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Obama's evenhanded Mideast policy

The president's approach isn't anti-Israel; it's a balance that could tip the scales toward a two-state solution.

July 31, 2009

Evenhandedness usually is considered to be a positive attribute in diplomacy, but when it comes to the Middle East, many Israelis and their supporters see it as code for a pro-Arab policy. In that view, President Obama's insistence that Israel freeze Jewish settlement construction is anti-Israeli and a sop to the Arab street. That's wrong. Obama has committed himself to a comprehensive peace that would give Palestinians a state of their own and provide Israel with security and recognition from the wider Arab world. This is the right goal, but it cannot be achieved if Israel continues to expand settlements and create new "facts on the ground" ahead of a negotiated agreement.

The idea that Obama is "anti-Israeli" is far-fetched. Speaking at Cairo University in June, Obama declared categorically to the Muslim world that the bond between the United States and Israel is "unbreakable." Israel remains a key ally, the No. 1 recipient of U.S. foreign aid at more than $2.7 billion this year. The special relationship between the two countries was demonstrated once again this week by visits from four high-ranking administration officials. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security advisor James L. Jones, special envoy George J. Mitchell and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross traveled there to assure Israel of U.S. military cooperation and opposition to Iran's nuclear ambitions, as well as to press the settlement issue and to try to put the peace process back on track.

That said, it is true that Obama has made significant policy shifts in order to serve as an effective peace broker. Not since President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III demanded a halt to settlement expansion in the occupied territories in the early 1990s has a U.S. president taken a stand against construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem neighborhoods, where Palestinians hope to establish their future state. In the years since then, the Jewish settlement population in the West Bank at least tripled to more than 300,000, and new Jewish projects were built in East Jerusalem. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved another one this month, seemingly in protest against U.S. demands.) President George W. Bush went so far as to send a letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 stating that settlement blocs with "major Israeli population centers" made it "unrealistic" to expect a complete return of the land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. While that may end up being the case, the future of settlements has to be resolved through negotiations. Such preemptive moves stand as proof to Palestinians and most of the Arab world that neither Israel nor the United States is serious about creating a viable Palestinian state.

This is why Obama is seeking -- dare we say? -- a more evenhanded approach to peace-making. He wants to shift the U.S.-Israeli alliance from what former U.S. Mideast negotiator Aaron Miller calls an "exclusive relationship that doesn't serve our interests to a distinguished special relationship, which we do need." In fact, that is also what Israel needs, given that the exclusive relationship has failed to provide security or produce a sustainable peace. Most Americans, Israelis and Palestinians support separate, side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states. Rather than fear the Obama administration's shift, Israelis should hope that more balance will give Obama more clout to pursue a two-state solution -- Israel's best hope for a secure future.

At the same time the administration is applying pressure to Israel on settlements, it is pushing Arab states for confidence-building measures to demonstrate that freezing settlements has benefits, and for follow-through on pledges of economic support for the Palestinian Authority that they have so far failed to honor. "Progress toward peace cannot be the responsibility of the United States -- or Israel -- alone," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations recently. "Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel's place in the region."

Arab states have been as resistant as Israel and just as wrongheaded. A Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that "normalization" comes only after Israel has changed its ways. In fact, the two sides should change in tandem, with Israel stopping construction and Arab states matching it with diplomatic contacts or multilateral meetings on issues of common interest. Obama has been criticized for failing to rally Israeli public opinion on the settlement freeze. That shouldn't be so hard because most Israelis do not support settlements, but he does have to reach out to them, and he needs the help of Arab states to do so.

This is just the first step in inevitably painful negotiations. The hurdles ahead are enormous, starting with the fact that the Palestinian Authority controls only the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip is ruled by the radical Islamic movement Hamas; Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel won't negotiate with this armed enemy. Meanwhile, settlements are but one of the overarching issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees. It's going to be a long, hard slog toward the goal of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, but ultimately this serves the interests of Israel, its Arab neighbors and the United States. And it is a goal more likely achieved with an evenhanded U.S. policy.

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