Jordan king expected ‘more, sooner’ on Mideast peace.

October 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Someone’s Hope Juice is running low:

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, King Abdullah II said the region’s hopes for peace were huge at the start of the Obama administration, but now sees the goal getting farther away.

“I’ve heard people in Washington talking about Iran, again Iran, always Iran,” Abdullah was quoted as saying.

“But I insist on, and keep insisting on the Palestinian question: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most serious threat to the stability of the region and the Mediterranean,” he added.

There are some things King Abdullah gets right in this interview. He’s correct, for instance, that Israel-Palestine is still the greatest threat to regional instabilty, and that whilst Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might cause a frightening arms race, those seeking confrontation with Ahmadinejad really do elevate him to a status he doesn’t deserve. More importantly, whilst things have improved on the West Bank, the situation in the Gaza Strip remains a humanitarian emergency in a way that the Iran problem isn’t.

Abdullah’s warning that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ in the region which is threatening to close also happens to be an argument Marc Lynch & Brian Katulis made in a report for the Centre for American Progress, which calls on the Obama administration to build on its initial positive steps in the region by helping strengthen Palestinian civic institutions, take immediate steps to help in Gaza and conduct better public outreach to explain its objectives to the Palestinian and Israeli public.

I’m surprised, however, by the King’s disappointment at diplomatic developments (or lack of them); surely he’s lived long enough & seen enough American Presidents fail this challenge not to set his hopes too high. Personally, I think Obama’s initial moves were encouraging: his appointments of Clinton & Mitchell showed seriousness of purpose, his Cairo speech was a part of a necessary rebranding, and his repeated calls for a settlement freeze showed understanding of how serious an impediment that was to progress.

I guess the question of America’s effectiveness ultimately boils down to this: has the administration dealt with Israeli instransigence over settlements in the right way? Alas, that’s a pretty difficult thing to answer. The Obama administration could have been more forceful over settlements, and could even – as George H. W. Bush did in ’91 – have made a settlement freeze a condition of Israel’s aid package. But it’s Congress, not the White House, which controls the aid Israel receives, and as Bush 41 found out when he tried to toughen America’s stance, Congress does not react well. As Stephen Zunes reminds us, in ’91, Bush was excoriated for the proposal by Congressmen insistent that aid should come with no conditions. Some of the most prominent people attacking him were Democrats.

So if the Obama administration doesn’t feel there’s anything it can do at its end to force Israel into a settlement freeze, perhaps it can do something at the other end. There is evidence to suggest that Israelis are turning away from these settlements and regarding them more as an expensive liability than a necessity, and that Netanyahu’s government has a far tougher line than its own, frustrated population. Maybe the Obama administration could exploit this by practicing the kind of public outreach proposed by Lynch & Katulis.

Maybe what the administration needed in addition to the Cairo speech was an address in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Perhaps by restating his own commitment to Israel’s security & explaining why he believes the settlements put that security at risk, the U.S. could find a way of dislodging some of the stubbornness which is rife in that country’s political class.

This is all theoretical, of course, and there may be very good reasons why it’s a very bad idea. But I do think that more could be achieved if the administration sought to reach out to the Israeli public in the same way as they’ve reached out to people in the ‘Arab world’.


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