Jul 13th 2010

Whiplash?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Two decades ago, I remember Jesse Jackson noting that when dealing with controversial issues that created deep divisions, one should be careful "not to excite one side, while only inciting the other". Although these cautionary words apply perfectly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have too frequently been ignored. The U.S. has always, of course, been attentive to its own domestic politics and has long recognized the importance of Israeli opinion. Arab opinion, on the other hand, has too often been given short shrift. We have coddled Israeli leaders whom we have felt we could not pressure too much because of the adverse reaction of their public. At the same time we have demonstrated no such compunction about pressuring Arab leaders to take steps that were manifestly unpopular, paying no heed to the impact this might have on their legitimacy or on their public's reactions.

After his remarkable speech in Cairo, I believed that this President understood the need to address the price paid by decades of neglecting Arab opinion. I had hopes that he would continue to seek balance in his approach in order to neither "excite" nor "incite". Listening to President Obama's press conference following his White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, gave me pause and a bad case of whiplash.

I had fair warning that this visit would be different than the last, reportedly testy, encounter between these two leaders. And so I should have been prepared for the fact that tough love would be replaced by just plain love. I just wasn't prepared for how much love. And so I confess that I found the apparent public pass Netanyahu received on settlements, the U.S. threat to boycott a summit on Middle East non-proliferation, and all the "unwaverings" and "unbreakables" to be a bit too much to ingest.

In this, I was not alone. A number of U.S. commentators were equally confounded by the White House's behavior, while the Arab World commentary I read, and emails and text messages I received from friends across the region, ranged from despondent to angry.

Now I do not doubt this President's commitment to achieving a comprehensive Middle East peace. And I fully accept as sincere (though surprising) his acknowledgment, at the end of his first year in office, that he had no idea how difficult progress toward this goal would be. As a result, there has been a disturbing meandering quality to his Administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been moments where they displayed carefully calibrated messaging (as in the Cairo Address, which though ostensibly designed to send a message to Muslims, included passages that addressed the concerns of Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis). On other occasions, there have been flashes of "getting tough" (on settlements or provocations in Jerusalem). But these have been followed by episodes of tone-deafness (the President's insistence that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu join him in that pointless joint appearance last September at the U.N., or the U.S. pressure on the Palestinians to withhold support for the Goldstone Report).

And through all of this meandering, too little has changed on the ground - where realities speak louder than words. Settlements may have been "frozen" but as Peace Now reports make clear, some construction has continued, as have the pressures faced by Palestinians in Jerusalem. The blockade of Gaza, though now somewhat modified, continues to take its toll on that captive population. And aggressive and violent behavior by settlers and occupation authorities in the West Bank continues unchecked.

Despite this troubled setting and the lack of progress in five rounds of indirect "proximity talks", it appears that President Obama now wants direct talks to begin. President Abbas has identified a number of requirements that should be met before such peace talks can begin, and is loathe to drop these requirements lest he experience a replay of last September when he was embarrassed by being compelled to participate in that U.N. appearance with Netanyahu. While we received no indication during that July 6th press conference that the Israelis were ready to meet any of Abbas's terms, in the days that followed, there have been hints from the U.S. side that more occurred in the White House meetings than was revealed in that whiplash-causing post-meeting love fest..

Administration officials point with pride to the results of their efforts to quiet the Israeli behavior in Jerusalem and their success in pressing the Israelis to ease the blockade on Gaza - all of which they felt justified a White House embrace. (Although in both instances they acknowledge that much more needs to be done. And they insist that they are committed to seeing that more will be done.)

For battered Palestinians who lack trust in Benjamin's Netanyahu's words or, at this point, in the promises of any U.S. president, "seeing is believing". They have experienced too many failed settlement freezes, too many rounds of fruitless talks, too many retractable "confidence building gestures, and more than enough unmet deadlines. They are feeling a bit of whiplash, themselves - not knowing whether to just be angry and believe that the Israelis won another round, or to trust this U.S. president and his promise to help deliver peace.

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