Sunday, December 12, 2010

America Can't Walk Away From The Middle East

By Blake Hounshell
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 12/12/2010

I know where Thomas Friedman is coming from. His column today, in which he calls on the United States to wash its hands of the Middle East "peace process" and let the Israelis and Palestinians stew in their own juices for a while, must have been enormously satisfying to write. And for U.S. diplomats, tempted as they are to say "to hell with these people, we've got other things to do," it must have been a bracing read. Dealing with the stubborn shortsightedness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders has preoccupied four American presidents over the last 20 years, taking time away from more productive endeavors.

But unfortunately, it's not so easy to just walk away. Not only has the United States given billions in military and economic aid to Israel over the last three decades -- and provided Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other fora -- it has also propped up the Palestinian Authority while Arab leaders have broken promise after promise to help. U.S. bases dot the region, and U.S. troops are currently occupying two Muslim countries. American money goes to build settlements in the West Bank.

Not only is the United States deeply involved in the conflict, it's not as if both sides would be affected equally by U.S. disengagement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would probably be relieved. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose strategy rests on bringing American pressure to bear on Israel and avoiding making any concessions himself, clearly has more to lose. 
Unfortunately, the enemies of peace think time is on their side: The Israeli right, because more time means more "facts on the ground" -- settlements -- and the Palestinian hard-liners, because they believe demographic and military trends are in their favor. Neither group has U.S. interests in mind.

This is why many observers think the only way forward is for the United States to put forward its own peace plan. But is Barack Obama really willing to take this risk? So far, the answer has been no -- Obama has avoided a fight with Israel's domestic supporters every step of the way, even going so far as to offer up a ridiculously generous package of F-35s and security guarantees in exchange for a measly 90-day settlement freeze.

More likely, the U.S. administration is hoping to shake up Netanyahu's coalition, which is why Hillary Clinton ostentatiously met with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni last week ahead of her big speech. Her remarks also pointed in that direction: By urging Bibi to "grapple with the core issues of the conflict on borders and security; settlements, water and refugees; and on Jerusalem itself," Clinton is hoping to force him to put his positions on the table, something he has so far refused to do. If he does, and it ticks off his right-wing allies, that's OK with the United States -- Livni is waiting in the wings. If he doesn't, then at least we'll know once and for all that he cares more about keeping his coalition together than making peace. Then what?

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