Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wrong Again

OK, I got it completely wrong. The longest week of empty speeches is over, and I made a bad prediction. I bet that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn't be heckled at the big AIPAC meeting or in front of a joint meeting of Congress. He was heckled at both events. My bad.
Asked one journalist, "Would Barack Obama receive a standing ovation in the Kenesset?" Answered an Israeli journalist, "Would Bibi?"
But I was right about the more important things. I predicted nothing important would arise out of President Obama's big Middle East reset speech, and nothing did. I also agreed with Nehemia Shtrasler of Haaretz: nothing would arise out of Bibi's big visit to Washington, and nothing did.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama's Cairo 2 Speech vs. Bibi's Tweets

Endearing himself even further to Middle Easterners, President Barack Obama showed up on Middle Eastern time (read: about a half hour late) to deliver his "reset speech" for what some are calling his "Cairo 2" address, hearkening back to his famous lecture to the Muslim/Middle East world delivered in Cairo in 2009. Stripped of all its rhetorical flourishes, the speech had three main points:

1. "It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."
Praise for Tunisia and Egypt; attack Qadhdhafi in Libya; threaten the Assad regime in Syria ("President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way"); and finally cajole Yemen and Bahrain to do the right thing. Not a word said about the liberal monarchy of Jordan, and the repressive monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to help kill protesters. Selective, to say the least.

2. "We must support positive change in the region...through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy."
A billion here and a billion there to Egypt, once it democratizes. Nice carrot.

3. The pursuit of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict
No simple one-sentence quote for this sticky wicket. But basically Obama adhered to the principles of American peace processing for the last 20 years: 2 states ("a secure Israel and a viable Palestine") with fixed borders based on the 1967 lines and limited land swaps to compensate for adjustments. Deal with borders and security first, and put off the thornier problems of Jerusalem and refugees until later. Only one oblique mention of settlements, and a question posed to Hamas: are you prepared to recognize the existence of Israel? Basically, Obama reiterated the wearying approach of veteran peace processor Dennis Ross. In other words: nothing new.

Within minutes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was tweeting, first in Hebrew and then in English, an angry response to Cairo 2. Amazing - international diplomacy by way of Twitter. Let me string together the infantile 140-character at-a-time Bibi tweets designed to respond to a 1-hour presidential address:

Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace. / Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state… / cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state. / That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, / which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress. / Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines / which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines. / Those commitments also ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state / by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel. / Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace. / Equally, the Palestinians, and not just the United States, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, / and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel. / Prime Minister Netanyahu will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. / Prime Minister Netanyahu will also express his disappointment over the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas.. / a terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction, as well as over Abbas’s recently expressed views which grossly distort history / and make clear that Abbas seeks a Palestinian state in order to continue the conflict with Israel rather than end it.

If we are to believe this tweeting frenzy, Bibi wants to roll back the clock to April 2004 and invoke a tendentious interpretation of a letter issued by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which Bush said it was unrealistic to expect Israel to fully withdraw to the 1967 lines and that resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel was not viable. Bibi also wants to insist on this newly trumped-up demand that Palestine not only recognize Israel, but recognize it as a Jewish state (something not asked of Egypt or Jordan or even of Yasser Arafat way back when). Bibi then throws up a newly-resurrected demand (abandoned by a different Israeli government back in 2001) that Israel requires a military trip-wire presence along the Jordan River. Oh, and Hamas is a terrorist organization, lest anyone forget.

A few hours after this Twitter frenzy, Bibi boarded a plane pointed towards Washington DC. Bibi will reiterate all these talking points at the weekend AIPAC conference and then again on Tuesday in the Capitol building, all to great applause. It's pretty certain this time there won't be any heckling of Bibi.

It looks like the Israeli PM (Twitter followers: 5,776) and the American Prez (Twitter followers: 8,100,112) are going to have a great weekend together. Game on!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

George Mitchell Processes Out

Appointed on Day 2 of the new Obama administration, former Sen. George Mitchell has finally met his match. The man who produced a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, investigated steroid use in the MLB for Bud Selig, and studied the causes of the second intifada, gave up the ghost in a letter of resignation dated April 6, not released to the public until May 13, a week before his resignation was set to kick in.
The man who was quoted as saying after his Northern Ireland experience: "I had 700 days of failure and one day of success" will walk away at age 77 without a similar sense of accomplishment. In  the 850+ days he served as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace the Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in direct face-to-face negotiations for a little less than 40. It took Mitchell a year to get the Israelis to agree to a 9-month partial settlement freeze, and it took the Palestinians 8 of those 9 months before they agreed to sit down with the Israelis. Nothing really happened during those 40 days, and the rest was even more pointless squabbling, with Mitchell (when he was in theater) driving back and forth between West Jerusalem and Ramallah, a well-dressed lawyer shuttling between two awful clients.
The timing of the release of Mitchell's resignation letter may or may not be significant. Why the letter was held in pocket for nearly 5 weeks is certainly intriguing. But it would be unwise to draw too much from this strange detail. The truth is, George Mitchell had very little to work with. The Obama administration was hoping for a more pliable Israeli government back in early 2009, and instead got Binyamin Netanyahu and a cabinet of rightists. Mitchell started off with a supportive Egyptian ally to his task - now gone - and a fractured Palestinian leadership internally primed to accept virtually any suggestion, but unwilling to sit with the Israelis - that's now gone too.
With the US presidential election cycle about to begin, and with so many "known unknowns" still to be worked out in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, my bet is that Mitchell's resignation marks the beginning of an even more thorough pull-away from the endless pit of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the part of the Obama administration. In the weary debate between those who argue for American leadership and a proactive approach on the one hand, and those who argue that the "peace process' is nothing but trouble until the parties themselves truly want to negotiate, my bet that is that Obama has decided to step back, and Mitchell's resignation is the epitome of that new policy.
Leave it alone and let it fester. I think that is where the Obama administration has come down on this particular piece of the puzzle. No bold moves in the wake of getting Bin Laden - certainly no watershed moment in the Middle East, at least - but rather time to step back and let the parties see what the alternative to an American-led (and largely pointless) peace process might take them. For the moment, in the Middle East, there are bigger fish to fry.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Reversal of Fortune

I've been critical of President Obama on his Middle East policy throughout the Arab Spring. But time to switch gears. I can't help but be impressed with the guy this week. I watched Obama Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner, having no idea that he had made the most historic (and right-headed) decision of his presidency. Given the disaster of Eagle Claw in 1980 (the failed attempted hostage rescue in Iran) and the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, there was good reason to believe something would go wrong this time. But not a single American casualty. What a cool customer. And I am further impressed by his decision not to publish the photos of UBL to the public. Class.
Great job, Mr. President.