by David C. Grabbe
August 31, 2009
"To the Muslim world: we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." So spoke President Barack Hussein Obama in his inaugural address, signaling his intent to rebuild the bridges burned by his predecessor and to rehabilitate America's image in the eyes of Muslims. In the months following that speech, Obama did not disappoint. Within a week, he gave his first foreign Presidential interview—to a Saudi-owned satellite channel, al-Arabiya. In March, he sent a message to the people of Iran on the occasion of their New Year. In April, Obama dazzled the Turkish parliament with an address meant to solidify a growing relationship with Islam's largest economy and resurgent power.
Finally, on June 4, Obama delivered an address in Cairo—not just to the nation of Egypt, but also to the greater Muslim world. In it, he delivered both praise and censure to friends and opponents in the region. He covered a spectrum of topics, including Islam's place in America, Islamic extremism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, democracy in the Middle East, religious freedom, women's rights, economic development, and the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict.
On this last subject, Obama continued the approach of previous administrations: working toward the elusive two-state solution of a Palestinian homeland (which would bisect the state of Israel). He vowed "to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires." However, as a starting point for Israel, Obama made specific demands:
Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
Obama chose to focus on the West Bank settlements for several reasons:
First, previous accords included stopping the settlements, so it is not making a new demand. (Previous U.S. administrations have held the same line verbally, but have not pursued it.)
Second, while the settlements are a hotly contested political issue, they are not a national security issue; while Obama was asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for something that will cost him politically, stopping the settlements does not endanger Israel's security. Though Obama was pushing a U.S. ally, he was not pushing him too far.
Third, the settlements are something that, in general, only the most hard-line supporters of Israel care about—at home and abroad. Only a small handful of Obama's constituents would oppose such a request. It would be different if he were to ask, for instance, that a security fence be dismantled to advance the creation a two-state solution.
The settlements issue is an opening move toward establishing the West Bank as Palestinian territory. If he can force the Israeli coalition government to give in on this, the door would theoretically be open to negotiate a two-state settlement. But more than this, Obama is demonstrating to the Islamic world that, though Israel is an ally, he is ready to force the Jewish state to make concessions. The more that the U.S. and Israel disagree on this issue, the more it appears the U.S. is amenable to Muslim concerns.
By pursuing the settlements issue, Obama scores points either way: If Israel gives in, he has shown that he can extract concessions from a "right-wing" Israeli government. If Israel resists, it sets the stage for a dramatic showdown in which Muslims would root for the U.S. In all this, Obama is seeking to gain Muslim support that can be used ultimately to form a union against Iran.
However, not all has gone as Obama planned. On June 14, Netanyahu gave his own speech in which he essentially said the settlements were not the real issue, but rather it was the failure of the Palestinians and other Arabs to recognize Israel's right to exist. He pointed out that no peace existed before the 1967 Six Day War (when Israel took possession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip), nor was there peace when Israel withdrew from Gaza (or offered to withdraw from the West Bank). In other words, the settlements issue is not holding up the peace process, but Arab intolerance of Israel's existence is.
Netanyahu made his own proposal: a completely disarmed Palestinian state with Israel retaining security rights in Palestinian territories. After defining the problem as Palestinian hostility, he proposed a defanged Palestinian state as the solution—and essentially called Obama's hand. The U.S. President does not yet appear to be ready to force the issue: According to Reuters, the White House responded by announcing mildly that Obama "believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state."
But while Obama was considering his cards, the election in Iran melted down, leaving him in a tenuous position. He had already spoken of, and demonstrated, his willingness to negotiate with Iran, regardless of who won the election. Now he is on the horns of a dilemma with his constituency because U.S. conservatives are pointing out the futility of talks with an unrepentant Iranian regime, while liberals are aghast that the President would negotiate with a state that violently suppresses protests—a melee visible to the whole world thanks to the Internet. Whereas Obama had hoped to use the settlements issue to gain Muslim support against Iran, he now has larger problems at home, taking the pressure off Israel—for the time being.
Being a multilateralist, Obama's approach is to seek broad consensus rather than to go it alone. Already courting Turkey as a counterweight to Iran in the region, he also seeks broader Arab support against Tehran. Yet, of special interest is that he has just demonstrated an eagerness to "sacrifice" an ally (albeit in a non-fatal way) to gain political advantage. Though he was rebuffed this time, the Arabs he is courting will probably not let him back down. Thus, we can anticipate that Israel will continue to receive pressure from President Obama as he strolls through the minefield that is the Middle East.