Over the weekend in Washington, President Obama spoke candidly before an audience of high-powered insiders representing both the US and Israel. The event, held annually by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, spoke volumes as to the vast chasm which has erupted in US-Israeli relations. Also speaking by remote hook-up was Prime Minister Netanyahu. Though all was cordial between them, the difference in perspective of the two leaders could not have been more pronounced. In part one, I will concentrate on President Obama.
The president had literally nothing of importance to say about the regional war that has engulfed the Levant from Lebanon to Iraq. Astonishingly, his only words on the subject of Iran’s direct involvement in the quickly spreading Syrian War were opaque and noncommittal. The nuclear issue and the regional issue were, for the most part, unlinked by the president. No longer did the words that “Assad must go” reverberate strongly against a backdrop of a firm US resolve. Any differentiation between the genocidal aspirations of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni, and the friendly tones (for Americans, not Israelis) of his puppet president were completely absent from Mr. Obama’s remarks. It was as if the thousands of Iranian troops poised on or near Israel’s borders mattered little in the great scheme of US-Iran dialogue and rapprochement.
“We will continue to contest their efforts when they are engaging in terrorism”, President Obama said. “Where they’re being disruptive to our friends and allies, we will not abide by any threats”. — Oh really? Why is it that for the first time in history, a Saudi high official and an Israeli prime minister have taken highly publicized trips to Moscow? Both Saudi Prince Bandar and PM Netanyahu attempted to lobby President Putin for help on Syria, the region at large, and the nuclear issue. The answer to the historic question is simple: On the issue of regional security, the US-led nuclear negotiations cannot be divorced from an Arab and Israeli rejection of an Iranian sphere of influence spread across the Fertile Crescent. However the nuclear negotiations turn out, the regional dimension will not go away. At Saban, President Obama claimed to be a realist. He insisted that only in an ideal world could the US prevent Iran from achieving a certain level of enrichment capacity. But as a realist, Obama must understand that an Iran with enrichment capacity and a hegemonic regional agenda will more likely lead the region to a volatile nuclear arms race. For a true realist, any solution to the nuclear question would require a solution to a complete Middle East balance.
On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, again the US president had very little to say about the regional vortex. It was as if the Palestinian conflict had no dynamic other than the West Bank. Of course there was no mention of Jordan; there never is. But the future of Jordan is key not only to Israeli security but also to the Palestinian economy as well. Obama thinks that a Palestinian state will somehow be able to establish a “booming economy” solely within the territory of the West Bank. The example of this economy, he believes, will work like a magnet for Gaza and Hamas to give up their struggle to destroy Israel. Here are the president’s words: “If there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank, Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with self-determination, and suddenly their economy is booming and trade is taking place—that’s something young Palestinians in Gaza are going to want”.
Oh really?– Why is it that every economist who has ever written anything on the potential of the Palestinian mini-state economy has been nothing but pessimistic? The West Bank is not large enough to maintain a growing economy. Therefore a Palestinian economy has only two directions, east or west, Jordan or Israel. If it goes west, a permanent underclass of Palestinian workers will seek jobs in Israel. Hardly a Palestinian economy to be envied by anyone, and hardly an independent state. If it goes east, Palestine and Jordan will need to form an economic confederation. In fact, it’s commonly understood that for a West Bank economy to work, confederation with Jordan is essential. But economic confederation is a slippery slope. It poses two very serious problems. First, Jordan is a monarchy with a Palestinian majority population. One cannot think of a more unstable situation. In all likelihood, a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation will lead to calls for a democratic federation. Remember, it was only last spring that Jordanian King Abdullah stated in an interview with the Atlantic Monthly that his great desire was to become a constitutional monarch in a democratic country.
This leads us to problem number two. How would the Israeli security establishment cope with Palestinian demands for democratic federation between Palestine and Jordan? Probably, the topic won’t be addressed in the current US-led negotiations. But how can Israeli security be assured with a Palestinian super majority federated on both sides of the river? In Jordan the business community is, for the most part, Palestinian. Democratic demands could come from either the East Bank or the West Bank. In an economic confederation composed of two Palestinian business entities, rule of law and a democratic constitutional component will become a necessity. The President of the United States is wrong when he says that a West Bank economy will boom. For Palestine to boom, it needs Jordan. And once it has Jordan in economic confederation, what is to stop the natural liberal impulse? Has General John R. Allen, who President Obama appointed to propose security solutions for the current negotiations, addressed this issue?
Finally, there is the question of the region and its linkage to the Palestinian negotiations. On this central issue (Israeli military analysts must plan for the entire Islamic world), President Obama said absolutely nothing. I was stunned. It was as if Iran and its regional designs didn’t exist. Israel has become a front-line state to Iranian hegemony. So has Jordan. How can you talk about peace in the Middle East without talking about the regional consequences of Iranian hegemony? Simple answer, you can’t. The future of Jordan is crucial to the peace process. With two Iranian client states on its borders (Syria and Iraq), Jordan is extremely vulnerable. Any Israeli leader willing to sign a peace deal under these regional conditions would be overruled by a far more intelligent Israeli population.
However, the president did claim over and over again that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and the US is in the Middle East to stay. To be fair, there was a distinct military message toward Iran from President Obama. But until the Iranian crescent is rolled back, the Sunni Arab states and Israel are no longer able to go on trust alone. In the Middle East today, this American president has so misplayed his hand (with his allies), that for him to regain trust there must be verification. What that means is a clear regional policy that isn’t just security babble (“we’ve got your back”).
Everyone wants a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear file. But that solution must be all-encompassing to include Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Perhaps only an ideal solution will work. The president seemed to laugh at the notion. But there are times in politics when the ideal becomes the real. President Obama needs only to look toward his two most successful Democratic Party predecessors, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Only with the cooperation of Russia and China can a true regional “Grand Bargain” be struck. Without a stable Middle East, neither the nuclear issue nor the Palestinian question can be solved. The region in its entirety (nuclear, conventional, and foreign naval and air) has now become the new paradigm for peace.