ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Daniel Brumberg
Fresh from his victory in the U.S. Congress, President Obama is seizing the initiative on foreign policy. Thus, instead of making up with Bibi Netanyahu, administration officials from the president on down have maintained a tough–and even obstinate–line with the Israelis. This cerebral president is now leading rather than responding, fighting rather than trying to simply reason with his friends and his adversaries.
But it will take much more than this crucial metamorphosis to advance the political equivalent of a bold U.S. Middle East Policy health bill. The challenge the administration faces is not only to demonstrate that the president has the will to lead. It’s more difficult task is to channel Obama’s renewed energy behind a coherent foreign policy strategy. All the feistiness in the world will mean nothing if the White House continues to improvise via tactical adjustments that, by their very nature, cannot replace an integrated vision of where it wants to go in the Middle East– and what it needs to get there.
This problem looms large in the administration’s efforts to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace while pursuing “engagement” with Muslim majority countries. In the latter case, the president went to Cairo to directly address the psychological intangibles of identity, historical resentment, and youthful disillusionment. In the former case, the White House dispatched Sen. George Mitchell to grapple with the pragmatic minutia of agreements, trade-offs and concessions. Nearly a year later, Obama has yet to confront the fears, insecurities and occasional nightmares that frame the Israeli-Jewish world-view.
This situation cannot endure. Unless he pursues a parallel policy of “Jewish World Engagement,” and unless this effort is linked to a strategic vision of how to mobilize both Muslims and Jews in the struggle for a two-state solution, the president could find both communities equally disillusioned with his leadership.
There is no doubt that Obama and his team inherited a huge Arab-Israeli mess. With the Palestinians divided politically and geographically, an Israeli government suffering its own elemental divisions (think of Lincoln prosecuting the Civil War with a third of his cabinet made up of Southern sympathizers!), and an Iranian president threatening to destroy the “Zionist regime,” what incentive did this new administration have to push for a full blown renewal of a defunct peace process?
This is precisely the question that many American friends of Israel posed following Obama’s inauguration. Given the impressive efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to advance economic growth, fight corruption and train a more effective security force, some experts argued that new administration should pursue only modest goals. Raising “final status” issues, it was said, would only wreck the lifeboat that Fayyad had lowered from the Palestinian-Israeli Titanic.
While logical, the problem with this advice was this: from its very inception, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process suffered from a near catastrophic failure to clearly define the strategic purpose behind whatever partial concessions each side promised to make. Absent a transparent and expeditious procedure for moving both sides towards a sustainable two-state solution, the peace process was left vulnerable to sabotage by any party who rejected the very concept of a peace between a Palestinian and an Israeli state.
Obama’s advisers understood this problem, but were not sure how to tackle it. In a bid to link partial steps to strategic goals, Mitchell tried to push Palestinian West Bank leaders to improve security, and Israelis to freeze settlements. The assumption was that these confidence-building steps would set the stage for final status negotiations.
However, since neither the administration nor West Bank Palestinian leaders had the means to stop Hamas from lobbing shells across the Israeli-Gaza border, they couldn’t fully deliver the security that Israelis craved. And while Netanyahu promised a 9 month settlement freeze on the West Bank, the “expansion” of existing Israeli communities continued, in line with the priorities of key members of Bibi’s own fractious cabinet. As a result, the trust required linking partial steps to strategic outcomes never emerged.
I am not speaking of Palestinian-Israeli trust. As recent events amply show, the key problem is an absence of American-Israeli trust. Indeed, what Obama and his advisers have not fully grasped is the emotive landscape of the Israeli-Jewish psyche. Despite Israel’s extraordinary financial and military prowess, many Israelis perceive their homeland to be under existential threat from a powerful alliance of state and non-state forces whose chief patron (Iran) is busy enriching uranium.
Jewish angst is a powerful force, particularly when it coexists with the specter of a young administration seeking to repair U.S.-Muslim relations. While laudable and even vital for U.S. geo-strategic interests, Obama never forged a coherent strategy for helping Israelis understand how Muslim world engagement could be fully consonant with a robust U.S.-Israeli relationship. That consonance could only come from mobilizing Jews and Muslims behind a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
To join the Jewish and Muslim tracks, the administration needs a Jewish World Engagement that parallels its still-to-be-realized pursuit of Muslim World Engagement.
Obama himself must inaugurate this initiative, not by a speech in Washington, not by a phone call, but rather by flying to Israel, a country that–incredibly enough–he is yet to visit as president. There he must address the darkest fears and brightest aspirations of Israelis–and of their supporters in the wider global Jewish community. He must explain why the U.S. is determined to help Israelis and Palestinians make –and protect– the historic decisions that will ultimately provide real security for both peoples. Then and only then can he ask Arab leaders to renew their diplomatic, economic and political support for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Two engagement tracks– bound together by a clear strategic vision to which a re-energized president is dedicated in both words and most of all deeds–this is the great challenge that now awaits Obama.
Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance Program and Acting Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.
By Daniel Brumberg |
March 25, 2010; 1:36 PM ET
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