On the Verge of Israeli- Palestinian Talks and what Comes After? prof.B.Rubin

Gradually, the U.S. government is constructing the basis for indirect Israel-Palestinian talks which will be simultaneously meaningless and hailed--at least by the U.S. government--as a great achievement. The latest two developments are the Arab states' approval of the talks and a U.S. pledge to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that there will be no Israeli construction in the West Bank or Jerusalem outside the 1967 line.

All of these details are interesting. It is a sign of the weakness of the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, that it needs the cover of Arab regimes. Incidentally, an amazing thing happened when the PA last did this a few months ago. The Syrian government opposed giving approval and the New York Times simply edited this material out of the Syrian statement it quoted. It was a graphic example of how slanted the media is today, in that case trying to show that Syria was moderate when that was most untrue.

As for the construction freeze, the U.S. government neither tried nor delivered to Israel any comparable concession on the PA's part. Anti-Israel incitement on the media and elsewhere will continue as will, no doubt, the PA's official honoring of terrorists who killed Israeli civilians. This imbalance will also not be reported generally.

The Obama Administration has basically signalled to the PA that it is in the driver's seat. The more it sabotages talks, Abbas and his colleagues have been shown, the more pressure might be put on Israel. But no real pressure will be put on the PA. Thus, U.S. policy has given the PA every incentive to be intransigent.

How long will these talks go on? Israel's commitment to a freeze has a time limit until around July. The PA thus has good reason to stall so that the talks will still be going on when the deadline comes. Then the U.S. government will press Israel to renew the freeze--even though it has received nothing material in return--lest it "wreck" the talks.

What will the Obama Administration do if the talks are deemed to have "failed." Well, first and foremost, it has an incentive not to say that the talks haven't worked out since the mere holding of indirect conversations may be its sole foreign policy success. So unless there is a really obvious collapse, it presumably will go on pretending for months--and one would think through the November U.S. congressional elections--that progress is being made.

There are many rumors of some dramatic action--an imposed solution? an international conference? U.S. backing for a PA declaration of independence?--if the talks break down as the next step. Much of the analysis of this issue, especially on the right, is based on a series of false premises. Obama is seen as a semi-demonic force who can do anything he wants and will sacrifice everything in order to damage Israel. This perspective is not borne out by the administration's behavior so far.

The main goal of the Obama Administration is to look good, implying that it is succeeding in the "peace process," and to avoid trouble on the Israel-Palestinian front so it can get on with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Iran nuclear issue. Clearly, this is the least friendly administration to Israel in history, yet it is also a government which has taken no material step to pressure or punish Israel despite a fair amount of growling.

It is also a White House aware that this is the last popular policy in its entire foreign policy repertoire. Congressional Democrats have criticized the president's strategy--albeit politely--to a considerable extent. Public opinion polls show that the American people don't like it. The White House is certainly not blind to the consequences of these problems.

If, however, the Obama Administration invests too much prestige and political capital on Israel-PA issues, it is going to be the big loser. An international summit would end in humiliating disputes, for example. The same applies to other extreme measures. The PA is simply not going to cooperate even with a pro-Palestinian White House; the Arab states are not going to give U.S. policy any real help on this or other issues.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains quite strong. He has won a strong victory in his own party for his policy and the harder-line right has remained pretty quiescent. The country does not blame Netanyahu for the problems in U.S.-Israel relations because they have been so obviously due to Obama, his behavior, and to his lack of sympathy for Israeli needs.

In addition, Israelis are quite skeptical about any likelihood for peace, progress in negotiations, and the reliability of the PA as a negotiating partner. They are also quite aware that the U.S. government has let them down so far over Iran.

And so, as in 1991-1992 and after 16 more recent years of direct talks, there will probably once again only be indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. One can't take even this for granted until they actually happen. But one can take for granted that these negotiations and any U.S. efforts to broker instant peace will fail completely.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Middle East: Much Worse Off Than a Year Ago

Posted: 01 May 2010 10:40 AM PDT

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By Barry Rubin

Let’s take a deep breath, clear our heads of any ideological or partisan preconceptions, and then ask a simple question: How has the Middle East changed in the last year?

If one approaches this in a fair-minded, calm, and honest manner, the answers are quite shocking.

Let’s start with Iran. While some companies and banks have been discouraged from doing business with Iran, the sanctions or barriers to Tehran are almost the same as they were a year ago. That means that Iran has moved one year closer to obtaining nuclear weapons without serious hindrance. This is not good. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches, and efforts should conceal this fact.

The Obama Administration's effort to engage Iran failed. Then it missed repeated self-set deadlines for imposing sanctions. The engagement strategy was supposed to produce strong international support for sanctions--including from Russia and China--but that plan also failed. Now, at best, some kind of sanctions cannot be expected until the second half of the year.

What about the keystone of Iranian strategy, its alliance with Syria? Despite much Western talk about pulling Syria away from Iran—which isn’t going to happen—the relationship is closer than ever. This is not good. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches, and efforts should conceal this fact.

Lebanon? It is more in the grip of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah than a year ago. The Lebanese moderates have retreated and some have changed to a neutral position, because they know that the West will not back them up. Lebanon’s president is ready to align with the Iran-Syria access. Walid Jumblatt, the lion of the opposition, has made his peace with the Syrians, as has Said Hariri, despite the fact that Damascus was responsible for killing both their fathers. Hizballah, says the U.S. secretary of defense, has more missiles than most industrialized country though the UN promised to block these supplies back in 2006. This is not good either. No blather….

Turkey? Both the Iranian and Syrian governments have bragged that Turkey is now their ally. The Turkish regime does military maneuvers with Syria and not Israel. Turkey’s government opposes any sanctions or pressure on Iran regarding nuclear weapons. Today, Turkey is no longer a reliable ally of the United States. This is not good either. No blather….

U.S.-Israel relations? For the moment, they are on a better footing but they have gone through several crises since the Obama Administration took office for no gain whatsoever. On at least two occasions—settlement blocs and also the freeze on West Bank construction only—the administration broke previously made promises to Israel by itself or its predecessor. Moreover, a tone of distrust and hostility has set in on Washington’s side that has hardly ever existed in the entire history of Israel.

Palestinian Authority (PA): Despite extensive American efforts to prove how pro-Palestinian it is, the PA has yet to do anything for the United States, including breaking its promise not to take the lead in pushing the Goldstone Report or to hold direct negotiations with Israel. With U.S. policy unwilling to press the PA on concessions, the Obama Administration has given the PA a lot of support but obtained nothing in return. This is not good.

What about the Israel-Palestinian peace process? Well, the best hope at present is that it might return to indirect negotiations, which puts it roughly at the level of contacts prevailing back in 1991. Indeed, getting the two sides to talk—however distantly, however slowly—is going to be regarded by the Obama Administration as a huge victory meriting the opening of champagne. This is pretty pitiful.

How about U.S. relations with the relatively moderate Arab states, moderate compared to Syria that is? Despite the Cairo and Istanbul speeches of Obama, the outreach to Muslims, the hint that Islamists would be welcome to dialogue, the distancing from Israel, there is not one iota of improvement. Arab regimes will literally not do anything the United States wants. And rather than cheering Obama as a pro-Arab president they are frightened that he is a pro-radical forces or pro-Shia president, that is he favors their enemies and is weak in protecting them. This is also not good.

This brings us to the one great achievement claimed by the current U.S. government—high popularity in the Arabic-speaking world. Whatever numbers can be pulled out of polls, and they aren’t as good as many people think, any popularity Obama has is totally useless from the standpoint of U.S. interests.

Iraq? It is a relative bright spot, with the U.S. withdrawal under way. There are terrible problems with infighting in Iraq’s government, which might turn quite unstable. This is not the Obama government’s fault so much but what is worthy of blame is its cowardly refusal to back up Iraqi protests against Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism. At any rate, the calm that does exist is due in no small part to Tehran’s wanting to keep things quiet until the United States pulls out, then try to increase its own influence in the country. Not great.

Pakistan should be a big disappointment. True, the government is holding together. But despite the massive tidal wave of American aid the regime is only willing to defend itself, not exert a real effort to wipe out the Taliban and al-Qaida on the border. And of course Pakistan is shielding its own terrorist assets that have been used to commit horrendous murders in India. Not good.

Finally, Afghanistan where the president has made a public relations’-oriented decision: send in the troops in a pseudo-surge to show his apparent toughness, then pull them out to show his apparent dovishness. And with all good intentions the military and political leadership has set an impossible program of stabilizing Afghanistan and providing it with a good government. Meanwhile, bilateral relations have hit an all-time low. Not good.

Have I missed some bright spot or great achievement? I don’t think so. It’s a pitiful situation. What is the point of making this list? Not, despite what you might think, to bash Obama. The real problem is the refusal of policymakers to recognize just how bad things are and how negative has been the impact of their policy.

It is not too late to change course. But how can opinionmakers explain this to the administration when most of them don’t see how much has gone wrong? Waking up is the first step.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

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