Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, told Israeli television today that Secretary of State John Kerry was coming to the region uninvited and that the U.S. should let Egypt lead mediation efforts. This is partly due to the fact that Egyptian president Al-Sisi is virulently against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and can therefore be relied on to counter Hamas. But it is also a major milestone on the road to irrelevance for the United States, and Americans of all political persuasions need to be clear about how we got here.
The U.S. has had a central mediating role in every ceasefire of the Arab-Israeli conflict going back to 1967 at least. This is virtually the first time that senior Israelis have asked us to just stay out of it. This disastrous implosion of U.S. influence has been about five years in the making, as I argued recently on the homepage, and results from the administration’s deep confusion about the Middle East and the proper U.S. role in it.
First, it was already obvious in early 2010 that the administration was (and remains today) deeply confused about the costs and benefits of a two-state solution. What Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw then as the chief benefits of a two-state solution are actually all prerequisites of a two-state solution: the waning of extremism in the region, Palestinians making their own institutions successful, and ending Israel’s diplomatic isolation.
Second, the administration was then (and remains today) deeply confused about the difference between impartial arbitration, which anyone can do, and the underwriting function of a mediator, which requires real influence and real power. In this particular case, it requires an ironclad commitment to Israel. In my article a few weeks ago — well before the last round of fighting started, I wrote:
Any peace agreement with the Arabs carries major risks for Israel — that is the essential problem in the Arab–Israeli conflict. It is also what makes the U.S. indispensable to any resolution. Only the U.S. can guarantee Israel’s security sufficiently to underwrite the risks of a peace agreement. Indeed, it is because we succeeded in that very role after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David — in the United States.
But Obama sees his mission in the Arab–Israeli conflict quite differently. He thinks his role is to be a fair and impartial arbiter. That alone doomed his “peace process” efforts from day one, just as it has doomed our position in Iraq. These are not mere border conflicts, which can be arbitrated well enough by technical experts under U.N. auspices. These are existential conflicts over nationhood. The proper U.S. role is not to arbitrate by being fair, but to mediate by protecting the vulnerable.
Just look at what has happened to the “peace process.” If we can’t convince the Israelis that we will stand by them, they won’t make major concessions for peace. And guess what? That makes us totally irrelevant to the Arab side also. To the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry must have sounded like a pompous fool babbling about nothing. And as anyone could have predicted from the start, his initiatives went nowhere. The humiliation was well deserved, but it was Obama who had condemned Kerry to suffer it, by depriving U.S. diplomacy ofleverage.
Secretary Kerry is now back in the region, another opportunity to impress the Arabs and the Israelis alike with his pompous-fool act and with how irrelevant America has become. The only problem is that America might retain just enough influence to force Israel back from really defeating Hamas. That will help Hamas claim victory, just as Hezbollah did in 2006 when Israel was pushed to a ceasefire too early. The U.S. is reportedly insisting on an unconditional return to the 2012 ceasefire agreement, which set the stage for the current conflict. Kerry may arrive in the nick of time to provide Hamas a real return on investment for its terrorism.
The Obama administration is so deeply confused about the Middle East, and so incompetent to address its challenges, that it is now systematically doing more harm than good.