categorize presidents as relatively strong or weak. Do they enjoy broad popularity and reliable congressional support for their agenda, however modest, or does presidential popularity fluctuate with media-hyped judgments of their efficacy or ineffectuality, or their virtues or peccadilloes, while each congressional action hinges on tough votes? Finally, do presidents have a peculiar soft spot for Israel, a penchant for seeing it as a tribute to freedom or the answer to an ingenuous religious impulse - as natural to the Middle East as the Holocaust museum is to the Washington Mall or "Jerusalem" is to Baptist hymns? Or, do presidents see Zionism admiringly enough, but mainly through the prism of the practical security problems Israeli leaders say they have?

When you think about it, Obama is the only president since Eisenhower whose profile resembles that of Eisenhower - which means virtually complete freedom to act. One, he has worldly sophistication and knows it; he was brought up in Jakarta and is not put off by the extremist language of the poor and desperate and young; yet his allergy to ultra-nationalist rhetoric was hard won, when he rejected (as only a "mutt" could) Louis Farrakhan's acolytes in Chicago. Two, he has an unprecedented mandate at home. He also enjoys the European Union's support. But, he also has something Ike did not have, the affections of the vast majority of American Jews, 78 percent of whom voted for him. Against this trifecta, it will be hard to flog Israel's role in a clash of civilizations.

Netanyahu - as indeed many Israelis of a certain age - may say that what makes Obama unique is his inexperience, or recklessness, or both. That his presidential predecessors learned from Eisenhower's failure not to meddle in Israeli security strategy. After all, Eisenhower and secretary of state John Foster Dulles forced the Israeli government to evacuate the Sinai after the Suez War. In return, Israel got the opening of the Straits of Tiran, but manned by UN peacekeepers - "the umbrella," as Abba Eban memorably complained to the UN Security Council after the 1967 war, that was taken away "as soon as it begins to rain." Indeed, the justifications for making the Sinai's occupation permanent in 1957 were the same as the ones advanced after 1967: keeping Palestinian terrorism in check, strategic depth through territorial expansion, "deterrence."

But Obama surely knows that this is a very partial assessment of Eisenhower's achievement. Just as the current occupation makes a succession of intifadas inevitable, continued occupation of the Sinai after 1957 would hardly have made a new war with Egypt less likely. As Israelis learned bitterly in 1973, occupation made war inevitable, and on terms that made a preemptive strike diplomatically impossible. For his part, Eisenhower proved that when the U.S. and Europe act together, and rally the UN and America's regional clients, deals get done. On the whole, the decade after Dulles' ultimatum proved to be the golden age of state building, Hebrew cultural innovation and immigrant absorption. So the question is not really why Obama is trying this, but, what took so long?

(I shall take up the question of presidential power and the Middle East more fully in a forthcoming review of Patrick Tyler's book, World of Trouble, in the Nation.)


Y. Ben-David said...

Really weird to say that Obama is in the same situation as Eisenhower after the 1956 Sinai War. Eisenhower had been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II. Not only did he have extensive military experience, but he was forced to learn a lot about diplomacy because he had to keep people like FDR, De Gaulle, Churchill and Stalin happy. Obama doesn't have ANY experience whatsoever along these lines. In any event Eisenhower himself admitted it was a mistake to force Israel unilaterally out of the Sinai without insisting that Nasser and Egypt make peace. All it did was set the stage for a bigger war 10 years later.

I find it interesting how "progressives" like Dr Avishai seem to have fallen into a trance since Obama's election. Nothing has changed, Arab intransigence against peace with Israel, including the "2-state solution that everyone knows the terms of" that Dr Avishai and other fantasizes existing, hasn't changed one iota, yet somehow they think the Obama can force a peace agreement here when nobody else has been able to for decades. This leads to this bizarre view that Obama is in the same situation as Ike was.
I know it is much more comforting to live with illusions, but it is noteworthy that knowledgeable people who have been formerly associated with the so-called "Peace Camp" such as historian Benny Morris have moved beyond the dream world the "progressives" are still inhabiting and are willing to the facts: NO PEACE AGREEMENT IS ATTAINABLE BECAUSE THE ARABS REFUSE TO MAKE PEACE WITH ISRAEL!

Read Morris' new book "One State, Two States".

Gene said...

Obama might seem impressive but he has built himself a house of cards.

Come one strong wind and he blows all apart.

And besides he is hardly in a credible position. He is hardly "Nixon going to China". He brings with him lots of mistrust. After all his middle name is Hussian. Any deal that he brokers will be seen as to favor the Muslims and will be met with immediate suspicion.

And besides you haven't rebuilt the temple mount for him to speak at yet. Nothing will be accomplished until you do.

Jeff B said...

The meeting and press conference between Obama and Netanyahu has been subjected to a variety of interpretations, but your article seems the most optimistic from the stand point of those still dreaming of a "two-state" solution. The notion, that Obama is going to stand up to Israel and it's domestic lobby, and that he is beholden to no one, is pure fantasy. First of all, the major sources of his campaign funding are also major backers of Israel. Second, despite recent books criticizing the Zionist lobby, Congress is still safely under its control as the two letters to Obama, one from 76 senators (which was initiated the week BEFORE the AIPAC convention, and the other by 224 House members, clearly indicate.

They tell the president to lay off of Israel, to let "the parties" (the raper and the raped) work it out, they mention not a word about Israeli settlements, and they do not spell out support for a "2-state solution."

Without support from Congress, which, judging from those letters, he clearly does not have, Obama will not expend what little political capital he has on this issue unless he wishes to be a one-term president like Carter and Bush Sr., the last two presidents who sought to put US interests ahead of those of Israel and stood up to AIPAC and the Lobby.

As for Y David,who insists that the Arabs are not willing to make peace with Israel, if that is the case, why is Israel not willing to go along with King Abdullah's plan or at least open negotiations based on that plan? The reason? Israel prefers a state of belligerency with its Arab neighbors and has since its inception, as Moshe Sharret's diaries made crystal clear.

Anonymous said...

This endless chatter-devoid of any real scholarship and a blend of second rate business school veneeer and second rate political theory - will lead nowhere.
Behind the scenes we have a calamity in the making and third rate pop analysis it just a sheer waste of time.
Good PLO propoganda...however good material to examine self hate and narcissitic publicity seeking.
A two stae solution will lead to the demise of Israel and a Lebanon like Greater Israel.
When will you or have you discussed doing away with Hatikvah?
That would be a terrific next topic.
Ah a watse of time.
Sheer narcissism and a deep sense of inferiority are at work here.
I have wasted enough time.
Shabbat Shalom.
Sunny Jeremy from Toronto

Y. Ben-David said...

Jeff B-
You apparently don't follow the news very closely. Ehud Barak at Camp David/Taba in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in the post-Annapolis period got close to agreeing to the terms of the so-called (phoney) Arab Peace Plan. In other words, Israel DID open negotiation on that plan, just as you say. It is true that the Israeli side didn't go all the way and agree to things like "the Palestinian right of return", but did the Arab side say "okay, we are getting close, let's keep talking"? No. They keep saying Israel isn't offering anything. That simply isn't true.

Jeff said...

That's the "officially accepted narrative" that Robert Malley who was involved with the negotiations exposed in a New York Review of Books article. One thing that is never mentioned is that when percentages of land in the West Bank are discussed, they do not include those parts of Jerusalem that were immediately and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967 which expanded the city to three times its original size. As for Olmert's efforts, they were belied, as they have been under every Israeli PM including Rabin, by the continued confiscation of Palestinian land and the building of Jewish-only settlements.

It's interesting (not to mention, racist) how Jews, most of whom have never set foot in Israel have the "right of return" to what until 1948 was referred to by both Jews and Arabs as Palestine, while the right of people who were born there to do so is dismissed by them as just another "thing" that is not a fit subject for discussion.

Y. Ben-David said...

I suggest you address your last question about Israel's supposedly "racist" policies about immigrant absorption to Dr Avishai, who himself (as did I) made aliyah (i.e. immigrated) to Israel from North America.

Potter said...

I believe the "right of return" is a matter based on international law and is not the same as Jews claiming the right, and being given the right by the State of Israel, to return return to Israel (after centuries of persecution., wandering, diaspora etc).


This may be inconvenient to a certain narrative regarding the refugee's right of return in the Arab Peace Plan but the plan does take Israel's demographic problem into account. It mentions UNRes 194 but qualifies that by saying that the solution would be reached by agreement of both sides. This gives Israel a say on how this is to be accomplished. There are many ways to do this without flooding Israel with refugees from “48 and “67.

But that not being enough of an offer to get things going, and also because misrepresentations persist (for some reason), there is now, I read, an attempt to further sweeten the peace offer. Will that not be enough either?

"No political initiative can materialize until all Gaza fighting will cease completely,"
(Eli Yishai)

Arabs Revising Peace Plan to Win Israel Backing for 2 States If the Arab Peace Initiative was planned as such an obvious Trojan horse then what is the point of it? It's useless for Arabs to offer such a plan, to recognize Israel and offer normal relations, if they are also insisting on a condition that would assure it's rejection. The idea is to show if Israel is willing to make peace even with the best of deals.

Anonymous said...

The problem with most who say they have an assessment is just how ignorant their assessment is to begin with. It is not a two state solution. Gaza = 1, West Bank = 1, Israel = 1. Total = 3. What all who claim to be experts on are wrong right off the get go claiming a two state solution is needed. The very idea of giving Arabs a sliver of territory to connect Gaza and West Bank and then calling that one state is absurd. The land belongs to Israel river to sea and Jerusalem is her capital! Anything else is a lie by those who hate Israel and their stated goal is to drive Israel into the sea. That will not happen. In U.S.A. the mexicans said they will retake the land that is historically theirs not by force but by sheer numbers. That is happening today, proof is mexicans are a majority in Kansas! So who is a Palestinian? If Israel gives the Palestinians any land withing the territory of Israel suddenly there will be 500000000 Palestinians who want to go home! No, Obama can stick his peace plan where the sun don't shine as can all Republicans from Bush down to the silly Congressmen and Senators who agree with them!

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