Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
November 4, 2009 - 1:00am

In baseball three strikes mean you are out, but in American foreign policy in the Middle East three strikes seem to mean business as usual. In the past few days and weeks, the United States has made three very controversial moves related to Arab-Israeli issues that generate widespread skepticism and anguish – though their total significance remains difficult to gauge, because this depends on whatever else the US may do in the weeks and months ahead.

The three moves I refer to, in reverse order of their occurrence, are Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s urging the Palestinians this week to resume negotiations with Israel even without a full freeze on Israeli settlements and colonies, apparently reversing Washington’s demand that the settlements be frozen totally; the move in the US House of Representatives to pass a nonbinding resolution criticizing and rejecting the UN Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Commission report on the conduct of Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war; and, the Obama administration’s rejection of the same report just days after it was released in late September.

We are reminded of three things this month: American policy throughout the Middle East – from Arab-Israeli issues, to Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and promoting democracy and human rights – is a work in progress, the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell team is still getting to know the players and the political dynamics, and all diplomacy is domestic politics for the United States.

While there is nothing new in the US acquiescing in Israeli policies on settlements and protecting Israel from being criticized in international fora, these developments are significant because they are the first indicators of how the new Obama administration will respond to two moves that seem crucial for any successful peace-making effort: a truly even-handed American diplomatic position as a mediator that is also committed to the security and rights of both sides, and, legitimate international moves to hold Arabs and Israelis alike accountable to international law, UN resolutions and other relevant norms of conduct.

The generous explanation is that the simultaneous American government retreat on the settlements issue and the Goldstone Report may well be a tactical move, designed to avoid distractions and to keep doing everything possible to get Israelis and Palestinians back to a negotiating table, where the heavy lifting and arm-twisting will take place. The more pessimistic and widely held view is that, after a brief but frustrating stab at even-handedness, Washington has reverted to its default position of siding with Israel, and pressing the Arabs for one-sided concessions to re-start peace talks.

My impression is that the Obama administration still has not formulated its total policy or strategy on Arab-Israeli peace-making, because the political calculus for this, which involves domestic as well as foreign policy, is too complex and costly for a young administration that has more important battles to fight. These three moves by the US are more about domestic politics than Middle East diplomacy, but they augur badly for peace-making prospects if they point the way to future American positions.

The congressional bill is a powerful reminder of the domestic support that Israel and its lobbyist-surrogates in Washington can muster. The fact that the draft bill criticizing the Goldstone Report is full of inaccuracies and out-of-context quotes seems to reflect the prevailing congressional operating mode of giving in to pro-Israeli sentiments and coercion, regardless of the truth (see the powerful letter by Judge Goldstone to the relevant House committee pointing out the mistakes and falsehoods, at https://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5664/images/Goldstone%20letter.pdf).

Instead of Obama getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements and colonies, we now have a situation where Israel has been able to force the US to freeze its own demand for a total settlements pause. Secretary Clinton seemed unconvincing in saying that the administration’s desire to see a complete freeze had not changed. Equally bizarre was her statement this week that Netanyahu’s offer of “restraint” on settlements was “unprecedented.” Precedence is not the key criterion for diplomatic movement; legitimacy, reciprocity and law-abiding compliance are the keys to peace-making, and Clinton appears to have dented all three in a single sentence.

The Arabs are now asked to resume peace negotiations on the basis of endorsing the combination of continuing Israeli criminality in settlement-expansion, American acquiescence in that process, and the total marginalization of the Goldstone Report’s focus on all sides adhering to international law and human rights principles. This is an impossible pill to swallow – and one that the US itself, for example, refuses to swallow in negotiating nuclear and other issues with Iran, where it accepts reasonable tactical flexibility in order to affirm and implement, rather than evade and crush, prevailing international legal norms.

The ninth month of the Obama administration has been a bad month for Arab-Israeli peace-making, affirmation of international legitimacy and legality, and plain old fashioned American principles of fair play.


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