JERUSALEM — U.S. President Obama’s Middle East engagement policy reverses the unsuccessful policy of his predecessor, but the U.S. is again committing faux pas aplenty.
Yet, for all the uncomplimentary ways in which the President’s strategy is now viewed by many in the region, perhaps all is not lost yet.
The sorry state of the Nobel laureate’s endeavors was exemplified by the almost pitiful twists and turns of his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent ill thought-out statements after meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and with the foreign ministers of the Arab League.
In Jerusalem, to the delight of Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton volunteered praise for what she called Israel’s "unprecedented" readiness to limit settlement construction — even though it fell well short of what she had herself defined. In May she spoke of the need for a total settlement freeze — "not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ expectations but a complete stop to settlements."
Washington’s terminology has gone fuzzily from "total freeze," through "restraint" to "curtailment."
When Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa led a chorus of protests that the U.S. Administration was letting Israel off the hook, Clinton backtracked, toning down her praise for Israel.
Her justification was that, while "the U.S. would not stop pushing Netanyahu to do more," she "wanted to offer Israel encouragement for moving in the right direction" — even if that meant it was yet to met U.S. expectations.
"Expectations" is the keyword. President Obama himself raised Arab expectations sky-high in his address in Cairo last June.
In that speech intended as the cornerstone of his Middle East policy, Obama indicated he’d no longer allow Israel to go on blithely ignoring international demands. Arabs generally, Palestinians specifically, literally re-discovered the U.S.
But, instead of becoming a landmark for peace, the Cairo address is turning into a forlorn milestone on a road to disappointment.
Then came the real milestone — the Goldstone report about Israel’s harsh war on Gaza.
Realizing with the best of peacemaking intentions that putting the report at the forefront of Middle East diplomacy would simply harden positions on both sides and make his strategy impossible, Obama tried to get the Goldstone report shelved. So, he came down hard on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to defer Palestinian adoption of the report.
That, in turn, left the hapless Abbas seemingly abandoned all on his own at the side of the Obama-designated road to peace.
What could save Obama from the disillusion he has inspired?
The word being put out by sources to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel, precisely after having rubbed Obama’s nose in the settlement mud, is actually preparing a "surprise packet" in order induce the battered Palestinian leader back to negotiations, thereby helping saving Obama’s embattled peace initiative.
These sources point out that Netanyahu is considering the Barak plan that Israel make an enticing offer the Palestinian leader on the future borders of a contiguous Palestinian state that would be agreed on within two years of peace talks.
This is what Netanyahu and Barak will reportedly propose to the U.S. President when they meet in Washington in a fortnight.
Should, however, this initiative advocated by Barak fail to materialize, then Obama will have to recognize a fast-approaching moment of truth — a moment of truth not so much of Israelis and Arabs, but of his own Administration. The onus will be on him to make crystal clear what needs to be done.
If the parties themselves are unwilling to break the deadlock, then top-flight analysts close to Obama have been advising him that the U.S. has no option but to back off and to leave them stewing in their own uncompromising juice.
Obama might have gotten away with what his predecessor did – nothing, until too late in his presidency. But having opted to get involved, he must know that he cannot now just turn his back on peacemaking. After all, he’s the one to have re-defined Middle East peace as a U.S. strategic interest.
None of that obscures the fact that Obama has laid out more plainly than any U.S. Administration before him that the U.S. simply does not tolerate settlements. And, he has demonstrated he does not automatically subscribe to Israel retaining the large settlement blocks as former president George W. Bush promised former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Plainly, that’s not enough to demonstrate to the Arabs that he means business.
But settlements are only a code word for borders.
Obama adamancy on settlements is a signpost to how his Administration foresees future borders between Israel and Palestine.
The time for further prevarication is over, argues Leslie Susser, a prominent Israeli commentator. "When the President prods both Arabs and Israelis to take their place at the peace table, hanging over Israel’s heads should be a full-fledged American peace plan replete with the borders of the two-state solution."
Obama’s problem is that the Middle East does not live very well in hopeless limbo. It may still be relatively early days in the Administration, but without energy being channeled toward positive goals, the threat of violence is never far off.
(Inter Press Service)