Muddling on a Mideast Poficy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks towards President Barack Obama as he speaks to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Obama to Impose Terms on Israel" is the headline you didn't read on David Ignatius's column in the Washington Post today. The story ran under the title "Obama's Mideast Plan," which Ignatius describes as "proposing an American peace plan to resolve the Palestinian conflict."

But the substance is clear: It is a threat against Israel by the Obama administration and particularly by National Security Advisor James Jones. (The give-away is this line: "The fact that Obama is weighing the peace plan marks his growing confidence in Jones." Now who do you think was Ignatius's source for that gem?) Apparently Obama and his team are frustrated by their inability to get Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a deal, and have therefore decided we'll just impose one.

The inability of Israelis and Palestinians to get to the negotiating table is, in this administration, an iatrogenic disease: Our diplomatic doctors have caused it. The astonishing incompetence of Obama and special envoy George Mitchell has now twice blown up talks-direct talks last year, and proximity talks more recently-by making Israeli construction plans a major world crisis, thereby forcing Palestinian leaders to back away from engagement with the Israelis. So the administration will, in the fall, just do it the simpler way. Why bother with Israelis and Palestinians, in whom the president apparently does not have "growing confidence," when you can just have your own brilliant team draw up the terms? As Ignatius's sources, "two top administration officials," tell him, "everyone knows the basic outlines of a peace deal."

This is false and dangerous. First, if indeed everyone has known the terms for nearly 20 years (since Oslo) yet agreement has never been reached, is it not obvious that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing and able to accept those terms? Does their embrace by an ambitious American president make them any more palatable to the people who will have to live with them? Second, the conclusion that all the terms are known is quite wrong. Is the fate of Jerusalem's Old City agreed? Do Palestinians accept that Israel will keep every major settlement bloc? Do Israelis and Palestinians agree on the terms needed to guarantee Israel's security once the IDF must leave the West Bank? (Examples: Is it agreed that Israel will control the air space and electromagnetic spectrum? Is it agreed that Israel can keep troops in the West Bank for some years? Do Palestinians accept that Israel can control the Jordan Valley and patrol the border with Jordan?)

This is nonsense. One of Ignatius's sources says the Obama plan will "take on the absolute requirements of Israeli security." After 14 months of harassment by Obama and his team, will any Israeli risk his nation's safety on that assurance?

A tell-tale: One of the demands that Obama is said to have made of Prime Minister Netanyahu is withdrawal to the pre-intifada (September 2000) IDF lines in the West Bank. This is striking, for the demand apparently is not to promise a future withdrawal, or a staged withdrawal as and when conditions permit, but simply to pull back now. This means ignoring security conditions on the ground and the current capabilities of Palestinian forces to keep order and stop terrorism, or it means assuming that the Palestinian forces are adequate. If they are not, well, so what, there will be a few acts of terror, and then we'll see that maybe they pulled back too far too fast. Everyone makes mistakes. These are the kinds of calculations that persuade Israelis the administration is cavalier about their security, despite the occasional repetition of campaign pledges to the contrary.