Adel Safty
Gulf News (Opinion)
October 5, 2009 - 12:00am

In parallel with the United Nations General Assembly meetings held in New York last month, US President Barak Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama had hoped to use the world stage at the UN to announce the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. However, since Netanyahu decided to defy the US president's demand to stop all colony construction, and Abbas had vowed that there would be no peace talks without a freeze on all colony construction, Obama was robbed of the opportunity to announce the restart of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Some commentators in the United States and elsewhere interpreted this as a failure of Obama's Middle East policy. Others suggested that Obama's commitment to actively pursuing a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict from the first days in office was somewhat naive.

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from prominent Israeli writer Nahum Barnea who directed unqualified ridicule at the Obama approach.

Referring to Obama's meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas, Barnea wrote: "This isn't a meeting; not even half a meeting. [It] is a joke at the expense of an American president who tried to get involved in Mideast politics and was stung."

This is too harsh a judgment. It is also based on untenable assumptions, and unconvincing generalisations. It assumes that the failure to get Netanyahu to comply with the Obama administration's demand for a total freeze on colony construction reflects either on Obama's personal weakness or on the deficiency of his strategy for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

It is more likely that Obama, more supple and more visionary than Netanyahu, decided to allow Netanyahu's act of defiance for the sake of not losing sight of the larger picture, which is negotiating the final status issues.

Obama may have decided that using every arrow in his bow at this early stage of the process would not be effective and that he was willing to settle for a re-emphasis of his commitment to pursuing a settlement of the conflict and of the American interests at stake.

"We cannot continue the same pattern of taking a few tentative steps forward and then stepping back," he said, stressing that American national security interests were as much at stake as those of Israelis and Palestinians.

This places Netanyahu not only in defiance of Obama but also of US national security interests.

He is also defying the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded Netanyahu that Israel's plans to build new Jewish colony homes in the Occupied Territories "are contrary to international law and the roadmap."

Barnea says that when an American president faces stubbornness from Israel he can either distance himself as George W. Bush did or attempt to force his view, as Jimmy Carter did.

This generalisation is unconvincing because it lacks accuracy. Firstly, Bush did not distance himself from the conflict; he distanced himself from the Palestinians, and mindlessly allowed the Israelis to shape American foreign policy. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted about how he used to tell Bush how to vote at the United Nations.

Secondly, Carter did not force his view to produce the 1978 Camp David Agreement. That agreement was enormously facilitated by Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Israel the year before and by his willingness at Camp David to give in to Israeli demands for concessions.

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin opposed self-determination for Palestinians. He refused even to discuss the status of occupied Jerusalem and threatened to leave Camp David. Carter was stunned and remained basically helpless.

The one American president who did force his view is George H.W. Bush when he decided to suspend $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) of credit to Israel because its then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was refusing to attend the 1991 Madrid Conference to start peace negotiations for a settlement of the Middle East conflict. Shamir relented and came to the conference, although nothing of substance came of it.

Economic pressure is obviously an option for Obama; but it is crucial that it be used in such a way as to produce maximum effect. The issue and timing obviously matter and to blame Obama for not forcing his view from the outset is to belittle the faith he places on diplomacy and in his determination and ability to succeed where others failed.

Barnea argues that Obama did not force his view because of polls that show the decline in levels of trust that Israelis and American Jews have in him. In fact, other polls tell a different story.

J Street, a new pro-Israel and pro-peace lobbying organisation commissioned an extensive poll of American Jewish opinion on the Middle East. The survey found that American Jews opposed further Israeli colonies (60 per cent to 40 per cent), and overwhelmingly supported the active engagement by the United States in the peace process, even if that entailed "publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs."

Who is the ridiculous figure here? Obama who, although disappointed, stands dignified by his continued faith in civilised diplomacy, or Netanyahu, who, betraying his benefactor and defying the international community, stands discredited by the illegality of his actions?


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017