The Perils Of Perception
Beyond backing off the settlement freeze, the administration also offered another concession to the Israelis. They leaned on Abbas to defer a draft proposal at the U.N. Human Rights Council that would have endorsed the recommendations of the Goldstone report, which found evidence of Israeli war crimes in last winter's attack on Gaza. Israel desperately wants U.S. help in hanging onto its image as an oppressed, blameless victim.
For the same reason, the U.S. also encouraged Arab states to join the proposed peace talks, rather than making it simply a one-on-one Israeli-Palestinian affair. Here's how the Israeli paper Haaretz summed up recent remarks on the subject by Defense Minister Ehud Barak: "In negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel is the 'only one that can give. The Palestinians are the underdog and the talks are asymmetrical.' But in regional talks... it becomes clear that Israel is the isolated party."
To the Obama administration, however, regional talks fall into another category: promoting a regional containment policy against Iran. Containing Iran, in fact, is the one goal the Israelis, the Fatah-led rump Palestinian Authority, and all the major Arab states might have in common. According to Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. message is: "If you don't engage in the process of making peace, you give Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran, who are enemies of the peace process, and vocal opponents of it, a veto."
If the U.S. had the kind of total control that containment theory requires, it would, indeed, use such peace talks to strengthen a region-wide anti-Iranian alliance. But the leaders of the major Arab states run up against the same problem that Abbas faces: domestic publics, wary of any pro-American moves, might be swayed into seeing Iran as their champion. So the Arab states have offered few concessions indeed, which the Israelis then point to as yet more "proof" that they are surrounded by enemies on all sides and can't afford to give up one more thing.
When Washington leans on the Arab states, it highlights Iran's purported nuclear weapons program as the number one threat. And Arab leaders might be happy enough to go along, were it not for the obvious image problem: How can they say with straight faces that they are banding together to stop an imagined Iranian nuclear menace, while sitting down to negotiate with an Israel that has at least 100—perhaps 200 or more—very real nuclear weapons? Even the increasingly hawkish Ehud Barak admits that Iran's nuclear program is not an "existential issue" because "Israel is strong."
Every time the U.S. warns about Iran's nuclear program, it merely calls more attention in the region to Israel's ignored and unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. Then Arab leaders feel forced to take a tougher public stand against Israel's nukes because their people want to see Israel firmly contained. And in the game of containment, where image is reality, the first rule is: Always show resolve.
That's the prevailing rule in Washington, too. On the same day that Obama met Netanyahu and Abbas at the U.N., his hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, chastised him editorially for "Wavering on Afghanistan." When containment prevails, firmness is required. No waverers need apply. (Extra fingers are, however, useful.)
The president gets the message. Last week, when the Iranians surprised the world with significant concessions at their first meeting with American negotiators in Geneva, the New York Times urged Obama to "push Iran's leaders hard" and "be ready to impose tough sanctions if Iran resists." But he was a step ahead, having already declared: "We are prepared to move towards increased pressure."
Times reporter Helene Cooper saw that as "the exact opposite of what a White House usually does... Instead of painting lukewarm concessions as major breakthroughs… officials were treating a potentially major breakthrough as if it were a suspicious package." But this was, in fact, an exact echo of what a Cold War White House usually did. In those superpower stand-off days, endless negotiations, with each side making offers deflected by the suspicions and stern rebuffs of the other, actually fueled the ritual of containment.
In reality, Obama's troubles are not caused primarily by "the bad guys," nor by Israel's supposed power or that of the domestic "Israeli lobby," nor even, as some critics charge, his own tendency to vacillate. Instead, he's trapped in the conundrum that's built into U.S. containment strategy in the Middle East. No matter what other nations do or don't do, everything that looks like it might be a solution only turns out to create new problems.
The U.S. will keep on pursuing Middle East peace. Obama will keep getting intense pressure from the hawks at home to capitulate to every Israeli demand. He will certainly look for maneuvering room. And the rising influence of the Jewish peace lobby will give him more room than his predecessors had. But even a peace movement strong enough to offset the "pro-Israel" right might not offer room enough as long as the overriding aim of U.S. Middle Eastern policy is to make Iran say uncle; that is, to make its leaders accept the image of a humbled, overawed loser.
If the administration sticks to that approach, no move to cut through the Gordian Knot of Israeli-Palestinian relations will truly work, not with Obama and his team trapped behind a wall of containment. President Obama and his advisors will, instead, live in terror of the image of Iran that the U.S. has had such a hand in creating. Like Eisenhower and all the Cold War presidents after him and all their advisors, they will remain endlessly plagued by problems that defy solution.
The recent Iranian concessions offer the president the beginning of a way out, a chance to make good on his own message to the United Nations: "The future does not belong to fear... All of us must decide whether we are serious about peace."
Now he and his administration, too, must decide if they are serious. They would do well to modify the old mantra of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for president and put it everywhere: It's the Iranians, stupid. If they can rid themselves of their Cold War-style Iranian obsession, another path is possible. If they make the two-state solution an end in itself rather than just another means of containment, if they transcend the fear that is the brick and mortar of the wall of containment, if they tear down that wall and exorcise the ghost of the Cold War, then they just might guide the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace that both sides so badly need.