Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!” Those were the words of Michael Corleone, an old man who had spent his life reluctantly running a Mafia family, in the third installment of The Godfather trilogy. This was a movie, of course, but the line probably has some resonance right now for US President Barack Obama.
Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was a clear signal that he was giving up on his planned “pivot to Asia.” No doubt, his policies will still be inclined toward moving US resources out of the Middle East, but this is now a long range idea and the best Obama can do is to subtly nudge things in that direction. His entire speech was devoted to the Middle East, as are most major US diplomatic efforts these days. The President even pointed out that his top priorities for the rest of his term would be the “Iran nuclear issue” and Israel-Palestine peace.
Many observers predicted that the pivot would fail as the Middle East’s inexorable pull would overwhelm it, and it has. So the question now becomes what Obama is going to do with this realigned set of priorities. The early appearance would seem to be a very mixed bag.
Obama’s first steps on the Iran issue look promising. He seems open to the shift that the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran represents. His clear statement that “(The United States is) not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” were meant as a message to domestic hawks, not a reassurance to the people of Iran who surely wouldn’t take his word for such things anyway. It was a clear statement to US neoconservatives and members of Congress about what he intends to do here.
While he’s certainly not saying that an attack on Iran is out of the question if talks fail to produce results, Obama is saying that he is going to maintain his position of avoiding such an outcome, and if it does come about, he will not target anything beyond Iran’s nuclear capabilities. That is not what congressional hawks, or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want to hear. He is also telling them, without making any commitments on this score before negotiations, that he is open to discussing Iran’s legitimate rights to nuclear power. The same crowds are not going to like that either.
As I described recently, a fuller thaw in US-Iranian relations is a much more complicated matter than is usually thought. But the nuclear issue itself is more easily resolved if the US is open to enrichment on Iranian soil and Iran is open to full transparency of that enrichment and of the nuclear program as a whole, something Rouhani indicated was the case in his own UNGA speech. There is a bit of an ironic twist here. The hawks had been trying to make the case, with Syria, that Obama backing off there would convince Iran that US military threats were not serious. What seems to have happened is that the response to the threat of a Syrian attack has convinced Obama that the American public is eager for a deal with Iran and will accept one he can sell as reasonable. It will not have to be on the terms of absolute surrender on the nuclear issue that characterized the American stance until now.
Unfortunately, signals are not as good on the Israel-Palestine front. Obama says lots of nice things about Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and dignity and etc. It’s a broken record we’ve heard before. But any encouragement Obama has gotten to back away from a war footing with Iran is not matched by similar support for pressuring Israel into a peace agreement that can satisfy basic Palestinian needs. The talks Obama speaks of with such praise have been dragging and producing nothing, prompting the Palestinians to repeatedly complain that the Israelis were not cooperating and that the US was not helping.
Rumors circulating in Israel, which I’m inclined to believe, indicate a pretty bad deal for the Palestinians being pushed by the Obama administration. The idea sounds like a rehash of Oslo, with final status issues put off yet again, and a Palestinian state in temporary borders on less than half the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ own speech at the General Assembly allowed room for an agreement like this despite his statement about refusing to agree to another interim deal. That’s because this one, if it’s real, would clearly state an end date, guaranteed by the US, where all issues would be resolved and that the state of Palestine would immediately get full UN membership with Israeli support. That is enough for Abbas to try to sell it. But if it looks like Oslo, sounds like Oslo and walks like Oslo, it will be enough like Oslo that the Palestinian people are extremely unlikely to accept it.
Obama also sent a clear message to Abbas in his speech when he said that “I’ve made it clear that the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state,” (emphasis added.) Yes, he’s said this before, but putting it there wasn’t necessary. That indicates that part of the deal will be that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something which would seem to be a deal-breaker for them, but this may be one of the final status issues that gets put off. The selling point to Abbas will be the establishment of a Palestinian state, one that he can call independent right away even if it really isn’t. Abbas may believe that he can win a referendum with that but, with all due respect to the fact that I’m speaking as an American, I am pretty certain he’s wrong.
As much as Obama seems to understand the potential consequences of an attack on Iran, it is not at all clear that he appreciates the consequences of a peace deal that fails to pass a Palestinian referendum. The plan that is rumored would be controversial in Israel, but it would likely pass a referendum. It would likely not be accepted by Netanyahu’s governing coalition (including much of his own Likud party, which would likely be split) and some of them will bolt the government. However, they can be replaced by parties currently outside the government in sufficient numbers to make it work.
In that case, a Palestinian rejection, which seems inevitable, would be disastrous. The US would not be pushing this plan if they didn’t think it would get support from Europe and the Arab League. The Palestinians are going to be cast, again, as rejectionists, not only by the US and Israel. That is the inevitable result of the US crafting a “bridging proposal” which takes as its starting point what the current Israeli government can possibly agree to, and only then considers minimal Palestinian demands.
In 2000, the Palestinians were cast as the rejectionists. I suspect that the US learned enough from that to prevent Obama from publicly blaming Abbas or the Palestinian voters the way Bill Clinton blamed Yasir Arafat over a decade ago. And, in the long run, even this scenario may work out for the best for the Palestinians because it will force the PA to pursue other options, such as mining the popular support for the Palestinians in Europe or using the international system and courts. But in the short term, it will also spare Israel from even the meager pressure it has gotten from Europe recently and will encourage even greater settlement expansion and intensification of the occupation. The results of that are hard to predict, but it certainly adds heat to the pressure cooker that is the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Improving relations with Iran will help Obama in general, and will also make it easier for his successors to continue, albeit at a glacial pace, with moving US focus away from the Middle East. There is no doubt that the US public will support such a thing, weary and frustrated as it is with the results of American interactions in the region in the 21st century. But Benjamin Netanyahu’s American supporters will continue to pressure the US government to keep it involved in matters Israel is concerned with. That means not only Palestine, but also supporting the pro-Israel al-Sisi government in Egypt, confronting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and who knows what concerns Israel will have in Syria in the coming years.
That will have a strong braking effect on any move away from the region. If Obama thinks pushing a bad deal for the Palestinians is a way to speed the recovery of a pivot to Asia, he is sadly mistaken. He is risking losing whatever momentum toward that goal he might gain with Iran. The US, like Michael Corleone in his criminal enterprises, has spent too long enmeshing itself in Middle Eastern affairs. As long as the White House keeps crafting deals based first and foremost on what the Israeli government wants, it will not resolve this conflict sufficiently to prevent it from pulling even the world’s leading military power back in.