I have been reflecting on President Obama's foreign policy thus far and I think I have identified what my Duke colleague Ole Holsti might call his "operational code": the link between beliefs and behavior that generates a predisposition, a general pattern of action that, more often than not, points to the options taken or not taken. Of course, as with any leader, there is a fair bit of ad hoc cost-benefit calculation and some making it up as they go along. But I also think there is a strategic logic that one can trace through it and that explains a remarkable number of the choices President Obama and his team have made.
I call it the "yes, but" strategic logic because what Obama has sought to do is systematically neutralize (in a rhetorical debating sense of the term) the laundry list of complaints about US foreign policy that other countries use as excuses whenever we would push them to help us on pressing American priorities like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so on. We would ask for help on Iraq because it was so vital, and they would say, "Yes, but you haven’t done anything on Israeli settlements." We would ask for help on strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime and they would say, "Yes, but you have your own nuclear arsenal." We would ask for help on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and they would say, "Yes, but what about the Israeli nuclear arsenal?" or (in Russia's case), "Yes, but what about your missile defenses in Poland?" We would ask states to encourage moderate Muslims to speak out more forcefully against terrorists and they would say, "Yes, but what about Guantanamo?" Etc. etc.
Well, I think Obama has sought to build his own "yes, but" response. "Yes," in the sense that he tends to agree with the complaint, and "but" in the sense that he has a good talking point to offer in rebuttal: "But we signed an exec order closing GITMO," "But we slapped Israel around on settlements," "But we have committed to global nuclear zero," "But we have publicly endorsed a Middle East nuke-free zone," "But we have committed to climate change," "But we have shut down the Polish missile defense site," and so on.
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In a stunning development, a leading member of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which unifies Pakistani Taliban groups under the authority of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Ladin, has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on Times Square. The failed car bomb is yet another reminder that our enemies have not gone away, and the rush to take credit for it shows that they still want to kill as many Americans as possible. The lethality of the attempt should not be underestimated. Authorities on the scene described the propane canisters and gasoline tanks in the car, and experts have said that a successful detonation of the bomb would have created a fireball that might have killed dozens of pedestrians. But if this bomb was like the one recovered in 2007 from Piccadilly Circus, and comparisons are already being made with that earlier failed attempt, the car might also have contained nails and other metal objects intended to kill even more people in an explosion.
This attempted attack is also a reminder that the administration's conviction that "solving" the Israel-Palestine conflict will end the terrorist threat to the United States is mistaken. We cannot negotiate away or mollify the desire by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other Salafi-jihadis to kill us, because the men who subscribe this ideology do not want a just peace between Israel and Palestine with two states living side by side: they want the destruction of Israel. They also do not have reasonable demands for the United States, e.g., a desire that the U.S. stop "meddling" in the affairs of the Muslim-majority world: they want the United States destroyed.
One other important point: we have now been lucky twice in just a few months -- the "underwear bomber" only failed to bring down the flight into Detroit because he did not correctly detonate his bomb. In much the same way, hundreds were spared in Times Square solely because the car bomb failed to explode. Lucky can only take you so far, however, and we need to be more than "lucky" if another attempt is going to be stopped.
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The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's memo requesting White House guidance to further defense planning leaks, characterized as a wake up call for identifying military activity that could be taken against Iran. The national security advisor rebuts the characterization as a routine part of their 15 months of activity "successfully building a coalition of nations to isolate Iran and pressure it to live up to its obligations." Secretary Gates personally reinforces that view. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes (i.e., Presidential speechwriter -- since when did they become commentators of record on military options?) gets sent out to mop up any misunderstandings the hapless Jim Jones might have left. Admiral Mullen's Chairman's Guidance is revealed to task planning for "limited results" strikes on Iran. A prominent scientist who defected is publicly identified (picture in the newspaper) as an intelligence coup. The director of national intelligence publicly explains the national intelligence estimate on Iran has been delayed these six months because we suddenly have enormous streams on intelligence coming to us from disgruntled Iranian "technocrats." When the undersecretary of defense for policy tells a conference in Singapore military options are "not on the table in the near term," the secretary of defense personally refutes her statement. A senior administration official states the United States will not allow Iran to even acquire a "weapons capability," much less a weapon. Secretary Gates publicly questions whether it is possible to verify the difference between capability and weapon, suggesting the administration's threshold for action is actually more restrictive than Iran crossing the nuclear threshold.
And yet it is patently clear that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is not on the table for the Obama administration. All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing -- they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope I'm wrong, but it would appear the Obama administration wants very much to look like the pincers of their strategy are closing in on Iran precisely because they have taken military force off the table, can't get the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton trumpeted, and just held a summit meeting on nuclear proliferation that said nothing about Iran or North Korea's nuclear programs.
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Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story
about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.
The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:
I was especially drawn to one further point in the story, a point that has not
been contradicted in anything I have read or seen first-hand: the pace is
grueling and it takes a personal toll on the national security and White House
staff. This is not unique to the Obama administration and is something of
a hardy perennial in Washington. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point,
however, and the system has run at breakneck speed ever since. Even
though President Obama has been more focused on domestic policy over the last
year, the pace for the national security staff has not eased.
A recent trip to Washington with the dual purpose of attending a reception honoring my former boss, Steve Hadley, and separately meeting with current national security officials put this issue in sharp relief for me. My friends from the Bush era, looking much better rested and healthier than I remember them appearing before, swapped stories of our time in the fox-hole. And my friends from the Obama era shared eerily similar stories with some of the very same complaints: outsiders just don't get it or get distracted by secondary trivialities. One current insider confided to me that when he reads outsider critiques of the Obama team, he is reminded of similar critiques he offered of the Bush team when he was in the shadow government. He thought some of my own analysis missed the boat and conceded that perhaps the same was true for some his earlier analysis of Bush decisionmaking.
That is a wise cautionary to remember. Those of us in the loyal opposition may have a better understanding than most about the travails and triumphs of the current team, but our perspective is limited. We should not be surprised to read internally contradictory accounts of what is going on behind the scenes. And we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt from time to time.
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A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or a critical eye. A perfect example of this is the administration's handling of the recent blow-up with Israel over settlements in East Jerusalem as compared with its response to Russia's announcement last week on nuclear reactors in Iran.
There is no question that Israel deserved pushback for having its interior ministry announce during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden plans for additional housing in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as surprised as Biden by the announcement, did not deserve the endless and condescending scolding from the Administration, however, including a 45-minute phone lecture from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Biden left Israel. Biden handled the response to the Israeli announcement quite well. Why then did Obama and Clinton think they needed to pile on? Do they not have confidence in the vice president? Indeed, it was rather shocking to see Obama administration condemnation of the Israelis continue for days and relations between the two countries reach their lowest point in years. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod went on the Sunday talk shows and called the Israeli move "destructive" and an "insult", even though the offense wasn't even committed by Netanyahu but by a Ministry official in the coalition government.
Fast forward to Moscow end of last week. On the day Clinton arrived in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran would be up and running this summer. Put aside the fact that Bushehr is well behind schedule as it is, the point here by Putin was to undercut U.S. efforts to present a unified position on Iran and embarrass the Secretary of State. Where was the firm U.S. response then?
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In foreign policy terms, it has to be President Obama's evolution from Afghan hawk to Afghan dove back to Afghan hawk (we think). This evolution will have a lasting impact on the president's first term. On the one hand, the tortuous course raised doubts (confirmed fears?) about the Obama's war-time resolve. On the other hand, the president's decision to escalate means that when push came to shove, he ignored advisors who said he could protect American national security on the cheap.
President Obama embracing the role of a war-time president. For much of his first year, Obama seemed more interested in domestic policy (the economy, health care, etc) than foreign policy, and in particular seemed ambivalent about the role of being a wartime president (cf. the inexplicable delays in the Afghanistan strategy review). Yet in the past month -- first with Obama's decision to adopt a strategy for victory in Afghanistan, and then with his Oslo speech defending the use of American power and the concept of a just war -- he has shown a new embrace of his role as a commander in chief leading his nation during a time of war.
The recovery from the financial crisis. That does not mean we're out of the woods by any means, but we can be thankful that we have so far avoided catastrophic breakdowns of the trade and banking systems.
The most remarkable foreign policy story of the year has been Iran. The past year has seen dramatic developments in two intertwined story lines -- the growing discontent and unrest of the Iranian people, and the increasingly tense showdown between the Iranian regime and the United States and its allies over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The former raises one’s hopes for Iran’s future and the latter serves as a reminder of the obstacles to the realization of those hopes. 2010 will likely witness a deepening of these crises, and the United States will face the formidable challenge of crafting a policy which is effective in halting Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, sufficient to maintain an international coalition, and true to our democratic values.
President Obama's slow conversion to a realist foreign policy. He learned the hard way: he was frustrated in his attempts to engage enemies such as Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea; he was unable to bully the Israelis into shutting down all settlement activity on the West Bank; and he recognized that to be serious about winning in Afghanistan required far more troops than the Bush administration ever envisaged. But he did learn. In so doing, he now seems determined to squeeze Iran financially. The president has won the grudging respect of even his European allies, who finally have stepped p with pledges of troops for Afghanistan that no one could have predicted a year ago. And, amazingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered an unprecedented -- for him or any other Israeli prime minister -- freeze on settlement construction.
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By Dov Zakheim
Press reports this past week indicate that the Western powers' discussions with Iran appear to have mollified the Israelis, at least to the extent that Jerusalem has toned down jeremiad-like rhetoric regarding the Iranian nuclear program. How long Israel will be prepared literally to hold its fire while Iran transfers some, but by no means all, of its enriched uranium for processing in Russia, and opens its facility in Qom for IAEA inspections, very much remains to be seen.
with the West talking tough, Israel does not want to be viewed as carping on
the sidelines. But the Israelis recognize that the so-called secret facility at
Qom was not so secret at all; the United States and others were aware of its
existence for some time. The Israelis also harbor grave doubts about the IAEA's
ability to monitor Iranian activity that Tehran prefers it not monitor. And
Jerusalem knows full well that sanctions have a mixed record of successfully
obtaining whatever objective motivated their imposition.
At the same time, however, Israel recognizes that Washington is now increasingly positioning itself to take military action against Iran if the talks, transfers to Russia, and sanctions fail to halt the momentum of the Iranian program. In particular, the Obama administration's announcement that it will reposition its missile-defense forces so as better to protect Europe against an Iranian strike has the direct effect of supplementing Israel's missile defenses. In fact, the American military deterrent has far greater significance than the talks, sanctions, or reprocessing deal. By committing Aegis ships to the eastern Mediterranean, the administration is also putting its forces in harm's way: There is no way that ships off Israel could avoid the effects of an Iranian nuclear strike on that country.
have long recognized -- though rarely acknowledged -- that there is an
additional factor that would give Iranians pause before they launched a nuclear
attack. Even one successful detonation would likely have devastating effects
not just on Israeli Jews, but on Palestinian Arabs (thereby offering one way,
perhaps, to conclude the peace process, namely, by wiping out both sides), and,
indeed, on neighboring Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Saudis. And
while a cynic might point out that Persians have as much contempt for Arabs as they
do for Jews, the fact that Jerusalem might not survive may be the greatest of
all deterrents for an Iranian leadership that views itself at the vanguard of
On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the Obama administration's tough talk will translate into action; tough talk has accomplished little to move Pyongyang, for example. There is considerable uncertainty as to how exactly the administration will deploy naval forces to the Mediterranean: the Navy's force levels are dropping below 300, and the demand for Aegis ships in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has not diminished. Moreover, the fact that, in a remarkable exercise in role-switching, European leaders and intelligence analysts are more pessimistic about the progress of the Iranian nuclear program than their American counterparts, inspires little confidence in Washington's ultimate intentions.
The Israelis are prepared to give their closest ally the benefit of the doubt for the time being. And "the time being" may not be that long. In the end, however, unless they are absolutely certain that, as several senators proposed on Sunday, the United States commits itself to a military strike on Iran if the negotiations fail, they will act on their own. "Sinn Fein," ourselves alone, may be the name of an Irish movement, but it embodies the very essence of Israeli policy in the face of what it continues to view as a threat to its very existence.
A minor request for the Obama administration: Amid your full-court press against Israeli settlements, would you please muster a bit more ire and determination to rectify this absurd situation:
Eighteen months have passed since the Paris donor conference, where members of the international community promised the Palestinian government $1.45 billion in assistance for its 2009 budget. The Palestinian Authority (PA), however, has received less than a quarter of this amount, and Arab governments in particular have fallen short, contributing only $78 million of the $600 million pledged. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad has been forced to borrow $530 million from local banks this year in order to pay the salaries of PA employees, who with their families constitute one-quarter of the Palestinian population. When combined with the loss of internal revenue from the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover and the continuing Israeli restrictions on West Bank movement, the failure of donors to live up to their commitments threatens the tenuous economic progress the PA has made to date.
A number of U.S. commentators are reading Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech as a bow to President Obama. I had the opposite reaction. Netanyahu's speech reads to me to be, at least in part, a rebuttal, including to Obama's Cairo speech.
It is unlikely the treatment of Iran in the Cairo speech escaped Israeli notice. To the extent Obama addressed the Iranian nuclear issue, it was largely to reiterate U.S. concessions to the Iranian government: He accepted U.S. responsibility for overthrowing the leader of Iran, restated U.S. willingness to move forward with negotiations with the Iranian government, and reaffirmed Iran's rights to peaceful nuclear power. The sole sentence critical of Iran stated only that "Iran played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians," but then expressed our willingness to let bygones be bygones. This approach, combined with Obama's declaration that the United States would give Iran until the end of the year to demonstrate good faith, as well as his view that progress in the Peace Process is a prerequisite to progress on Iran, undoubtedly has left the impression that the U.S. urgency on Iranian issues has flagged.
For Netanyahu, in contrast, Iran is the first issue he mentioned and is at the top of the list of the "three tremendous challenges" facing the world today. He stated clearly,
The Iranian threat still is before us in full force, as became quite clear yesterday. The greatest danger to Israel, to the Middle East, and to all humanity, is the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons.... I have been working tirelessly for many years to form an international front against Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.
Likewise, Netanyahu disputed Obama on the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Obama's Cairo speech adopted the Arab view that Jewish claims to a homeland in Israel are rooted solely in the Holocaust, Netanyahu explained at length:
The connection of the Jewish People to the Land has been in existence for more than 3,500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked, our forefathers David, Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah. This is not a foreign land, this is the Land of our Forefathers.
The right of the Jewish People to a state in the Land of Israel does not arise from the series of disasters that befell the Jewish People over 2,000 years -- persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, murders, which reached its climax in the Holocaust, an unprecedented tragedy in the history of nations.... The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.
These aren't minor, rhetorical issues -- both our treatment of the Iranian question and U.S. views on the legitimacy of Israeli claims are at the core of the U.S.-Israel relationship. This was further confirmation that we have leaders with profoundly different worldviews, and suggests at least some reason for concern about the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship going forward.
Jeffrey Goldberg thinks President Obama has a regime change policy toward Israel. I would put it a bit differently. To me, Obama's approach to Israel seems to resemble Bush's approach to Hamas. By which I mean, insisting that an elected government (in both cases, clearly not the administration's preference) either make fundamental changes to its behavior -- or collapse under the weight of its own domestic political contradictions and inability to govern.
There are differences, to be sure -- the most obvious being that Hamas is a terrorist organization (among many other things), and Israel obviously is not. (Obama has never conflated the two.) And of course, the Obama administration is engaging regularly with the Netanyahu regime and reaffirming the U.S. alliance with Israel. It's also true that Obama is insisting that Hamas meet the same three conditions that Bush did in order for the United States to have any dealings with it, and he has never stated publicly that he wants Netanyahu's government to fail if it won't change its behavior on settlements. But then again, Bush and company were careful not to say that about Hamas either.
Still, what Obama seems to be doing with Israel is much the same as what Bush tried to do with the Hamas government: demand a major change in behavior as a condition for diplomatic progress that, if not met, presumably bears consequences. And though Obama has brushed off talk of consequences at this time, he hasn't rejected the idea. Indeed, his advisors have speculated on background about what measures might be considered, including less forthcoming U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations.
The simple act of pushing a foreign government, be it friend or foe, to change its behavior in ways that benefit U.S. interests, however you define them, is not inherently illegitimate. It wasn't when Bush pressed Hamas, and it isn't now when Obama is pressing Israel. That's just diplomacy. It would be illegitimate if Obama were jeopardizing Israel's security, but demanding a settlement freeze is not that. What's distasteful is that the Obama administration is publicly lecturing a U.S. ally at the same time it insists that public lectures don't get us anywhere -- advice that seems only to apply thus far to non-allies like Russia, China, Egypt, and other authoritarian states with fragile sensibilities.
And that's the real question: Will this work? Clearly, the Hamas government has neither changed its behavior nor fallen, but this doesn't prove that one or the other won't still happen. One hopes that it will, since Obama seems to be pursuing the same approach. When it comes to Israel, though, it needs to prepare for the day that it will withdraw from the vast majority of its settlements in the West Bank, and I think Israeli leaders take the greatest risks to make peace when they are confident that the United States is firmly behind them. Right now I don't think that dynamic exists.
I guess we'll just have to wait and see whether Netanyahu's major speech next week can help him square this tough circle he's in.
Given the media buildup to Monday's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the casual observer could be forgiven for being a little bit disappointed. While the media portrayed these two as ideological foes bound to clash, their press conference gave the appearance of two leaders who, while far from soul-mates, understand keenly their personal and national convergence of interest.
And so it should be. The U.S.-Israel alliance is deep and of abiding importance to both countries, now perhaps more than ever as the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and emboldened rejectionists loom large in the Middle East. Whatever their differences, both men articulated the same essential concerns -- that Iran be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that peace be established between Israel and the Palestinians. As I argued on this blog in February, Obama and Netanyahu may not be a match made in heaven, but there is more driving the men together than apart.
So we saw Netanyahu reach out to Obama by stressing his readiness for peace talks with the Palestinians and Syrians, without delay -- and Obama nodding to Netanyahu by reasserting America's commitment to Israel's security and Jewish identity, and promising that talks with Iran would not be open-ended. Just as importantly, aides to both men backgrounding the media afterward stressed their bosses' happiness with the outcome of the day's discussions.
But the differences remain, and were as apparent in their press conference as in the media leaks that preceded the meeting. Obama repeatedly invoked Palestinian statehood, while Netanyahu did not mention it at all. Netanyahu thanked Obama for promising to keep all options on the table with respect to Iran, something which Obama did not, at least in his public remarks, actually do. In moves away from the table, Secretary Clinton clarified that the president was against even "natural growth" in Israeli settlements, implying that Israeli assurances that no new settlements would be built were insufficient. Also, CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly warned against an Israeli strike on Iran, as Defense Secretary Gates had done before.
In the world outside Washington, the silent parties to the Obama-Netanyahu talks made their own moves. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his group was ready to govern Lebanon if it won the upcoming parliamentary elections. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei railed against America and encouraged Iranians to vote for anti-Western candidates in upcoming presidential elections, and Iran reportedly test-fired a missile that could reach Europe. Highly talented and well-respected Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was reappointed to head a reshuffled PA government. Taken together, these developments underscore that Obama and Netanyahu face serious challenges, and rare opportunities.
Oval Office meetings tend not to make policy but to build relationships -- between nations, between leaders, and between their trusted aides who coordinate beforehand. It would have been too much to expect a great deal out of this first meeting between the new American president and Israeli prime minister, who are still feeling each other out and still shaping their own views on policy. But America and Israel can afford their leaders only a brief courtship, before the U.S. and Israeli governments must resolve their differences and work in concert and with all speed to address the mutual challenges before them. The first official Obama-Netanyahu meeting leaves me hopeful that both men desire to do so, but still waiting to see if they can corral their bureaucracies and get it done.
By Michael Singh
With Secretary Clinton just back from her first trip to the Middle East, attention inevitably turns to the future of the peace process. Doubtlessly mindful of this, President Obama has rightly pledged to spare no effort in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, the form of this effort is just as critical as its magnitude. Obama should not, in an attempt to correct a perceived deficiency of the Bush administration's approach, substitute micromanagement of the parties' bilateral negotiations for a genuine peace effort. Indeed, if Obama draws only one lesson from the recent Gaza conflict, it should be that a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be made solely at the negotiating table.
Conventional wisdom holds that everyone knows what an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will look like: solutions to the so-called "core issues" -- borders, refugees, and Jerusalem -- have been largely worked out in past talks. If only the parties would negotiate in earnest and the United States would lend its full support, an agreement could be worked out quickly, or so the theory goes. However, this narrative doesn't square with reality. The past years have witnessed Israeli and Palestinian leaders genuinely committed to a negotiated solution, and a high level of U.S. engagement -- Condoleezza Rice visited the region more than any of her predecessors as secretary of state.
So what stands in the way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not the lack of clever ideas to resolve the "core issues," especially borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. The supply of such ideas far outstrips the demand. While the core issues will determine the structure of an eventual peace, the foundation for that peace depends on issues more fundamental than these, progress on which will restore domestic support to negotiators and confidence in the party across the table. And without a firm foundation, no structure can be trusted to stand very long.
Foremost among these issues is security, for both Israelis and Palestinians. Bitter experience in Gaza and southern Lebanon has shown Israelis that territorial withdrawals are poor guarantors of security. And there is no wall high enough to stop even the crudest rocket. Before Israelis will expose themselves to even greater risk by ceding control of the West Bank, cooperative arrangements will be required with both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and neighboring states to prevent groups such as Hamas, with help from Tehran, from building an ever-more-sophisticated arsenal with which to terrorize Israel.
These groups also terrorize Palestinians, who find themselves used as shields in war and beset by armed gangs even in times of calm. Freeing Palestinians from these woes requires a professional security force such as that currently being deployed by the PA with U.S. assistance. Success in this effort can restore order to Palestinian streets and give Israel the confidence it needs to curtail security operations and lift much-resented checkpoints in the West Bank.
At the same time, increased effort must be devoted to Palestinian institution-building. If a future Palestinian state is to survive past its independence day, a competent Palestinian entity must be ready to govern and economic activity must be sustainable. Accomplishing this will require cooperation from Israel, which must find a balance between its security requirements and Palestinian viability; the PA itself, whose failure to reform brought Hamas to power on cynical promises of transparency and accountability; and the international community, whose rhetorical fervor for the Palestinian cause has not been matched by zeal to assist the PA.
Finally, each side must credibly acknowledge the other's right to a state of its own. The Arab world's refusal to accept Israel's existence is evident in textbooks, mass media, and mosque sermons across the region. These are rife with anti-Jewish sentiment and contribute to an atmosphere in which Israel is vilified and terrorism against its citizens is excused. Peace is portrayed as capitulation, and Hamas and its ilk are glorified, which redounds to their financial and political benefit. To counter this, Arab states must isolate extremists and throw their full support behind the PA, while demonstrating to Israel that they are ready to end the conflict.
The flip side of the recognition issue pertains to settlements. The expansion of settlements leads Palestinians to question the sincerity of Israel's commitment to Palestinian statehood. While Israeli leaders have curtailed new settlement activity, they have exerted insufficient control over the process by which such activity is planned and announced. The confusion and resentment generated thereby do serious harm to Israel's own interests and undermine their Palestinian negotiating partners.
Gaza was a dark reminder that there is far more to the peace process than peace negotiations. It is for this reason that the November 2007 Annapolis Conference not only launched a new round of bilateral talks, but also a multi-pronged process to support those talks by addressing these fundamental issues. It is to these issues, first and foremost, that Obama should direct the efforts of the United States and its allies. The outcome will determine whether the peace process is catalyzed or undone.
By Michael Singh
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the conventional wisdom is often worth challenging. On Friday, former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu was tapped to try to form the next Israeli government. Netanyahu's ascent and the overall victory of right-wing parties in the Israeli elections have led to dire predictions of the collapse of the peace process and tensions in U.S.-Israel relations. Such predictions have a tendency to be self-fulfilling, however, and the Obama administration should be careful not to heed them.
In one sense, this entire discussion is premature. Netanyahu isn't prime minister yet, and must endure a tough slog before he can take up the office. Likud won just 27 seats in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and needs a coalition of at least 61 seats to form a government. Though a number of political combinations are available, the basic choice before Netanyahu is between a "national unity" government with Kadima and/or Labor (though the latter won just 13 seats to Kadima's 28) or a right-wing coalition. He has publicly displayed a preference for the national unity option, calling immediately during his acceptance speech for Kadima and Labor to join his government.
The outcome of the coalition negotiations will be critical in determining the shape of Netanyahu's tenure. A broad grouping would require him to cede influential positions to his chief rivals but somewhat paradoxically could also provide him greater flexibility in setting policy. During his previous stint as prime minister, Netanyahu's narrow coalition put him in a precarious position to make any significant moves on regional peace, and he doubtless wishes to avoid a repeat of that situation.
Assuming, however, that Netanyahu succeeds in forming a stable coalition and becoming prime minister, what can the U.S. expect from him, and what are the implications for U.S. interests?
Judging by his public remarks and his party's platform, Netanyahu views Iran as Israel's most immediate problem. This view is shared by most Israeli leaders (and other leaders in the region, for that matter) and is difficult to dispute. Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons clearly poses a threat to Israel, but the challenge Iran poses to Israel goes much deeper. Iran funds, trains, and equips Hizballah and Hamas, two groups that, more than any others, are responsible for killing and terrorizing Israelis. Largely due to the actions of these groups, Israelis, as historian Michael Oren recently noted, have come to believe "that the conflict is not about 1967, but rather 1948." That is, Hamas and Hizballah seek not territorial concessions but the elimination of Israel, the same goal professed by certain Iranian leaders, and a goal that these groups would surely pursue more doggedly if afforded the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. If peace negotiations are to be more than a sideshow to deepening violence, Iran's support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons must be stymied.
When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, most commentators have suggested that Netanyahu's victory means that the peace process will be frozen. They cite his strong criticism of the post-Annapolis negotiations, his hard-line positions on issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements, and his avowed preference for dealing first with economic and security issues in any peace talks before getting to those so-called "core issues."
What these commentators fail to take into account, however, is that both Israelis and Palestinians are disenchanted with the peace process. Israelis have made major territorial concessions in Lebanon and Gaza only to suffer more terrorism emanating from the vacated land; Palestinians have seen few if any advances in freedom or prosperity over the past 15 years of talks; and both have suffered through years of sporadic violence. In this environment, views have hardened across the board, and mutual trust is near nil. As tough as Netanyahu's positions may be on the "core issues," his chief rivals' stated positions are frequently just as hard-line, reflecting how events have led to a rightward trajectory in Israeli politics.
In such an environment, we should be seeking not to preserve the peace process as it stands but instead reassessing the paradigms that have guided that process (see Elliott Abrams's piece in the most recent Weekly Standard for an excellent discussion of this point). Years of talks focusing on the "core issues" to the exclusion of fundamental economic and security matters produced little progress. Therefore, Netanyahu's suggestion that further work is needed to promote economic prosperity, political reform, and security (for example, by lifting checkpoints in the West Bank) should be viewed by the Obama administration not as a threat, but as a chance to make progress where it is sorely needed. While progress in these areas cannot substitute for eventual agreement on the "core issues," it could help to restore confidence between the two sides and sap the strength of extremists who feed on anger and resentment.
It is certain that difficulties and disagreements will arise between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. This is true of any two countries that are engaged in the pursuit of their own interests. But President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will agree far more than they disagree and will largely share the same goals in the region. The extent to which they can succeed in advancing them will depend not so much on whether they align ideologically, but rather the extent to which they are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom to find new solutions for old problems.
By Michael Singh
Recently, I discussed the importance of the U.S. and its allies continuing to shun Hamas. In her comments after meeting with peace envoy Sen. George Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that the U.S. would do just that, maintaining the Bush administration's stance against engaging with Hamas until it fulfills the so-called "Quartet conditions." Specifically, she said:
[W]e have a very clear policy toward Hamas, and Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth. They must renounce violence. They must recognize Israel. And they must agree to abide by prior agreements that were entered into by the Palestinian Authority.We are just at the beginning of this deep and consistent engagement that we are part of, that Senator Mitchell is leading for our Administration, but our conditions with respect to Hamas have not and will not change."
Given the speculation to this point over whether the new administration would talk to Hamas, this is the most important detail to emerge thus far on how they will approach the peace process. They are to be commended for it.
Having articulated what they will not do, however, they now must lay out a vision for what they will do. Clinton's remarks are titled, "Toward a Negotiated Agreement," but it is vital to recognize that negotiations are only one element of the peace process. Unless the negotiations are accompanied by a serious effort to improve security for both Israelis and Palestinians, build accountable Palestinian political and economic institutions, and promote regional cooperation, there is little chance that they will succeed.
As I have previously noted, the success of this sort of comprehensive effort will depend in large part on the involvement of neighboring states. Fortunately, the foreign ministers of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, and Morocco recently issued a strong statement backing the Palestinian Authority and the peace process more generally. Iran and its proxies through their actions are unwittingly galvanizing this ad hoc coalition. It is now up to the U.S. to capitalize.
By Christian Brose
Asked today whether the Obama administration plans to engage with Hamas, Secretary Clinton answered pretty categorically that things aren't changing:
[W]e have a very clear policy toward Hamas, and Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth. They must renounce violence. They must recognize Israel. And they must agree to abide by prior agreements that were entered into by the Palestinian Authority.
We are just at the beginning of this deep and consistent engagement that we are part of, that Senator Mitchell is leading for our Administration, but our conditions with respect to Hamas have not and will not change. It is our hope that the work that needs to be done to move the parties toward an effort to settle many of the disputes that they currently confront will be effective. But Hamas knows that it must stop the rocket fire into Israel. There were rockets yesterday, there were rockets this morning. And it is very difficult to ask any nation to do anything other than defend itself in the wake of that kind of consistent attack.
For now, I'd say that pretty decisively quiets talk in Europe, recently by Javier Solana and Tony Blair, that the West should extend an olive branch to Hamas. This, in additon to Afghanistan, could signal a rough road ahead for the transatlantic alliance. And keeping Europe onboard may require a lot of diplomatic pushing and shoving. But it's the right position to take.
Kudos to Secretary Clinton.
By Michael Singh
In comments published by the Times of London yesterday, former British PM and current Quartet Representative Tony Blair suggested that Hamas should be “brought into” the peace process. Although he repeats the Quartet’s three conditions for engaging with Hamas -– renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and respect for past Israeli-Palestinian agreements -– other commentators have argued for ditching these conditions and even Blair posits a distinction between engaging in peace negotiations with Hamas and engaging them as the “de facto rulers of Gaza.” However, talking to Hamas in any capacity, and thereby easing their international isolation, would have the perverse effect of strengthening the group and setting back peace efforts further, rather than advancing them.
It is vital to recall the nature of Hamas. Both by its charter and by its actions, Hamas has demonstrated itself committed to both the destruction of Israel and the persecution of its fellow Palestinians. The recent conflict in Gaza was sparked by indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli towns, despite the fact that Israel had long ago withdrawn completely from the Strip. This was not a conflict to drive Israel out of Gaza, but to draw it in; like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas dragged people on both sides of the border into war against their will. Hamas, with the encouragement of Iran, seeks to destroy; responsible Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad seek to build. We must be clear-headed and full-throated in our condemnation of the former and support for the latter.
Hamas does not hide its opposition to peace. Their spokesman, Osama Hamdan, recently stated that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah depended on the latter ending its involvement in the peace process. It took decades for Palestinian leaders to agree to foreswear the destruction of Israel and to instead pursue a negotiated resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the two-state concept. Seeking to engage Hamas in the peace process would mean erasing that progress and resuming the process at square one. It would mean a return to the days of Israel having to defend its right to exist, and of peace-seeking Palestinians being marginalized. This would be a mistake –- rather than focusing on rejectionists who wish to move backwards, we should move urgently forward with the majorities on both sides who earnestly desire peace and prosperity.
By Mitchell Reiss
Reuters has the story:
The European Union has made a gesture towards accepting a Palestinian unity government that could include Hamas, a move it hopes can help heal a rift between the Islamists and their Western-backed rivals, Fatah.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday, used new language to describe the conditions under which the bloc would be prepared to work with a new coalition, should Hamas and Fatah manage to agree to one....
Instead of spelling out three long-standing conditions, also adopted by the United States, that Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept existing interim peace accords, Solana said only that a new Palestinian government that included Hamas should commit to pursuing a two-state solution.
Perhaps Solana was misquoted, perhaps he was selectively quoted. Otherwise, he surely must have known that this statement undercuts the new president and secretary of state, who only days ago repeated publicly the three conditions for the United States engaging with Hamas: renounce violence, respect previous agreements, and pace Reuters, not "recognize Israel" diplomatically, but simply accept Israel's right to exist.
More broadly, Solana's statement sends a signal to those in the region, including Iran, that the Europeans will always look for the lowest common denominator when negotiations get difficult rather than adhering to commonly agreed principles. This message also undermines those in the region, especially other Palestinians, who are trying to moderate Hamas’s extremist positions. It is far more likely to prolong conflict, not shorten it.
By Michael Singh
While the U.S. focuses on the latest twists and turns in the financial crisis, the Middle East is focused on the upcoming visit of newly-appointed special envoy Sen. George Mitchell to the region. While best known internationally for his role in Northern Ireland peacemaking, Sen. Mitchell is most closely associated in the Middle East with his 2001 Mitchell Report, which contained recommendations for ending the violence then consuming Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and resuming peace negotiations.
Sen. Mitchell’s immediate aim will be to shore up the shaky ceasefire in Gaza. This will mean devising an effective approach to combating the smuggling of arms into Gaza, and establishing a regime under which the border crossings into Gaza can open to humanitarian and commercial traffic. If done well, these measures can accomplish a threefold aim -– providing relief for the people of Gaza and southern Israel; weakening Hamas by preventing its rearmament and maintaining its isolation; and strengthening the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Perhaps as importantly, success in accomplishing these steps in Gaza can also serve as a model of practical, ad hoc, multilateral cooperation to advance peace based on shared interests. Because any future Palestinian state is likely to be relatively weak, anchoring that state and its peace commitments within a larger regional context is crucial. This will require an appeal to the same sort of shared interests at play in the Gaza conflict -– whether countering the potential threat of a hegemonic Iran, or preventing the growth of state-within-a-state groups that threaten governments across the region. Sen. Mitchell can cite these interests in extolling Arab leaders to support the PA diplomatically and financially, reach out to Israel, and begin a serious discussion about how a Palestinian state will be integrated into the economic and security architecture of the region.
While this sort of regional cooperation by itself will not bring peace, it can certainly speed that peace along and make it more sustainable once it is achieved.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.