Analysis: Obama: An Innocent Abroad

Jerusalem Post- 21/05/2009

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi has published what it claims are key details of the new Middle East peace plan to be presented by President Obama in his speech in Cairo on June 4. Details of the plan made the front page of two leading Israeli newspapers. If the revelations prove accurate, they reveal a US administration as yet unacquainted with several basic facts of life concerning politics and strategy in the Middle East. There were those in Israel who suspected Obama of being a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, preparing with a friendly smile to offer up Israel as a sacrifice to its regional enemies. The picture emerging from the alleged details of his plan suggest a different, though not necessarily more comforting characterization: When it comes to the Middle East, Obama is an innocent abroad.

Observe: We are told that the new plan represents a revised version of the 2002 Arab peace plan and is to offer the following: a demilitarized Palestinian state approximating the armistice lines of June 5, 1967. Territorial exchanges may take place on the West Bank. This state will be established within four years of the commencement of negotiations. On Palestinian refugees: The refugees and their descendants will be naturalized in their countries of current residence, or will have the right to move to the new Palestinian state. In parallel to the negotiations with the Palestinians, separate negotiating tracks with the Syrians and Lebanese will be established. If the Obama plan does indeed include these elements, its failure is a certainty, because it has been formulated without reference to regional realities.

Currently, west of the Jordan River there are three political entities: Israel, the West Bank Palestinian Authority, and a Hamas-run, quasi-sovereign body in the Gaza Strip. Entities 1 and 3 are in a state of war with each other. Entity 2’s existence is underwritten by entity 1, without which it would be devoured by entity 3. The Obama plan, it would appear, simply fails to take into account the fact of Hamas-run Gaza’s existence. Yet the decision this week by West Bank PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to form a narrow government is testimony to the Hamas-led statelet’s durability. There is no Palestinian force able, or other force willing, to destroy it. It has made clear that it does not intend to negotiate itself out of existence. For as long as it is there, armed by Iran and opposed to all moves toward reconciliation, all plans based on authoritative peace negotiations between Israel and the PA are divorced from reality.

The refugee question is to be addressed by naturalization or a “return” to the borders of the new Palestinian state. There is no significant Palestinian faction which will agree to this. The Islamist factions, obviously, will reject it out of hand. It will also be opposed by Fatah. This movement is in any case in a state of disarray and disunity. But the trends at rank and file level in it are toward greater religiosity and greater radicalism. The issue of the “return,” far more than the issue of the “Palestinian state,” is the foundation stone of Palestinian nationalism as imagined by Fatah. There is no way that the movement could abandon it. If it did, it would be almost certain to cede the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Regarding the issue of the “naturalization” of refugees and their descendants, it is not quite clear how Lebanon and Syria, home to large Palestinian populations, are to be persuaded to grant full citizenship to their residents of Palestinian origin. Opposition to the tawteen (naturalization) of Palestinian residents is one of the very few issues on which all Lebanese political factions are united. A government dominated by Hizbullah is likely to emerge following the Lebanese elections on June 7. Its default position will be support for the Iranian-led regional bloc, and opposition to all attempts at a negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Certainly, such a government will feel no inclination toward helping out the US administration by abandoning a key, consensual Lebanese political stance.

Syria will also not abandon a core pro-Palestinian position in order to accommodate Washington. As for the view of even Washington’s allies among the Palestinians for this option – naturalization was overtly rejected by Mahmoud Abbas on a visit to Lebanon last year. Above and beyond the details, the plan revealed in Al-Quds al-Arabi fails to acknowledge the salient fact of current Middle East strategy: namely, the division of the region into an Islamist “resistance” bloc led by Iran, and a loose coalition of all those states opposed to this bloc.

There is a conspiracy theory according to which Obama, with Machiavellian cunning, knows that his plan is unworkable, and intends to use its failure to cast blame and accusation on Israel. Who knows? Perhaps evidence will yet emerge in support for this thesis. It seems more likely, however, that the president remains enthralled by the sunny illusions of the peace process of the 1990s, and is about to give them another run around the block. He has four years to follow the well-trodden path from innocence to experience. The problem is that further afield, there are other, more urgent clocks ticking.

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