One can applaud or moan as a result of President Barack Obama's recent meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
My own guess is that it is best to ignore the rhetoric coming from American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials. Little will happen as a result of American efforts to be fair to all, and to nudge several authorities to actions they are not likely to take.
I see this note as commentary, rather than criticism of the American administration or anyone else.
I am impressed most of all with the problems of American officials. They appear to be sincere in trying to impose their preferences on this feisty corner of the world, while they also juggle the responsibilities of being the greatest power in other locations that have heated up to the direct armed involvement of the United States, and try to calm other places, most notably Iran and North Korea, that may become candidates for military intervention.
Obama told Netanyahu that settlements must stop growing, and that Israel must work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. The prime minister returned home and said that all was agreed with the United States. When he indicated that settlement growth would continue, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that was not what the President had indicated.
Obama has told Abbas that the United States supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and the cessation of settlements as one step toward that. Such comments have Israeli officials verging on panic. The Sunday morning headline on the front page of Ha'aretz was, "Israel's severe criticism of the United States: Stop favoring the Palestinians." Other stories quoted key officials to the effect that Israel will not freeze settlements; that the United States demands are tantamount to the expulsion of Jews, that President Obama has set a deadline for a breakthrough in Mideast negotiations, and that he wants to topple the government so it may be replaced with one more compliant to his tilt toward the Palestinians.
What about Hamas?
That organization, defined as terrorist by the United States and numerous other countries, is firmly in charge of Gaza and might be the strongest element in the West Bank. As long as that continues, the idea of a Palestinian state is unattainable. All those Gazans living in tents, with little or no reconstruction, demonstrate that world powers cannot even figure out how to implement commitments of aid to a place ruled by Hamas.
President Obama has not only pressured Israel and assured the Palestinians of his concern. He has told the Palestinians to stop the incitement against Jews and Israel that comes out of its schools and mosques, and the speeches of its politicians; to work against violence; to assure fair trials; and to stop corruption. He has said that Arab countries should give Israel more incentives toward something like their own peace proposals, such as beginning to normalize relations in advance of negotiations.
These demands are as strong as any statements I recall being made publicly by an American president to Palestinian authorities or Arab governments. If they were to penetrate the panic among Israelis caused by statements about settlements and a Palestinian state, they should persuade Israelis that there is even-handedness in American activity.
They should also assure Israelis that nothing much will happen.
Changing well established patterns of incitement by Palestinian religious and political leaders, creating a system of justice in place of politically directed arbitrary decisions, and ending corruption is the work of generations. With Hamas on the verge of taking over everything, the aging cadre that claims the leadership of Palestine will waffle and cite Israeli settlements, the security barrier, and the comments of Israeli politicians to excuse their own lack of action. Israelis will cite Palestinian intransigence as their excuse for not complying with what they describe as one-sided American demands.
There will be no let up in expressions of support for a tougher American policy toward Israel. It will come from liberal Americans, Jews and others, who want an idealized Middle East, as well as Muslim countries used to using their oil muscle and asserting Palestinian misery to excuse their own lack of decent government.
If the Arab League accepts Obama's idea to begin normalizing relations with Israel as an incentive to serious negotiations, I will give up my license as a political scientist.
Well placed American Jews and others will continue to see considerable reason to support Israel, even if some of them occasionally are embarrassed by Israeli actions or expressions. The "tough love" advocated by some who call themselves friends of Israel will not be all that tough. There is considerable merit to Israel's claim of being threatened by intransigent Palestinians and others. A secure Israel is an essential condition for the region not to be more fully antagonistic to the West. And Israel is one of those states with too much power for an outsider to hammer it into a corner.
It is politically correct for the world leader to press all sides in the Middle East. With forces and political energies fully committed elsewhere, however, the United States is unlikely to put much beyond rhetoric into an Israel/Palestine peace process.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science