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However well meaning, Obama has blundered in Middle East

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — It was they who put on the table the demand for a total freeze in Jewish construction throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The result was to increase the political demands of the Palestinians, as well as the Israeli settlers and their supporters. 
Increasing demands of both sides before the start of intense negotiations is not my understanding of wise guidance.
Perhaps the damage was slight, insofar as there never were great chances for a full blown agreement on the issues separating Israel and Palestine. However, the flub distracted the leaders of Palestine and Israel from domestic concerns. For Palestinians of the West Bank, the great advances of recent years came from foreign investments in housing, infrastructure, and industry, plus the upgrading of security forces with the help of the United States and Jordan. More effective security allowed Israel to reduce its own military incursions and restrictions of travel, and those provided further boosts to Palestinian development. 


What Obama and his crowd did is to elevate expectations and stimulate Islamic extremists to do what they can to provoke Israeli retaliations. Recent weeks have seen prominent attacks on Jews in the West Bank, IDF responses, and may lead to some checkpoints
being reestablished. 
One can find other errors in American strategy and tactics. Second to the blunder of putting the settlement freeze front and center was to make the whole process as public and transparent as politically correct Americans could imagine. The public bluster of Presidential demands, with the shrill back up by the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor and others angered Israelis and led Palestinians even further into the corner produced by six decades of welfare and political coddling. Someone else is sure to solve their problems. They only have to repeat their non-negotiable demands and hold out their hands for more help.
If agreement will demand compromise by both sides, which Israeli or Palestinian politicians can do that when everybody is looking?
One of the brilliant suggestions of recent days was for construction in some settlements to go forward quietly, with no one talking about it. Perhaps the Palestinians would not see that as an affront to their pride, and continue with the negotiations.

Whoever thought of that idiocy did not know the settlers and their friends. These are people convinced that they are doing God’s work. Quiet and modesty are not in their vocabulary. The cement began to flow, with television crews present, a few hours before midnight on the day the settlement freeze was meant to expire. For religious settlers, the next day begins at sundown. There were balloons and speeches for the crowds and the television audience in case anyone did not get their message.
Before President Obama put a construction freeze on the table, Israeli policy was to build in the major towns most likely to remain Israeli, and to freeze in their own way the construction in settlements on the other side of the security barrier. Due to bureaucratic issues and political events put in process by the Americans, the current wave of construction seems most likely to expand the distant settlements that would be a problem in whatever agreements might have been feasible.
If you want pessimism, think of more Palestinian violence produced by Islamic extremists not wanting any agreement with Israel, and other Palestinians provoked by American led expectations. Then Israeli actions that escalate in stages to something like what happened in response to the previous intifada, the cross border attack from Lebanon, and the rockets coming out of Gaza. That’ll be another goodbye to Palestinian development, and whatever dreams Barack Obama had of bringing peace to the Holy Land.
Does this look at least a little familiar to Americans trying to determine what the health reform means for them? A 2,000 page bill appears to have provided incentives for insurance companies to increase their efforts to fend off clients who think they have coverage. My reading of detailed articles in major newspapers that are generally friendly to the administration makes me appreciate the plastic card that provides me–and every other Israeli–with extensive service, modest co-pays known in advance and deducted from my bank account, and no paper chase. 
Whatever good has come–or will come–from the President’s health reform must also be discounted for the spurt it has given to the tea parties, and at least a few bizarre candidates able to foul national politics.
Far from me to advise a man skilled enough to work his way through American politics to the White House. Yet I will wonder if he has violated the cardinal rule of policymaking: Don’t make things worse.
I’m less sure about American health care than about the care of the Middle East. Here he has made things worse.
*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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