Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Myth: Israelis and Palestinians have not felt enough pain to do anything hard for peace. Obama should walk away from Mideast peace efforts

until Israelis and Palestinians are really hurting, and begging for US help to settle the conflict. (Thomas L. Friedman, "Call White House, Ask for Barack," The New York Times).

The Facts:

1. Not enough pain?
Over the last eight years, Israelis have suffered hundreds of suicide bombings from the West Bank and Gaza, thousands of rocket and missile attacks from Lebanon and Gaza on their civilian population centers in the north and south, and mounting fears about a nuclear-armed Iran; Palestinians have suffered Israeli invasions and counter-attacks, a deepening occupation and ongoing settlement expansion. In the last few years, they’ve endured Intifada II, Lebanon War II, and the Gaza War.

2. What would likely happen if we walked away? Friedman counsels the president to leave the parties to “enjoy the status quo.” “If and when they get serious, they’ll find us.” But the status quo is a tinderbox. Friedman would have Obama wait until Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Iran and Israel are swallowed in the maw of a new regional war, the Palestinians radicalized and shorn of hope, the Israelis despairing and fearful. He would let extremists set the entire region aflame, and then send in the American fire brigade armed with water hoses and a two-state rescue plan—if the bloodied and embittered combatants dialed the White House 911. But who's to say there'd be anything left to salvage? By then, the two-state solution might no longer be an option, and the region might have reached an irreversible crisis, a critical tipping point.

President Obama would do well to reject Friedman’s “burn down the village to save it” strategy, built as it is on a tortured misreading of modern Middle East history – both past and future.

3. Friedman’s op-ed is best understood as a shot across the bow. Abbas could carry out his threat to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority, leaving Israel without a Palestinian leadership with which to negotiate a two-state deal, and an ongoing occupation of millions of West Bank Palestinians for whom Israel would now be directly responsible.

By the same token, Friedman is threatening that if Israeli and Palestinian leaders don’t do more to promote an environment conducive to successful negotiations, the US could give up on peace efforts and leave Israelis and Palestinians to face the conflict on their own. In other words, Obama would start acting more like George W. Bush, but without the disingenuous rhetoric - a kind of uber-Bush.

The problem, however, is that it’s an empty threat. The U.S., as Israel’s closest ally, would be viewed throughout the world as enabling whatever steps Israel might take in an increasingly toxic environment. The threat is not credible; the warning shot is an empty shell. And Obama will never succumb to the do-nothing (but bomb), laissez-faire approach to foreign policy.

4. As Israel's best friend and ally, it would be supremely irresponsible for the US to abandon Mideast peace efforts - irresponsible to Israel, and to our own national security interests.

"In making the case for US leadership of Israeli-Arab peace efforts, there are two basic truths," writes Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now. " The first is that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts is vital to Israel's security, stability, prosperity, and very survival as a Jewish, democratic state. Thus, if the US cares about Israel, it cannot step back from this effort.

Second, “Middle East peace should be viewed through the lens of American national security interests, and [viewed] this way, the US can and indeed perhaps should 'want it' - want an end to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts - more than the parties. Looking at it through this lens, the US dare not step back from the effort to achieve peace.”

5. Here’s a better idea: the US should propose a detailed two-state framework to the parties now, with a deadline to work out a mutually acceptable formula with intensive American, Arab and international help. After a decade of growing Israeli and Palestinian insecurity, thanks to the benign neglect now championed by Friedman and practiced by Bush, Obama's new Mideast peace initiative must come not after, but before the next even more catastrophic clash of arms.

(See the related "Myth: Obama's Mideast peace policy has failed," and "Myth: American Jews disrespect Israeli democracy when they suggest Obama should press Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accept a US peace plan.")

For more insight, read the following:

1. Lara Friedman, "Tom Friedman: so wrong (and so glib)," Americans for Peace Now

2. David Halperin, “To Do Nothing is an Insane Policy,” Israel Policy Forum

3. Richard Silverstein, "Friedman Advises Obama to Wash His Hands of Israel-Palestine," Tikun Olam

4. Letters to the New York Times: "Mideast Path: Step Up or Step Back?"