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Obama's resolve on Mideast facing a history of blunt reality

As President Obama launches a bold new peace effort, like his predecessors he will be limited by regional leaders -- and especially now, with conditions unfavorable for a sweeping initiative.

June 12, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Infuriated by pressure from Washington, Israel's prime minister summoned the American ambassador.

"You have no moral right to preach to us," he lectured the envoy. "What kind of talk is this, 'punishing Israel'? Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?"

That scolding was 28 years ago, but it echoes as a cautionary tale.

Today, President Obama is pushing a reluctant Israeli government to halt the growth of Jewish settlements and embrace the goal of a Palestinian state. In the 1981 showdown, Prime Minister Menachem Begin held his ground after the Reagan administration suspended a strategic cooperation pact to protest Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. The territory, captured from Syria in 1967, remains in Israel's hands.

Now, as Obama launches an audacious new effort to make peace in the Middle East, his influence will be limited in similar ways by the regional leaders he must work with.

"We have a 'yes we can' president who believes he can make it happen, but he faces a 'no you can't' reality in a region that has changed for the worst over the past eight years," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, back in office a decade after his first term, has pledged to resist Palestinian independence. The Palestinian movement is in disarray, with the U.S.-backed leadership in the West Bank at odds with militant Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip over the issue of a permanent peace with the Jewish state.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, traditional leaders of the Arab world, are ruled by wavering octogenarians who are hesitant to step in as peacemakers.

Meanwhile, Iran's Islamist allies, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, have boosted their arsenals with logistical help from Syria and taken on Israel's army. Both pose a threat to Israel's borders, giving Iran, which the U.S. and others fear is bent on developing nuclear weapons, the power to sabotage any Israeli-Palestinian accord. Iran's ties with Syria and patronage of Hezbollah also help keep Syria and Lebanon formally hostile to Israel.

Against this inauspicious backdrop, the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict offers few examples of fruitful American diplomacy.

Shlomo Avineri, a former Israeli diplomat who teaches political science at Hebrew University, notes that the U.S. has sometimes managed to rein in Israeli military advances when regional stability was at risk, as it did in Egypt at the end of the 1973 war, and has helped secure agreements when Israel and its adversaries were close.

But "absent local political will, and when confronted with a peacemaking project that may take years to complete," he added, "the United States is virtually powerless."

That hasn't discouraged Obama. His special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, told Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week that the administration is "fully committed to working toward comprehensive peace throughout the Middle East." He then traveled on to Lebanon and Syria.

The administration has demanded a halt to Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank as a first step to unravel the conflict. By signaling an end to his predecessor's strong tilt toward Israel, Obama is trying to position the United States as an impartial broker in the region.

In so doing, he is dramatically testing the limits of America's clout with Israel.

Israeli leaders such as Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon have defied their superpower ally. Netanyahu has something of a mandate to follow suit: His right-leaning coalition took office 10 weeks ago on a wave of voter apprehension that withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers would turn the West Bank into a base for militant rocket attacks, as the 2005 pullout did in Gaza.

Obama has made it clear that he expects Netanyahu to fall in line.

"I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu will recognize the strategic need to deal with this issue," the president told reporters last week, drawing a parallel with President Nixon's opening to China in the 1970s. Netanyahu "may have an opportunity that a . . . more left leader might not have," Obama said. "It's conceivable [he] can play that same role."

Torn between the demands of a popular U.S. president and those of domestic allies who could turn against him, Netanyahu has scheduled an address Sunday to spell out his policy on the conflict. He is expected to stake out a middle ground, signaling acceptance of previous Israeli agreements to work for a "two-state solution" but insisting on limits to Palestinian sovereignty and avoiding mention of settlements.

Even that vague formula, reported in Israeli news media speculation about the speech, has provoked cries of protest in his staunchly conservative Likud Party.

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