Leslie Gelb, who held senior positions in the US Administration and was a New York Times editor, currently, serves as the president emeritus of the US Council on Foreign Relations. Over the weekend, he published a scathing op-ed against President Obama and his team on the Daily Beast website.
“Whoever advised President Obama to flay Israel publicly until this week should be fired,” he wrote. “Only advisers with no experience in dealing with Israel could have believed that Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu would bow to public attacks.”
“And whoever advised Mr. Obama to kneel rhetorically to Mr. Netanyahu in public on Tuesday should also be fired. The only thing accomplished by this embarrassing tactic was to put Israel in a position to call the shots on Mideast policy for the rest of Obama’s first term,” he added.
Yet at the end of the article Gelb reached the conclusion that there’s nobody to fire, because all this advice was apparently given to Obama by himself.
Gelb isn’t alone: Several Western media columnists slammed Obama for what they perceived as zigzagging; a huge backward flip. Up until yesterday, they were briefed that Netanyahu is the only obstacle to Mideast peace; that he is not credible and not serious – yet suddenly he is the president’s beloved son.
If there is something that columnists hate it’s seeing the subject of their writing changing course and leaving them out to dry. They can forgive any mistake by a politician, including mistakes that cost the lives of hundreds or thousands of people, yet they find the insult of betrayal difficult to bear.
Obama changed nothing about his strategy. He believes that it is possible to secure an Israeli-Palestinian deal and accorded this effort very high priority in his foreign policy. He granted Yedioth Ahronoth two interviews, one on the eve of his election and another after his Cairo University speech. In both of them he stressed his confidence in being able to secure a deal.
The change only has to do with his manners: At first, Obama thought he needs to forcefully tame Netanyahu. The more he would humiliate him, the more appeasing Netanyahu would become. This move brought partial results. Now, Obama chose the opposite move: Embracing. By doing so he alleviated the pressure exerted by Democratic Congress members from Jewish districts who lost donors and voters because of Netanyahu’s pulverization.
Obama may have also improved the chances of peace negotiations; what fails to work through force may work via flattery.
Ball in Abbas’ court
On this front, Obama is following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter, who made peace between Israel and Egypt a high priority, cajoled, threatened, flattered, and pressed until he prompted both sides cave in. Over the years, Carter turned into an Israel hater, bordering on anti-Semitic, so it’s hard to fondly remember his old days. Nonetheless, it would be fair to say he showed much greater skill than Obama.
The partners Carter worked with were also more impressive, courageous leaders – Begin on the one hand, along with Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann, and Aharon Barak, and Sadat on the other hand. With all due respect to Netanyahu and Obama, they’re not in the same league.
Obama’s wild zigzag further reduced the Arab and Muslim street’s trust in him, without boosting the trust in Israel. This is regrettable, because an American president with questionable credibility would find it even more difficult to promote an agreement.
The ball is now shifting to Abbas’ court. In the coming weeks, various supporters ranging from President Mubarak through George Mitchell and several European leaders will explain to him that he must enter direct negotiations. This is the only way to expose Netanyahu to massive American and European pressure and to domestic criticism, they will say.
This is the only way for Abbas to guarantee immediate Israeli concessions on the ground and expansion of Palestinian Authority sovereignty in the West Bank. Should he refuse, the Americans would have to condemn him as a peace refusenik.
Abbas will devote as much attention to objecting voices, which will warn him of a trap: Netanyahu wants negotiations rather than an agreement, they will tell him. He will drag you into futile discussions and humiliate you by setting facts on the ground. Now that Israel is facing a diplomatic siege, this is your chance to guarantee the agreement’s framework, the borders, in advance. Don’t cave in, they will tell him.
Abbas is not particularly interested in seeing concessions on the ground; a police station here, an IDF roadblock there: This is the department of his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Fayyad and Abbas do not belong to the same department.
Abbas is much more interested in his place in history and his status in the Arab League and on the Arab street. Based on past experience, when he faces a tough decision, Abbas escapes, usually to Qatar, his second home. Should he run away this time, he would push Obama deep into Netanyahu’s arms.
Indeed, Netanyahu won this time around. This victory extended the life of his government by several months and portrayed him as a hero for now. Yet it did not advance an agreement. In the words of Pyrrhus, the Greek king who defeated the Romans, another such victory and we are lost.