Friday, September 4, 2009

Looking to the Arab Press for Advice

Of all the places you'd expect to find a solid analysis of the settlement issue, Saudi-censored Arabnews.com would clearly not be your first stop. Besides having its content regulated by the Saudi government, some of its columnists are, to paraphrase Rep. Barney Frank, living on different planets. But today's editorial is definitely worthy of consideration.

The basic argument the editorial makes is that by not holding Israel to a settlement freeze, Obama has let the peace process slide. This has eroded Arab confidence in the peace process and is a challenge to U.S. credibility in the conflict. While the call for a threat of sanctions is a bit too far (that would be the equivalent of a nuclear option), the points on which this call is justified are themselves worthy of consideration. The Jerusalem Post's editorial pages are filled with columnists decrying Obama's "obsession" with settlements (including Sara Honig's pearl of wisdom from today's Post). However, the reality is that Obama has kind of dropped the ball on pressuring Israel. George Mitchell, his envoy to the region, has certainly been active. But he lacks the bully pulpit, which is the key. This has allowed Netanyahu to wait out the clock on the American political arena, and buy enough time so that he can continue plans for settlement building. The settlement issue has made Netanyahu stronger, solidifying a constituency, and placing him as the voice of Israel against the American president inherently mistrusted by most Israelis. Today's news that Netanyahu would approve construction of new homes in the West Bank should come as no surprise. It will only unify Israeli public opinion around Netanyahu more for the White House to push against this. An example: White House Press Secretary Robert Gates' comment that the U.S. "regrets" Netanyahu's decision was described in the Jerusalem post as "U.S. Slams Netanyahu Construction Plan."

Between the economy, the health care debate, a supreme court appointment, and two wars, Obama has let the Israeli-Arab conflict take a low precedence. But if he wishes to be effective, the president must take a more proactive role. In Afghanistan, General McChrystal is calling for a fully resourced effort to fight the Taliban. In this respect, warfighting and peacemaking are the same. Obama must give the Israeli-Arab conflict the necessary resources and effort if he truly desires a successful resolution to the conflict there.

With an Israeli public and government who already percieve the U.S.-Israel relationship as very damaged, that card has been almost exhausted. Israelis have learned to live with a U.S. that many of them percieve as "anti-Israel." Time is running out for Obama to take a proactive stand and make the kind of changes on the ground which he has committed himself to making.

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