Friday, July 31, 2009

He's President of... What Country, Again?

The New York Times editorializes that despite Obama's effort to move forward on the issue of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the various actors involved have been resistant to his requests. They conclude,
Israeli leaders do not often risk being at odds with an American president, but polls show broad support for Mr. Netanyahu’s resistance. President Obama, a skilled communicator, has started a constructive dialogue with the Islamic world. Now he needs to explain to Israelis why freezing settlements and reviving peace talks is clearly in their interest.
No, actually, he doesn't. His job is to explain to Netanyahu the current position of his administration, why he expects certain steps to be taken by Israel in the interest of U.S. foreign policy interests, and the consequences that will follow from Israel's choice to stand in the way of those interests. It's then Netanyahu's job to justify his own administration's response to Obama's requests and demands, and why Israel might be better served by non-compliance than by cooperation.

I would be fascinated to read a New York Times "draft speech" for Obama, explaining in their terms why Israelis should support the Obama Administration's policies. I am having a hard time imagining any such speech that would not come across as patronizing, condescending, and ultimately prove counterproductive. Does the New York Times truly believe that Israelis don't understand the nature of the settlements, or that those who have chosen for more than forty years to disregard the realities of the settlements are going to suddenly change their mind in response to a speech by a foreign leader - even a U.S. President?

The New York Times tiptoes around the issues of settlements, mentioning growth but deliberately omitting the numbers that could give its readers perspective on why the settlements are such a big issue. But, what a surprise, Fred Hiatt's gang at the Washington Post, doesn't even offer a limited context. The Times notes,
Under pressure from Washington, Mr. Netanyahu’s government has dangled a possible compromise: a temporary freeze in new construction, as long as 2,500 units now in process can be completed and Arab East Jerusalem is exempt. It is a weak offer.
The Post doesn't much care how weak the offer is:
Rather than pocketing Mr. Netanyahu's initial concessions - he gave a speech on Palestinian statehood and suggested parameters for curtailing settlements accepted by previous U.S. administrations - Mr. Obama chose to insist on an absolutist demand for a settlement "freeze."
By "administrations", the Post really means "Administration" - specifically the second Bush Administration. It certainly isn't describing the policy toward settlements advanced by the first Bush Administration. And to the extent that it means to allude to what happened under Clinton, it should be observed that at the start of peace talks under Clinton Israel had about 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and by the end it had about 400,000 settlers. Under Bush, that grew to about 500,000. A more honest gang than Hiatt's would acknowledge that one of the reasons Obama is moving away from the "parameters for curtailing settlements accepted by previous U.S. administrations" is that they've been a total failure.

At the end of the day, both papers should accept the self-evident: That Barack Obama is not the President of Israel, and his job is to advance American foreign policy. The whys and wherefores, this time around, should be self-evident to anybody conversant on the issues. Appearances to the contrary, I believe the anonymous authors of both editorials understand that. But Obama's explanations are owed to the American people - the people who elected him to advance their collective interests. I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice if there were a magic speech Obama could give that would transform Israeli public opinion, but to the extent that it's the job of any political leader to explain to the Israeli people the costs and benefits of following U.S. policy toward Israel's settlements, that leader's name is Netanyahu.

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