Is Obama being ‘gamed’ by experts in the Mideast stall?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Doesn’t it seem like the ongoing negotiations over an Israeli settlement freeze, pressed by a U.S. president who says he wants to do things differently than his predecessors, are taking on a familiar Middle East business-as-usual quality?


The story is a sea of murkiness, made denser by armies of leakers.


One story last week said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell were nearing a deal on a settlement freeze; another said wide gaps remain. Some stories in the Israeli press, based on rock-solid sources, said Jerusalem construction will be exempted from any deal, but the same sources are apparently telling other reporters exactly the opposite.


If all that seems like deju vu all over again, it’s not surprising; we’ve seen the same endless loop since the administration’s initial call for a full settlement freeze.


It’s hard to avoid the conclusion President Barack Obama, a foreign policy and Middle East neophyte, is getting gamed by Middle East leaders who are old hands at holding U.S. administrations at bay with their special brand of diplomatic obfuscation.


And the administration may have nobody to blame but itself.


The initial U.S. call for a complete, no-exceptions-allowed settlement freeze was presented with at least the appearance the administration was demanding much from Israel, almost nothing from the Palestinians and that it was indifferent to public opinion in Israel while very attentive to opinion in the Arab world.


I don’t think the appearance reflected their true intentions, but that’s the way it came across.  The predictable backlash in Israel and among pro-Israel leaders here  gave Netanyahu the room he needed to maneuver and force negotiations over a compromise, sucking the administration into a traditional negotiations -as-stall pattern.


By raising expectations in the Arab world, the administration created a situation in which anything less than the full freeze initially demanded will be seen as a U.S. cave – in.


Obama’s public focus on Israel also gave the Palestinians a chance to dig in their heels and say they were waiting for Netanyahu to make the first move before even considering fulfilling their commitments.


Big surprise there, right?


The expectation Washington would push Israel harder also gave regional leaders the out they needed to avoid doing what the president wanted most – for the Saudis, the Egyptians and others to take an active role in promoting peace. Why agree to anything while the administration was quibbling with Israel over whether or not to allow new housing units?


The problem wasn’t demanding a settlement freeze, but the way it was done.


Last week I wrote about a shift in administration focus to a kind of “accelerated incrementalism.”


The dilemma facing the administration: incrementalism may sometimes be necessary, but it’s a policy that makes it much easier for those in the region who have made a science out of fending off U.S. pressure to put negotiations on a kind of endless treadmill.


Working in the administration’s favor is that these folks aren’t dumb, starting with a  tenacious president known to be a quick learner.  That’s why I think we can expect more cautious probing, trial balloons and a few nudges here and there in the weeks to come, not the  kind of blind leap into brute-force mediation that some activists are predicting.


A wild card in the deck is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and public support for the war that is dropping like a stone.


This morning’s op ed by conservative pundit George Will calling for what amounts to an end to the war will add to the pressure the administration is already facing from the left.


Will  the Afghan mess make the administration even less likely to take a big gamble on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that start with a low probability of success?  Or will it encourage President Obama to up the ante in Israeli-Palestinian talks as a diversion or as a way of seeking tangible success on a different front?


I’m inclined to think it’ll be the former, but the situation is volatile, so stay tuned.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.