and did it very well.
W.S. Gilbert’s lines from Iolanthe seem applicable to President Barack Obama’s four-day Middle East trip, which ended on March 23. The tour was a “diplomatic triumph,” according to Reuters. “Obama returns . . . with diplomatic victory,” declared CNN. “All in all it was a success,” said the Huffington Post.
Since there is no new initiative to help resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute and no new strategy to deal with various other problems of the region, one may wonder what the fuss was all about. It appears that the hallmark of Obama’s success was his ability to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a phone call and apologize to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for the Gaza flotilla raid by Israeli special forces in May 2010, which left nine Turkish citizens dead.
Far from healing a rift between two U.S. allies, the gesture likely left Netanyahu quietly resentful and Erdogan unlikely to alter his stated views on Zionism as a “crime against humanity.” Obama said that it was time to restore “normal relations between two countries that have historically had good ties” after they broke down “as a consequence of the flotilla incident,” but the rift goes deeper. Those ties visibly deteriorated after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008; the following month Erdogan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after an acrimonious debate with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Over the past decade the substance of Turkey’s foreign policy has changed in accordance with its neo-Ottoman strategy, and Obama’s simplistic art of relationship management cannot restore the old status quo. Regardless of Obama’s “success,” Erdogan will not stop supporting Hamas in the Palestinian internal power struggle, and Netanyahu will not instruct his national-security chief to stop treating Turkey as a prospective “Iran No. 2.”
Obama’s ability to improve his often strained relationship with Netanyahu was also cited as a success. The “Bibi and Barack show”—as the BBC called it—required a major change in the President’s rhetoric, however. Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel as “a solemn obligation”; declared that “our alliance is eternal,” based on an “unbreakable bond”; agreed to expand military assistance to Israel; and said that the United States had an “unprecedented,” “solemn,” and “non-negotiable” obligation “to guarantee Israel’s security.”
In his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, by contrast, Obama declared that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians “are the best way to reach a permanent agreement,” but failed to present a fresh initiative to break the deadlock. “It’s important for us to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides,” he told his Palestinian hosts—thus hinting that negotiations should resume even if Israel does not halt construction of settlements in the West Bank, the cause of Abbas’s decision to suspend talks in 2010.
“The flattery [Obama] heaped on Israel’s leader considerably exceeded diplomatic protocol,” wrote Gideon Levy, a leading Haaretz columnist. “What good is flattering Israel if he isn’t making any demands of it? . . . What good is this visit if no one seems to want concrete results from it?”
One concrete result is that the government in Jerusalem will have no incentive to alter its de facto rejection of a two-state solution. Two days before Obama’s visit the tone was set by Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, who announced that the government would continue expanding settlements. “There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—Israel,” he added. This is the strategic vision shared by Netanyahu and the rest of his cabinet: A lasting peace with the Arabs is not obtainable; the conflict is structurally irresoluble; and Israel’s security demands open-ended maintenance of military superiority and physical control over as much territory as possible. Meaningless concessions may be made for p.r. purposes, but Israel needs to manage the conflict by keeping the status quo for years to come.
The strategy of permanent conflict management does not contribute to Israel’s long-term survival. Her position vis-à-vis her neighbors is steadily deteriorating. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s manipulation of the political process has enabled it to concentrate all power in its hands. For the time being President Muhamed Morsi says he will keep the peace treaty with Israel, because he knows that this is the precondition for continuing U.S. aid to his country’s depleted coffers. His long-term intentions are better reflected in a speech he made three years ago, in which he urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews. In an interview a few months later, he described them as “bloodsuckers . . . warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” Denying Israel’s right to exist is a key pillar of the Brotherhood’s ideology, and its activists murdered President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 for signing that same peace treaty in 1979. Nothing has changed in its position. Israel’s southwestern frontier is no longer secure; and if Bashar al-Assad falls in Syria, the same will apply to the northeastern frontier in the Golan. It is only a matter of time before Morsi’s Islamist protégés in Hamas prevail over the more moderate Fatah in the Palestinian power struggle. The precarious stability of Jordan will be tested by sectarian tensions between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Israel is more isolated than she has been since 1967. The settlement enterprise is not only a security liability but a diplomatic millstone, which materially contributed to the overwhelming U.N. vote in favor of Palestinian statehood last fall. Since then, settlement policies have elicited a chorus of condemnation, including a call for sanctions against Israel by the European Union. The unelected elite in Brussels is inherently hostile to a state based on the principle of blood and religion, but its antagonism to Israel is further exacerbated by the rising influence of the Muslim diaspora in several key E.U. countries—notably France, Germany, and Britain.
Demographic trends are another alarming aspect of Israel’s long-term geopolitical position. The Palestinians are adamantly insistent on the “right of return” of the descendants of some 700,000 refugees of 1948, and there are more than 4 million of them today under the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere in the Arab world. They reject the possibility of monetary compensation in lieu of that right. But a recognition of this right is anathema to Israelis, as it would signal the end of the Jewish state.
The two-state solution is Israel’s only defense from the demographic bomb. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Jews are already in a minority. Since birthrates in the West Bank and Gaza remain much higher than in Israel, the Arab population of the Palestinian Authority will exceed the number of Israeli Jews by 2040. Arabs will account for a quarter of Israel’s population by that time, up from just over one fifth today. Jewish immigration does not alter the trend. It has oscillated between 15,000 and 20,000 per year over the past decade. Considerably higher numbers of Jews are leaving. The estimated one million Israelis in the diaspora are younger and better educated than the immigrants. Over one half of adult Israelis say they have approached or were intending to approach a foreign embassy to ask for citizenship and a passport.
The Palestinians believe that time is on their side. The young—one half of the population—are angry, disillusioned, and more radical than their parents. As Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University wrote last November, they see
the ailing Palestinian Authority pegged down at bare subsistence levels, without state authority or geographical contiguity, an undeveloped economy totally dependent on Israel and foreign donors, and a Palestinian elite accorded VIP status in reward for its collaboration in maintaining the status quo. . . .
[T]he reality on the ground has changed for the worse, to the extent that among the New Palestinians belief in the two-state solution is rapidly dwindling.
The young generation sees Abbas and his people at a loose end, with no practical program or longer term vision.
These “New Palestinians” present a greater threat to Israel’s future than their stone-throwing predecessors. They will never accept the security fence as a permanent fact of life. They will be even more inclined than their elders to view the conflict in ontological terms—as a struggle not only for Palestinian rights and viable statehood, but for the divinely ordained claims of the Ummah against the usurping unbelievers. Before long the New Palestinians will start perceiving Israel’s rejection of the two-state model and the expansion of settlements as a welcome lapse of judgment, a single-state trap from which the Jewish state will find it hard to extricate itself: The expansion of the fortress state will morph into the single-state solution.
From her inception Israel has faced numerous threats, but her ability to cope with them in the past does not mean that she will be able to do so indefinitely. The issue is not whether Israel should survive, but whether she has the wherewithal to survive on the basis of the flawed grand strategy to which her ruling political elite continues to subscribe.
At the beginning of his tour, Obama said,
I’ll consider it a success if when I go back . . . I’m able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are, what the interests of the various parties are, and how the United States can play a constructive role in bringing about a lasting peace, and two states living side by side in peace and security.
“This is a trip to make sure that I’m doing my homework,” he concluded on the tour’s last full day. Such realistically modest expectations would have been welcome, had they not been accompanied by careless rhetoric that precluded the role of the United States as an honest broker and pledged U.S. support for a foreign government’s flawed and unsustainable policy.
On second thought, it is incorrect to say that Obama did nothing in particular and did it well. The American interest would have been better served had he stayed home.