When I visited Israel in late October, not long before the latest visits of U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israelis of all political hues confessed that they were amazed, perplexed, and confused by the policy those two diplomats and President Obama are following.
First came an instant attitude of hostility on the part of the Obama administration toward Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, even before he had taken office on March 31 and despite his efforts to create a centrist coalition. Second came its obsession with a “settlement freeze,” which in fact was a demand for something that no Israeli prime minister of any party could possibly agree to — a complete and immediate freeze on construction not only in every settlement (including those Israel will obviously keep in any final-status agreement) but also in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Third came the demand that Arab states reach out to Israel, a demand that the president himself delivered to the king of Saudi Arabia in a visit there in June and that, predictably, was rejected immediately.
Fourth came the administration’s handling of the Palestinian leadership, which it pulled out onto the “settlement freeze” limb — for how could any Palestinian leader be less insistent on a total freeze than the Americans were? This meant that when the Obama team faced reality and dropped the freeze demand in favor of a call for “restraint,” the Palestinians out on that limb were simply sawed off. Later, when American diplomats prevailed upon the Palestinian leadership not to ask the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve the Goldstone Report on Israeli conduct during the Gaza War, they added insult to injury. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas seems to have accepted U.S. demands and instructed his delegation at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to cool it, a move that won him unprecedented unpopularity at home. He should have said no and simply told the U.S. to veto anything that arose in the Security Council, but the U.S. should not have pushed him.
That the administration did so suggests a powerful American desire to avoid a veto, presumably because such actions are so “Cold War,” so “George Bush” — and far out of line with the new Obama era of global engagement and multilateral action. So frustrated has Abbas become with all this that he has announced he won’t run for reelection in the planned PA voting on January 24. While he may well change his mind, and the election itself is likely to be postponed, the announcement is properly understood as his own protest vote against administration policy. Weakened by the Clinton and Mitchell maneuvers, he has about as much enthusiasm for Obama’s handling of the Middle East as Bibi Netanyahu.
The net result of the administration’s approach is a massive policy failure. The Obama administration has weakened the Palestinian leadership it meant to strengthen, weakened the alliance with Israel by its hostility to Israel’s government, weakened its own reputation in Arab capitals for strength and reliability, and painted itself into a policy corner. For where does it go now?
It is still possible that Mitchell, who ought to resign or be fired on account of his gross misreading of the situation in the region, will get Netanyahu to sign some sort of construction moratorium. But we know the conditions: It will not apply to Jerusalem, it will be time-limited, it will permit construction of about 2,500 new units in various stages of preparation, and it will not apply to needed public buildings like clinics or schools. The Palestinian leadership will immediately denounce such a deal, which is not what they thought Mitchell and Obama were demanding. They will not agree to commence peace negotiations on such a basis; indeed, on October 31, Abbas so stated when he met with Secretary Clinton in Abu Dhabi. And if they did start such negotiations, which is the fervent desire of the Obama administration, nothing could possibly come of them right now. Abbas is too weak (partly thanks to us) and too close to elections (called for January, though few believe they’ll actually take place then) to undertake serious negotiations at the moment. And remember: Last year, Israel’s then–prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made Abbas a peace offer that was so generous it probably couldn’t have carried in Olmert’s own cabinet. Abbas turned that one down, so it’s hard to believe that anything Netanyahu offers now might be acceptable to the Palestinians.
So what has Mitchell achieved for all his travel and all his posturing? Nothing. Actually, worse than nothing: Mitchell has managed to obscure the only good news emerging from the area, which is the continuing improvement in life on the West Bank. More jobs, more freedom of movement, more law and order are apparent in 2009. But that’s usually mentioned in the fifth paragraph of any administration statement. If Obama had used all his early prestige last winter to ask Arab states to embrace the Palestinians (rather than to embrace Israel, which was an impossible goal), perhaps he’d have gotten somewhere. Perhaps the PA would today have the funds to build more schools and roads and hospitals — and jails, for that matter.
American policy under Obama has aligned itself in a curious and possibly unintended way with the worst elements of Arab policy. Like that of the Arabs, it is cold toward Israel: Despite several visits to the region, the president has skipped Israel, and the White House’s aloofness toward Netanyahu is obvious. This posture makes peace far harder to achieve. Again like Arab policy, it is warm toward the Palestinians in ways that hurt the Palestinian leaders more than help them. That is, the rhetoric is warm but little or nothing is actually done to assist them, and they emerge weaker with every passing month. Again like the Arab approach, it puts a premium on rhetoric, negotiations, and diplomacy, with few sensible concrete steps.
As a result, “world opinion” toward Israel has gone from cool to frigid — in Europe especially. U.N. actions such as the Goldstone Report are one manifestation of this; denunciations of Israel, not to mention efforts to prevent Israeli officials from speaking on campuses and indeed to jail them if they come to Europe, are others. The cause is clear: As the United States, Israel’s closest friend, has backed away from Israel since the Obama inauguration, Europeans have backed even farther. They have seen the American coolness as license, indeed encouragement, to excoriate the Jewish state, and have enthusiastically done so.
Israelis watch all of this and wonder whether it is intended, or rather the product of the Obama team’s incompetence. I was asked repeatedly during my visit: What are they doing? What do they think they are doing? Do they realize it isn’t working? Is there a learning curve?
Meanwhile, Israelis watch Obama’s handling of Iran, which for them is a deadly serious matter. They note that the administration congratulated itself on winning Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s agreement for more sanctions, but they see that there actually was no agreement. They watched as administration spokesmen smugly said they’d gotten more from Iran in just days of talks than Bush had in eight years of hostility, but then saw Iran’s “agreement” to export almost all of its low-enriched uranium evaporate over the following weeks.
These episodes do not instill confidence that the mishandling of Israeli-Palestinian affairs is a temporary aberration; instead they make Israelis suspect that the administration’s approach to world politics is simply naïve, and more given to self-congratulation than to making tough choices. The president’s decision on Afghanistan plays a role here too, for Israelis — like many Americans — wonder whether the dithering of recent weeks bespeaks a lack of “grit.” As in Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including downtown Washington, an Obama decision to overrule Gen. Stanley McChrystal or to offer him half of what he says he needs will be carefully noted in the Kirya, the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces. Israelis want a strong, tough America, and they want to be its ally. A weak administration, whose judgment about the Middle East and about world politics is erroneous and often naïve, and that expresses a coolness to Israel and an indifference to the threats it faces, is an Israeli nightmare. Maybe feeling confused is their way of holding off the conclusion that that’s just what they’ve got in Obama.
– Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the deputy national-security adviser handling Middle Eastern affairs in the George W. Bush administration. This piece is adapted from the November 23, 2009, issue of National Review.