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An Inconvenient Truth

What dismays me most about Barack Obama's Middle East initiative is that the only country in the area he seems to be pressing is Israel. He is not pressing Egypt and perhaps that's because there is nothing that Cairo can give. Maybe I'll be surprised by the presidential visit to Riyadh, but he is, thus far, also not pressing Saudi Arabia and its king to whom he offered at the G-20 meeting rather curious and extravagant homage. If you read A Safe Haven by Allis and Ronald Radosh (reviewed by me in the Wall Street Journal) you'll see how King Ibn Saud was flattered by F.D.R. and took that flattery as an index of his actual power. Roosevelt reinforced the illusion.

There's no point in Obama pressing the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan either: poor Abdullah, as opposed to the very rich one mentioned above, has no compromises to make. He sits on a Palestinian powder keg suppressed permanently by his political police. And, however much George Mitchell sips tea with President Assad, the special envoy won't be able to match Iran's armament emoluments to always ambitious Syria. I trust that the president won't drop into Damascus. Lebanon is a mess. It may have a government of some kind after the coming elections. The real question is whether it will be a country.

Now, of course, Palestine is really not a country either... or, at least, not yet. But there are a million and a half million who desperately need one. And the country needs a state. There are maybe a few hundred thousand Israelis who begrudge them one and somewhat less who would deny it to them. That means that the overwheming percentage of the Israeli body politic grasps the fact that some day--better sooner than later--Palestine will be a country and a state, if not exactly a nation-state. (Still, what Arab country, save Egypt, can lay claim to that?)

What the Israelis rightfully expect is that there will be a negotiation over the conditions of that statehood. Not only what territory will define its but its exact lines and how it would be policed and what limited military it would have. The Israelis should not be expected to make a commitment of withdrawal from lands which, like Gaza, could, probably would become bases for missiles and rockets and gunmen and bombers aiming at them. That is, no one-way concessions without some concessions from the other side.

The Obama administration has foregone that expectation of symmetry. He is trying to hand to the Palestinians on a platter what needs to be toughly negotiated reciprocal arrangements. When Mohammed Abbas told the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl that he had nothing to do and nothing to say but wait for Israel to sign on to more accommodations, he was exposing the bankruptcy of the president's whole approach to the issue. (I've written about this myself.) Bordering on despair, the Post's Jim Hoagland has also written about this curious positioning of the new crowd. Hoagland really knows about this decades old conflict in a way that, believe me, George Mitchell couldn't begin to match as long as he lives. Here's an essential excerpt from Hoagland's "Memo to President Obama."

Cling to one thought as you work on your greatly anticipated speech to the Muslim world Thursday in Cairo, Mr. President. There is no American solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that you can heroically deliver from on high. Peace must be built from the bottom by both sides. ...

It would be pleasing to your hosts to suggest the opposite--a made-in-the-USA plan for the Middle East. Some of your aides believe this is a special moment that can end the region's Sixty Years War if you intervene forcefully enough. But that neglects history and the internal logic of the conflict.

This is true wisdom. But it won't get anyone applause.

There are two other thoughtful pieces published today that deal with the imbalance and disproportionality of the Oama equation. One is by the Washington Institute scholar Simon Henderson, "Obama's Visit to Riyadh: Competing Agendas," in Policy Watch #1525.

The other is by Noah Pollak, "Thoughts on the Obama Peace Process," on today's Contentions. Ben Smith has also written a dispatch for Politico about how some Democrats are responding to the president's initiatives. Not so well, as it happens.

The substance of the dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government can be whittled down to two matters. 

The first is over whether "natural growth" should be allowed in the "settlements." Now, there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that only out of malice are called settlements. It's not clear how the highly flexible Mrs. Clinton would term them today; she wouldn't have called them settlements yesterday. And she certainly didn't call them that when she was running for president as the tough man. But they are so integrated into the living map of the city that no in his right mind can imagine that both natural growth and new housing would be curbed at all. Which means that somebody in the administration is plum out of his mind. Then there are the permanent settlements, the ones close to Jerusalem or that hew to the 1967 (or, rather, 1949) lines. These were already ceded to Israel by the Bush administration on the understanding that the Palestinian Authority also understood this clearly, crab though they might. History does not quite stop, even for fantasts like Palestinian revolutionaries. Most of the settlements, deep in the West Bank, were understood by the Israelis and their government to ultimately belong to whatever becomes of new Palestine. Ehud Olmert's government withdrew the populace from four of these Samaria townlets and was preparing a vast exodus from the remaining villages in Judea and Samaria. The bitter fact is that there were no takers, Palestinian nationalism notwithstanding.

Roughly ten thousand babies are born each year in the settlements in which live roughly 300,000 people. (Again--this galls me--not counting Jerusalem and immediate environs.) Settlement housing is not typically expansive. Are these infants not to have rooms? There have been years of natural growth of children of school age. Are their towns not to be able to add classrooms? Frankly, only an inexperienced administration or an intoxicated one would allow such a loser issue to divide allies. And to encourage just the passivity that Abbas demonstrated in Washington last week. This passivity seems to me to be an index of aggression, as passivity is in many aspects of real life.

The most distressing aspect of the Obama diplomacy is that it, as a virtually principle, is repudiating salient elements of the Bush administration's pledges to Israel and may not be bound to others. Israel has complied with many (though not all) of its commitments, including one that permits the United States to train Palestinian militias in the West Bank, which it has done to some good result. Jerusalem would have better standing in this tussle over reciprocal pledges if it had deftly and swiftly removed all of the outposts, many of them illegal actually according to Israeli law. I will do an extensive treatment of these American and Israeli pledges, one to another, perhaps tomorrow.

At bottom, it seems to me quite unusual that the U.S. would expect Israel to abide by vague promises it had made to America while freeing itself from rather more concrete commitments the last administration had made to Israel. After all, there is also a new government in Jerusalem, more skeptical of Palestinian intentions and of the ideological cartography of the Arabs of Israel. The Israeli body-politic is not so easily charmed and not so easily cowed as it was in 1993 and even 2000, when the Palestinians walked out on a deal that will not be bettered.