The U.S. focus on Ukraine has shifted attention away from this week’s remarkable set of exchanges, direct and indirect, between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that speaks additional volumes about Obama’s take on prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
That Obama has an unbalanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly a new insight. That, from the start, he has pressured Netanyahu to make painful concessions while asking little of Palestinian leaders on the hot-button issues of anti-Israeli hatred and incitement also is well known.
But, the timing, manner, tone and content of this week’s Obama-Netanyahu exchanges are all striking, for they make clear that, for all the happy talk of an unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel, their current leaders view the region and its players through vastly different lenses.
Obama lit the latest match in what’s now a smoldering U.S.-Israeli fire, when, with Netanyahu on his way to Washington to meet with him, he publicly warned of troubling global consequences if Israel’s leader could not muster the courage to take painful steps for Israeli-Palestinian peace and sell it to his people.
“[I]t is not realistic nor is it my desire or expectation that the core commitments we have with Israel change during the remainder of my administration or the next administration,” Obama said in a March 2 interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “But what I do believe is that if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction -- and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time – if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
Obama’s comments, to which Netanyahu responded at Monday’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference by blaming Palestinian leaders for the continued stalemate, echoed Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent warnings that, if it endures, the conflict will surely bring more boycotts and other delegitimizing efforts against the Jewish state.
The Obama-Kerry take on Israel provides almost endless fodder for criticism about how, under this administration, Washington publicly calls out its strongest allies while seeking to appease its fiercest adversaries.
The Bloomberg interview, however, also highlighted a related problem for U.S. foreign policy these days, which is that it’s often rooted in either willful ignorance or blissful fantasy about the players involved.
Take, for instance, Obama’s description of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the 78-year-old former top aide to Yasser Arafat, with whom Netanyahu must negotiate peace – at least for the West Bank.
“I believe,” Obama said, “that President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, to recognize Israel’s legitimate security needs, to shun violence, to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion that meets the concerns of the people of Israel. And I think that this is a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally. For us not to seize that opportunity would be a mistake …
“[W]here you’ve got a partner on the other side,” he went on, “who is prepared to negotiate seriously, who does not engage in some of the wild rhetoric that so often you see in the Arab world when it comes to Israel, who has shown himself committed to maintaining order within the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority and to cooperate with Israelis around their security concerns -- for us to not seize this moment I think would be a great mistake.”
So, Abbas is apparently a rare bird indeed, one who seeks peace, eschews violence, and is ready to compromise.
Two problems: First, the evidence suggests otherwise. Second, if he’s that rare of a bird among Palestinians, then he can’t make peace because he won’t survive politically (or, probably, physically either).
“Shun violence?” Last March, Abbas ordered the building of a mourner’s tent and the awarding of a posthumous medal of honor for Umm Nidal Farhat, a symbol of Palestinian jihad because three of her sons were killed in anti-Israeli jihad or martyrdom operations while a fourth remains imprisoned in Israel.
“Negotiate seriously?” Last May, on the 65th Nakba Day, which commemorates Israel’s founding as the “Day of the Catastrophe,” Abbas reiterated the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to the homes of 1948, which everyone knows is a nonstarter for peace because it would deprive Israel of its majority Jewish character.
“Not engage in … wild rhetoric?” A year ago January, Abbas commemorated the founding of Fatah, his political party, by honoring a long list of anti-Israeli martyrs as well as “pioneers” – the latter of whom included the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Muhammad Amin Al-Husseini, who collaborated with Adolf Hitler during World War II and hoped to duplicate his genocidal efforts in the Middle East.
“Recognize Israel and its right to exist?” In March of 2012, Abbas told al-Jazeera that “there are no disagreements” between Fatah and the terrorist group Hamas – which controls Gaza, remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and opposes a two-state solution because it would leave Israel in place.
“Negotiate seriously?” Just this week, Abbas said that for him to continue negotiating, Israel would first have to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and agree to release more Palestinian prisoners beyond those already slated for release.
Obama may really believe Abbas is the person he describes. But, if the Palestinian leader finds the need to honor Palestinian martyrs, glorify violence, and feed the unrealistic hopes of refugees, then he surely can’t, and won’t, deliver lasting peace.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.