Vice President Joseph Biden set out to massage U.S.-Israeli relations this week, but instead ran up against the reality of Israeli politics, manifested in the Netanyahu government’s announcement of the construction of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. The result, as described by the normally rhetorically sober Financial Times, has been to expose “an emasculated White House” that lacks “Mideast muscle.” This criticism is completely deserved, because Biden’s debacle in Israel is the fruit of the Obama Administration’s fatally flawed approach to the Middle East.
The first and most fundamental flaw in that approach is President Obama’s failure to pursue strategic realignment with the Islamic Republic of Iran with the kind of strategic focus and political determination with which President Nixon pursued strategic realignment with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. By allowing the Iran issue to drift, President Obama has given Prime Minister Netanyahu an ideal excuse for not acceding to effective American mediation on the Palestinian issue. “How can Washington ask me to take both strategic and domestic political risks on the Palestinian issue,” Netanyahu can ask rhetorically, “when I have to marshal every bit of the Israeli government’s bureaucratic and national security capacity and my own political capital to deal with the Iran issue?”
Furthermore, the Obama Administration’s current default policy for dealing with Iran — namely, to pursue further sanctions and work to forge a regional coalition to “contain” Iran — will do nothing to resolve the Iran problem. This only reinforces Netanyahu’s excuse for pursuing policies toward the Palestinians that are deeply damaging to whatever prospects might still remain for a two-state solution and, by extension, to America’s strategic position in the region. As we wrote in a New York Times Op Ed in May 2009 (and were criticized in some quarters for being too critical of the Obama Administration too early in its tenure):
President Obama and his team should not be excused for their failure to learn the lessons of recent history in the Middle East — that the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics and that even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation. The notion of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition is not only delusional, it would leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall.
And that is exactly where prospects for resolution of the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks are today — in free fall. As we noted in our May 2009 Op Ed, “These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, HAMAS and Hezbollah.”
Beyond the failure to deal in a genuinely strategic way with Iran, the second fundamental flaw in the Obama Administration’s approach to the Middle East is a failure to define any appreciable limits for Israeli actions. This is particularly devastating on the Palestinian track.
As we wrote in an article “A Road Map to Nowhere: Obama’s Refusal to Dub Israeli Settlements Illegal Is Undermining Any Hope of Middle East Peace” that we published on ForeignPolicy.com in July, President Obama missed a critical opportunity in his June 2009 Cairo speech to take U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory back to what is was under the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, when U.S. policy actually achieved meaningful progress towards a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict — namely, a clear-cut stance the such settlements were illegal, in that the settlement of Israeli civilians in occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Instead, Obama stuck with the same tired and useless stance that has enabled Israel to expand settlements in occupied Palestinian territories by orders of magnitude over the past quarter century; in Cairo, Obama said only that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” When the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler asked the State Department to clarify whether Obama’s rejection of the “legitimacy” of continued Israeli settlements meant that the U.S. government considered settlement activity in itself to be a violation of international law, the State Department repeatedly declined to answer. As we wrote in “A Road Map to Nowhere” on ForeignPolicy.com,
. . . Obama’s rhetoric in Cairo strongly suggests that his Middle East diplomacy will extend America’s decades-long record of ineffectual efforts at Arab-Israeli peacemaking — a record that has its origins in the Reagan administration’s 1981 decision to abandon the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations’ characterization of Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory as “illegal.” While the European Union and most of the rest of the world have consistently done so, the last four U.S. administrations have not — a position Obama is continuing.
By shrinking from declaring Israeli settlement activity illegal, Obama has guaranteed that, in substance, his Middle East policy cannot depart significantly from that of George W. Bush. . . . Worse, in contrast to other policy mistakes made early in his presidential tenure, Obama will be hard put to reverse the damage done by his lack of clarity and courage on the settlements issue by coming back at a later date and arguing that Israeli settlements in occupied territory are, in fact, illegal. . . .
Had President Obama explicitly declared Israeli settlements illegal . . . his call for a halt to settlement activity would not be based on a (disputable) judgment that such activity is “unhelpful” or creates “facts on the ground” that prejudge final negotiating outcomes. Instead, the U.S. call to end settlement activity would be grounded in a straightforward argument: Because Israeli settlements are illegal, no negotiating process rooted in international law could responsibly tolerate their expansion. . . .
By explicitly declaring Israeli settlements illegal, Obama could have transcended [the absence of clearly defined final status parameters] in the road map. If settlements are illegal, then no negotiating process grounded in international law could take any starting point other than the 1967 boundaries for negotiating final borders. Similarly, if settlements are illegal, then any negotiating process grounded in international law would have to start from the premise that all of Jerusalem cannot remain under exclusive Israeli control. . . .
In response to pressure from the Netanyahu government, Mitchell is reportedly already considering a “new” definition of “natural growth” in existing settlements — a definition that would allow Israel to complete construction that has already been started. One can only imagine how many construction permits will be pulled out of drawers in Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank in anticipation of such an arrangement; the practical effect of such “limits” will be as meaningless as the Bush administration’s “understandings” with Sharon and Olmert.
And that is precisely what is happening today. In addition to the 1,600 East Jerusalem housing units announced by the Netanyahu government in conjunction with Biden’s visit, Haaretz reports that “some 50,000 new housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line are in various stages of planning and approval.”
But bad strategy on Iran and Arab-Israeli issues, in and of itself, does not account for descriptions of the Obama Administration as “emasculated.” For that, we must consider the third flaw in President Obama’s approach to the Middle East — his determined position to enable Israel to act without cost or consequence, no matter how damaging its actions might be to regional peace prospects and America’s own strategic interests. Writing in POLITICO, Laura Rozen reports that
“People who heard what Biden said [to Israeli officials behind closed doors] were stunned,” the centrist Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his interlocutors. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.”
One hopes that Biden did indeed use those words. But what do such behind-closed-doors words mean, really, if they are not backed up by a willingness to withhold some part of America’s aid to Israel over behavior that, as Biden reportedly said, puts the lives of American soldiers at risk? What do those fine words mean if they are not backed up by a willingness to let Israel begin appreciating the consequences of such behavior in the United Nations Security Council? What do those words mean if President Obama does not inform Prime Minister Netanyahu that he is prepared to use those words himself, addressed to the American public, if Israel does not reverse course on the settlements issue?
Biden’s visit to Israel has brought into graphic relief the fundamental flaws of the Obama Administration’s approach to the Middle East. Unless there is a fundamental change in approach, those flaws will prove fatal, and the United States will experience massive strategic failure in this critical region on President Obama’s watch.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 12 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.