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You can't make everyone happy


30-05-11, 08:16 PM

  : 1

You can't make everyone happy


You can't make everyone happy

IT WAS a tricky few days for Barack Obama in his latest bid to please the Arab world in general and, more specifically, to break the logjam between Palestinians and Israelis. By contrast, Israels prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, after frosty talks in the White House and rapturously received speeches to Congress and to the most powerful of Americas pro-Israel lobbies, must have chuckled at having once againat least in the short runfended off an American president seeking to prod him more brusquely than usual down the road to compromise with the Palestinians.

In the end, after much brouhaha and hyperbole, there were no real winners: no sign that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would resume; no hint of flexibility from Mr Netanyahu, despite his declared readiness to make painful compromises in the interest of peace; no expectation that the Palestinians would talk to Mr Netanyahu under present circumstances; no promises that they would put off their quest for recognition of statehood at the UN General Assembly in September; only tepid praise from the Palestinians for Mr Obamas statements that antagonised Mr Netanyahu; and, across the Arab world, in European capitals, as well as in doveish circles in Israel itself, general condemnation of the Israeli leader for his cocking a snook at Mr Obama.

In any event Mr Obamas own speech at the State Department on May 19th was an awkward mixture. Most of it dwelt on the Arab upheavals rather than the Israel-Palestinian tangle. It was the presidents first big statement on the Middle East since his acclaimed speech in Cairo two years ago, when he persuaded many Arabs and Muslims that he was genuinely determined to open a new chapter of friendship after years of toxic mistrust, failed military interventions and stalled efforts to make peace between Israel and Palestine.

This time Mr Obama sought to place America on the side of the reformers, putting democratic values above alliances with dictators. He promised a dollop of cash to help countries such as Tunisia and Egypt along the road to freedom. He reassured the Libyan opposition fighting to overthrow Colonel Muammar Qaddafi that he backed them. He took a swipe at his Bahraini ally, which hosts the American fifth fleet, urging dialogue with protesters rather than repression. He told Yemens embattled president to quit. And he asked Syrias president to lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way. Mr Obama was notably silent about Saudi Arabia, as though unable to chide so vital an ally for its patent lack of reforming zeal.

But all this was drowned out by what he said about Israel-Palestine, in particular when he told Mr Netanyahu that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. The president also advocated first tackling the borders issue and questions of security, such as the demilitarisation of a future Palestinian state, while leaving the hitherto intractable issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees until later. He also said that the recent reconciliation accord between the Palestinians two main factions (see article) raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel, since the radical Islamist movement Hamas has neither disavowed violence nor agreed to recognise Israel. But he left a possibility for the more moderate Fatah faction to persuade Hamas to change its mind.

Mr Obamas reference to 1967 seemed to catch Mr Netanyahu on the raw. In fact, previous presidents have mediated on the assumption that any agreed border would roughly follow the pre-1967 one. Bill Clintons parameters of 2000 suggest that a Palestinian state would encompass 94-96% of the West Bank, with additional compensating land swaps of 1-3%. But no American president had explicitly endorsed the 1967 line before.

Mr Obama had barely finished his speech before Mr Netanyahu, about to take off for Washington, issued a furious statement, widely and promptly echoed across the American spectrum. The 1967 border, he said, was indefensible; Israel at its narrowest point, pre-1967, was only nine miles wide. Moreover, in contrast to Mr Obamas proposal that Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank, he insisted they would remain indefinitely in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern border with Jordan.

A few days later, at a conference hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, Mr Obama sought to soften his 1967 statement. He had not said, he explained, that the border would be the same as before 1967. Because of those swaps, Israel and Palestine would negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4th, 1967. The 1967 line was only a starting point.

Mr Netanyahu later sought to sound a shade more emollient. He would be generous in giving the Palestinians space for a state on the West Bank, though by implication nothing like as ample as suggested by Mr Clinton or even by the Israeli prime ministers two predecessors. Most of the settlers there and in Jerusalem, whom he numbered at 650,000, would be on the Israeli side of an adjusted border; an indeterminate number of Jewish settlements in Samaria and Judaea, his preferred biblical name for the West Bank, would end up beyond Israels bordersand would therefore, by implication, have to be removed. But Jerusalem would be the undivided capital of Israel, which the Palestinians must recognise as a specifically Jewish state as a precondition for any deal. In other words, if Mr Netanyahu stuck to his verbal guns, a deal with even the most malleable Palestinians, let alone with a unity government including Hamas, would be virtually inconceivable.

Why did Mr Obama risk stirring such bad blood between his administration and Israels, to no apparent diplomatic gain and at a time when the pro-Israeli lobby in America, already in pre-election mode, still wields so much clout? Perhaps, in frustration at his failure to advance the peace process, he wanted to put down a marker, warning Mr Netanyahu that he would not tolerate his continuing refusal to give ground on a whole range of issues. Mr Netanyahus unwillingness last September to extend a freeze on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank prompted the Palestinians to pull out of talks only three weeks after they had resumed, to Mr Obamas intense chagrin. He really told him, If you give me nothing to work with, America will keep trying to defend you but it will not be enough, says Daniel Levy, an Anglo-Israeli former negotiator who works for the New America Foundation, a peacemaking outfit in Washington, DC.

Rarely has the outlook seemed so bleak. On May 13th Mr Obamas envoy, George Mitchell, resigned in despair. Some say Mr Obama should still, whatever Mr Netanyahus objections, lay out a detailed plan of his own and visit Israel to promote it. Perhaps he should suggest indirect talks to explore fresh negotiating possibilities. But no American president seeking re-election can contemplate putting real pressure on Israelwithholding favours at the UN, for instance, or reducing the supply of arms and aid. As things stand, even those who think Mr Obamas vision of an Israeli-Palestinian compromise is right fear the president may have picked a fight that, in the short run, he was unlikely to win.





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