On deaf ears: Obama’s message to Israel

US president’s inability to influence dichotomy or halt illegal settlements further stifles peace process.

Obama’s rhetoric regarding Israel fails to progress the peace process or the advancement of a Palestinian state [GALLO/GETTY]


Late May’s extraordinary sequence of speeches and meetings involving US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – and the commentary surrounding it from official circles in both countries – did not make for an edifying interlude. The week beginning May 19 will not be remembered for displays of farsighted statecraft, or high moral courage. What we saw instead was brash, unapologetic chauvinism from Netanyahu, an outright refusal of moral leadership from Obama, and acts of political cowardice and opportunism from the US Congress outrageous even by the low standards of that frequently ignominious body.

But that is not to say that the week’s display was not useful. On the contrary, much of importance was accomplished. Now, more clearly than ever, we can see the future. For if there were any questions remaining about the current nature and direction of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, May’s events have put an end to them. Zionism is far from dead, and will surely survive, at least in altered form. But a fundamental change in the nature of the Israeli state has become inevitable.

To understand why, we should start with President Obama. It may seem mystifying in one so intelligent and insightful, but when, at the beginning of his administration, Obama set about to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute once and for all, he really had no idea what he was getting into. To this most logical, detached, and rational of men, the solution to the dispute must have seemed obvious. The salient issues had been reviewed endlessly for decades by all the parties. The key components of an agreement were well known. All he needed to do to get the negotiating process properly underway, he believed, was to address one key impediment: Israeli settlement policy.

Settlements halt negotiations

Obama understood that continued settlement was ultimately self-destructive for Israel. Pursued to its logical conclusion, it would obviate any possible two-state solution. Indeed, Israeli settlement policy had already long since obviated a two-state solution by the time Obama was elected, but let’s leave that aside. Even if one engaged in a willful suspension of disbelief, to suppose that the Israeli prime minister and his party were really willing to give up their dream of substantially consolidating a “Greater Israel”, continued settlement building would only perpetuate an endlessly seductive motivation for tactical delay, as more “facts” were created on the ground. And the longer Israeli delay and obfuscation persisted, the more Palestinian willingness and political cover to engage in the process would be undermined, reinforcing the popular Palestinian conviction that the point of any process was to mute their resistance and play them for dupes, in an effort to gain time for their complete dispossession.

Permanently stop the settlements, however, and the whole negotiating dynamic changes. Rather than being motivated to delay, the Israelis suddenly become motivated to agree on permanent borders, so that they can continue building where it is legitimate to do so. And the Palestinians, reassured that there will be something for them, at least, at the end of the day, become motivated to follow the process through to completion, knowing that “until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed”.

Despite international cries to halt settlement expansion, construction continues in the West Bank and east Jerusalem [GALLO/GETTY]

Thus, Obama was entirely right to focus on the settlements. With that done, he believed he could then leave it to George Mitchell and his negotiating team to work out the details. What he did not count on – perhaps unforgivably in one who, after all, was himself a US senator – was the United States Congress.

As a young US intelligence officer in North Africa in the early 1980s, I befriended the leader of a large leftist labour union, a wise and clever man, by far my senior. Remember, in those days, it was the Arab left which was in the vanguard of support to the Palestinian cause, reinforced by the fact that the PLO styled itself as a leftist, “revolutionary” movement, in the 1970s-tinged spirit of the times.

“You know,” my friend once said to me, “I used to lead anti-American demonstrations to protest your support of Israel. But in time, I began to understand that this was pointless.  I realised that, in fact, you can do nothing.”He raised his hands to grip his throat. “The Israelis,” he said, “have you like this.” What he was talking about was the US Congress. And though I was loath to admit it, he was quite right, even then.

Nonexistent pressure on Israel 

What I was forced to acknowledge – if only to myself – in the 1980s, President Obama has come to learn, somewhat late in his political life, the hard way. In his quest to put pressure on the Israeli government to stop settlements, he really never had a chance. The reason is that where Israel is concerned, at least since the 1960s, the Israeli prime minister – whoever occupies that position – always commands far more influence in Congress than any US president could hope to. It is not even a contest. Pressure? What real pressure could Obama ever hope to exert over Netanyahu? A threat to cut off Congressionally-mandated aid? What could possibly have made him think he could push Netanyahu where he didn’t want to go? As soon as Netanyahu decided to resist, the game was over; and the president, humiliatingly, was forced to take whatever temporary “partial moratorium” the Israeli PM was willing to give him. From there, the route to final failure of the George Mitchell project was a long, slow, downward spiral, leading to a muted crash. 

This president is too sagacious to make the same mistake twice. I retain enough naïve faith in the sense and decency of the people of the US to believe that, in the past at least, when a two-state solution was still possible, a US president could have appealed to the US public over the heads of a lobby-dominated congress to exert enough pressure to save Israel from itself. But under the best of circumstances, to do so would trigger a mammoth political firestorm. To prevail, a US president would have to be willing to sacrifice his entire programme to this one cause. No president would do such a thing; arguably, no president should. And this president certainly will not.

That was one of the clear messages from Obama in his so-called “Arab Spring” speech of May 19. Like others writing in these spaces, I was harshly critical of that speech, particularly where Palestine was concerned.  “passive”, I said; a refusal to lead. And when, in light of the perversely negative reactions to the speech from both the Israeli prime minister and his supporters in the US, one heard that Obama would be addressing the annual convention of AIPAC, the leading US pro-Israel lobby, three days later, I didn’t want to listen. One can stomach only so much compensatory pandering at a single go.

But I soon realised that I was missing the point. In fact, far from a simple exercise in pandering – although his speech to AIPAC was replete with it – the second of the presidential speeches in question was actually quite consistent with the first. Of course the president was not going to expose himself politically, yet again, to try to press an achievable peace on an unwilling Israel. He cannot.  Instead, these two speeches should be seen for what they are: An attempt by Barack Obama, insofar as politics will allow, to speak honestly with the Israeli people and all who support them.

Some of what the president was trying to say, he could say openly. For some, he had to speak in code. But what he was trying to convey, in effect, is this:

You Israelis have nothing to fear from me. My commitment, and that of my country to your security is unshakeable. I will support you in every way I know how. We in America will do all we can to assure your ability to effectively counter, on your own, any external enemy, even at the cost of our own security. We will resist, as best we can, any and all efforts to exert pressure on you in international forums, whether you are right or wrong. We will continue to use all our influence on the Palestinians and on regional leaders, bribing them with favours, cajoling them, playing on their fear, anxiety and naïve faith in us to influence their actions in your favour. In short, I will do what all recent US presidents have done, just as they have, and without fail.

But honesty and sincere concern for you compel me to speak the truth, as others have not. So please know this: In the end, given your current situation, I cannot help you. Please do not think that I or my country can save you from yourselves. If your dream is a Jewish and democratic state, you are on a path to self-destruction. The demographics of Palestinian population increase west of the Jordan insure this. The wave of non-violent popular resistance sweeping the Arab world will not bypass the Arabs in your midst. Soon you will confront far more acutely the internal moral dilemmas faced by all oppressors. The status quo is thus unsustainable for you, and further delay in addressing it will not help. And while you can continue to count on us, the rest of the world is already growing tired of your endless occupation. If it continues, they will abandon you. In the end, our support will not be enough to save you from international opprobrium, isolation and, ultimately, the essential failure of the Zionist enterprise.

I tell you this as a sincere friend. You will get no more unwanted pressure from me. I can suggest a partial formula for a settlement with the Palestinians which I believe may work, if you choose to exercise it. In any case, we will continue to do all we can from the outside, but as regards the fundamental choices only you can make, I can do nothing else. Beyond that, you are on your own.

That is the president’s message, pure and simple. Once you understand that, you can see that virtually all the reaction and commentary surrounding it is utterly irrelevant. The president is not “pressing” Israel to do anything. He is offering judgments and advice, but he has made clear he will support the Israelis completely even if they ignore him. There is no “or else”, either stated or implied, not even a passive one.

Accepting political reality

I don’t believe Obama sees an alternative to a two-state solution in Palestine, but he knows he can do nothing more to achieve it. His peacemaking efforts have failed ignominiously, and George Mitchell has slunk away. Oh, the administration may try to sustain some sort of broad dialogue through the international Quartet, but that will be eyewash designed to diminish America’s isolation. For all intents and purposes, the US-led “peace process” is finished. 

No, the president’s words of the past two weeks will not be recorded in the annals of high statecraft. We see in them no grand appeals to high ideals and noble goals. What we do see, however, is a frank acceptance of political reality, expressed with a degree of grace and principle. Even to do that much required some political courage. The president should be recognised for that, at least.

Alas, poor fellow: The rewards of Obama’s high-mindedness have come fast and furious.  First, there was the angry response from Netanyahu to the president’s reference to the June 5, 1967 borders as a starting point for territorial negotiations with the Palestinians. Boarding a plane for the US, the Israeli leader icily noted that he expected – expected, mind you – “… to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of [George W Bush’s allegedly contrary] American commitments made to Israel in 2004.” These, he was good enough to remind, “were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress”. Such a light touch, that Bibi. Of course, strong reaffirmations of Congressional support were forthcoming before the Israeli could even land, with the most senior members of the president’s own party scrambling to distance themselves from him before the slavering Republicans could fall upon them, as well. 

Obama is greatly peeved by the response this has received, and rightly so. He never suggested an actual return to the 1967 borders – only their use as a reference point for agreed land swaps to accommodate Israeli settlement blocs. As such, the specific complaints from Netanyahu and his legion of US supporters are both disingenuous and politically mischievous.

Netanyahu’s objection is not frivolous, however. The rationale behind it is worth exploring, for it sheds further light on the utter futility of a two-state solution. Obama’s resort to the 1967 borders was not arbitrary. He referred to them because they provide a framework of international legitimacy for the negotiating process.  They are enshrined in UN resolutions. They were set under the terms of a UN-negotiated armistice in 1949.  Any departure from these lines would require the mutual agreement of the concerned parties if any degree of international legality were to be observed.

The reason Netanyahu rejects the 1967 borders is that neither he nor anyone else in the Israeli leadership cares a fig for international legitimacy per se. International legitimacy is only observed by Israel when it is in its interest to do so. That is not an indictment; it is merely a fact – and given the passionate convictions involved, perhaps understandably so. Recent Israeli governments have refused any recourse to the 1967 border reference point because they don’t want to be constricted by it. Lurking behind this refusal is the knowledge that even if the major West Bank settlement blocs were absorbed into Israel proper, there would still be some 80,000 to 100,000 Israelis who would have to be displaced, unless they chose to live in “Palestine”. No Israeli government could do this, and Netanyahu wouldn’t do it if he could. No, mutual land swaps based on the 1967 lines will not do.

Netanyahu’s version of peace

As Netanyahu said in his May 20 press conference with Obama, “for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.” He then shared those realities before a joint session of the US Congress on May 24, a speech billed as providing Netanyahu’s “vision of peace”: No concessions on Jerusalem, no concessions on right of return, no restrictions on desired Israeli military deployments outside its territory, no negotiations with any Palestinian entity which includes Hamas, and no clear indications of what territory might ultimately be conceded to the Palestinians even then, except that they would not be based on any reference points other than those of Israel’s choosing. In short, if the Palestinians want peace, they will have to accept whatever Israel is willing, unilaterally, to concede. In stating, nonetheless, that Israel was prepared to make painful territorial sacrifices for peace, Netanyahu was no doubt sincere: For him and those allied with him, the sacrifice of a square inch “of the Jewish ancestral homeland”, as he calls it, would be excruciatingly painful. Clearly, he needn’t worry about that, because it’s not going to happen.       

The reaction from the US national legislature was what my North African trade unionist friend would have anticipated. Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the final scene in this peace process passion play, must have been exhausting for all concerned. Shouting to be heard over a reception alternately described as “thunderous” and “delirious”, the Israeli was forced to pause for 59 rounds of applause as his listeners leapt to their feet in standing ovations some 28 times during his 50-minute speech.  

Is there any wonder that Obama has walked away?

The fact that the US president’s eager critics, both in the US and Israel, are focusing on trumped-up issues only serves to underscore the futility of what the president has tried to do in the past two weeks. It is not that the Israelis have rejected his message to them. Neither they nor their US supporters have even heard it. And the fact that in the aftermath of his bumptious visit to Washington, Netanyahu and his aides have sought assiduously to reassure their countrymen that the unpleasantness between the two leaders has not weakened US support for Israel would be endearing, if it were not so pathetic. Despite all Obama’s efforts to warn them otherwise, they still think America can save them.

Changing the state of Israel

Sooner or later, the truth will dawn. The first of a thousand cuts will come in September, when the UN General Assembly will declare a Palestinian state. Consistent with his professed commitments to Israel, President Obama has disingenuously advised the Palestinians not to press this symbolic course, reminding them that it will not win them their state, and warning against efforts to “delegitimise” Israel. What he most fears, of course, is the isolation and mortification which await him in New York, where he and the Israelis will stand, naked and alone, on the world stage. Of course, a UN resolution will not win the Palestinians a separate state. Nothing will. And the Palestinians do not have it in their power to delegitimise Israel. The point of pressing for UN action in September is merely to highlight the fact that the Israelis, in opting for consolidation of a “Greater Israel” over the dictates of a just peace, have delegitimised themselves. 

Much of the world has long recognised and accepted that the permanent establishment of a secure Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine would necessarily involve grave injustices to Palestinians. Most of the world, most of the Middle East, and indeed most of the Palestinians themselves have accepted this, albeit grudgingly, over time. A permanent two-state solution on the lines of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, observing the 1967 lines, would have been achievable by now. But the world will not accept what Israel now clearly intends: The permanent occupation and subjugation of an indigenous population, eventually to be a majority, under conditions of second-class status. The US will perhaps rationalise this indefinitely, but the rest of the world will not, for the moral cost of doing so will simply be too high. Soon, Israelis will find themselves global pariahs, much as white South Africans were for a time. 

High birthrates among the Arab population will likely make them an inescapable part of Israeli society [GALLO/GETTY]

It would be churlish not to feel empathy for the Israelis and many of their supporters in these circumstances, particularly those who have advocated for the rights of Palestinians and the necessity of a just peace. Their specific dream of a democratic Jewish homeland, given passionate impetus by the unspeakable atrocities visited on Jews in the past century, has been undone by many decades of chauvinism, irredentism and strategic myopia on the part of leaders who have served them badly.

What is done is done. But it should also be stressed that the alternative vision which we can now see in prospect is hardly disastrous – indeed, much the contrary. Israel’s continuation as a secure state remains fundamentally assured. It is the nature of that state which will have to change. Rather than discriminating systematically against its Arab citizens, Israel has the opportunity to become a truly democratic, bi-national state, still capable of fulfilling the founding vision of a Jewish homeland, even if it no longer does so on an exclusive basis.

The idea of a one-state solution in Palestine remains well beyond the imagination of most, but I hope the reader will mark this: Within 25 years, Israel will have an Arab Prime Minster; and in 45 years, the Israeli military will have an Arab Chief of Staff.

Israel’s growing right-wing views

To say that there will be resistance to this vision, which almost no one yet dares even contemplate, is vastly to understate the case. We gain an interesting and insightful view as to why in a recent piece by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. In it, he recounts having brought his daughter’s 21-year-old Israeli au pair to hear Netanyahu’s May 24 address to Congress. A moderate, secular, middle class young woman, “Inna”is described by Milbank as frequently put off by the right-wing aggressiveness of Netanyahu and the Likud. She thinks settlement expansion is unwise. Though patriotic and highly distrustful of the Palestinians, she understands the reasons for their animus: “We did invade their home. You can’t deny that.” Like many in her generation, however, she is cynical about peace, and doesn’t expect to see it. She knows that the little Israel is willing to offer Palestinians in a two-state settlement is a non-starter; and yet, even the modest ideas put forward by Obama as the basis of a two-state solution appear to her to pose an existential threat to her country as she knows it.

This is where decades of annexation and settlement have led the people of Israel. Deprived of apparent options, they sense they have no place to go, except deeper into the South African-style laager, into a world of denial, belligerence, self-deception, fear and bluster. And perhaps precisely because Binyamin Netanyahu has done as much as anyone to bring them to this place, he appears to offer the only viable formula for dealing with it: My country, right or wrong. This is Netanyahu’s home turf, his sweet spot. And so, as he shouted his refusal to accept the two-state solution which he himself has made impossible, the Israeli prime minister elicited from young Inna precisely the reaction he seeks: “Go, Bibi!”

To Milbank and many other US observers, the Israeli reaction to his words demonstrates that Obama has bungled. By even gently challenging the Israelis, they argue, he is driving them further to the right, and away from peace. Better, they say, to reassure them. Their analysis is correct: Faced with what promises to be growing external and internal pressures, Israel is likely to lurch to the right. But their prescription is dead wrong. Israel will not save its soul by retreating further into the laager. It is going to have to develop a radically new vision of itself, along with leaders who can articulate it. The process of doing so promises to be ugly; delay and the false reassurance of outsiders will not make it less so. 

Obama and the Palestinian cause

In December 2004, as Iraq plunged deeper into insurgent warfare, with its first national elections looming in a month, I wrote an analysis of the situation which then-National Security Advisor Dr Condoleezza Rice placed on the agenda for Cabinet-level discussion. In my analysis I argued that the elections, which the Sunni had vowed to boycott, would only deepen their sense of alienation and powerlessness, exacerbate the fighting, and perhaps lead to all-out sectarian civil war.

Some of my CIA colleagues, who shared my view, believed we should therefore importune the Whitehouse for a delay of the elections. I strongly disagreed. What was needed then, I argued, was clarity. If Sunni insurgents, many of whom actually thought they were a majority in Iraq and believed they could reassert the authority they enjoyed under Saddam, were going to have to learn their true place in the new democratic order, they had better get about learning it. And if that meant undergoing a period of civil war, I believed, it was best to get on with it.

We are at an analogous place in Palestine. Far from having blundered, President Obama has done what he can to bring clarity to the situation confronting Israel and the US. Inevitably, for all that has happened in the past, much unpleasantness lies ahead. For Israel, there is no going back. It will have to address, for itself, the question of its place in the world, and most importantly, the status of the Arabs for whom it has now, permanently and willfully, assumed responsibility. 

In this, the evolution of the region’s political culture, reflected in the tactics employed in the Arab Spring, is having its natural effect in Palestine as well. Senior Israeli officials were right, in one sense, to regard this year’s Nakba Day protests as an existential threat – not in a physical sense, surely, but in terms of the light they cast on the fundamental nature of the Israeli state itself, to say nothing of international perceptions of it. As Richard Cohen, hardly a foe of Israel, has recently pointed out: “Palestinians are finally appreciating the immense power of passive resistance. Terrorism repels … unarmed resistance elicits admiration.” The world, he says, has embraced the Palestinian cause.

With a modicum of wisdom and restraint, one hopes that Palestinians and Israelis will traverse this period with a minimum of violence. In the end, they will only find peace when their interests merge in a common space.

No, history will not judge Barack Obama to have made a great contribution to regional Middle East peace two weeks ago. But despite having come to the table too late and with too little, he gains credit for having done, nonetheless, what little he could.

Robert L Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Mr Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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