10 November 09
Rahm Emanuel’s statement today that “no one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab world” may be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Some may see it as a jibe at Israel to give in on the issue so as to enable peace talks to proceed. But the truth is, if anyone has been distracted by the settlements to the detriment of peace, it would be Emanuel and his master in the Oval Office.
Some feared that the White House chief of staff’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities today in Washington might be the latest in a series of tit-for-tat ripostes between the Obama administration and the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. However, it appears that Netanyahu’s determined effort to pretend — at least in public — that all is well between the two bickering allies has resulted in the administration’s deciding that increasing the tension between the two isn’t in their interest. Thus, although Emanuel’s talk sought to defend his boss’s feckless pursuit of popularity in the Arab world by distancing himself from Israel at every opportunity, it appears as though he passed on the chance to take any direct shots at Netanyahu.
As for his line about letting settlements “distract” anyone from the goal of peace, if anyone has done that, it has been Obama and his minions, whose recklessness on this issue has led to no end of Middle East mischief in recent months. Obama was determined to end what he termed the George W. Bush policy of allowing “no daylight” between the countries (which was hardly true, as Bush’s secretary of state spent her last two years in office trying to push the Israelis into more concessions to the Palestinians). His decision to pick a fight with the newly elected Netanyahu over a settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the territories was as foolish as it was pointless. The Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had just turned down yet another generous peace offer from Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert. And the administration’s settlement stand merely encouraged the Palestinians to dig in their heels and refuse to talk until Netanyahu bowed to a demand that no Israeli government would ever agree to.
The result is that Obama’s settlement distraction helped further undermine the already weak Abbas and strengthened the hand of his Hamas rivals. With Abbas threatening resignation, there is now a chance that the Palestinians will opt, as they always have whenever they have been faced with a serious policy choice in the past, for an escalation of violence in the hope that more bloodshed will result in greater pressure on Israel. Obama and his hatchet man Emanuel have been chastened by the Israeli public’s strong support for Netanyahu’s refusal to bow to American pressure, and they appear to be adopting a more realistic policy on settlements these days. But their resentment of Netanyahu, who they thought they might topple a few months ago, has done nothing to advance the cause of peace, let alone regional stability. Let’s hope they take that line about distractions more seriously in the future.
It should also be noted that in the same speech Emanuel claimed that the administration has made some sort of progress on stopping Iran’s nuclear program since “thanks to the work of the president, there is strong and international consensus against a nuclear-armed Iran.” Sorry, Rahm, but that consensus existed long before Obama arrived in Washington. The problem today is whether the United States and its allies (who have taken a much tougher stand on Iran than Obama has) will draw the right conclusions from America’s failed attempt at nuclear diplomacy with Iran. On Iran, as well as on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama’s first initiatives have been fiascoes. What’s needed now is not rhetoric aimed at reassuring American Jews that Obama cares about Israel but rather a dramatic policy overhaul that recognizes and seeks to correct the dramatic mistakes that have been made in the last ten months.