Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama to launch Middle East peace PR campaign

If there was ever a more telling reminder of just how far off Middle East peace really is, I'm not currently aware of it: President Barack Obama has decided that his Israel-Palestine team will launch a determined public relations campaign to persuade Israelis and Arabs to support his comprehensive plan for Middle East peace. Yes, a PR campaign for peace - what a world indeed. When you find the need to convince people that peace rather than perpetual war is ultimately in their best interests, you might consider rethinking your decision to expend precious political capital on the Middle East.

The Obama administration announced that his team will grant interviews to several Arab and Israeli media outlets to explain the American position on the peace process, gaining public support and bolstering his credibility with all parties in the process.

For the past several weeks dozens of political pundits, policy wonks, and media outlets have been advocating that Obama engage the Israeli public with the same kind of dialogue that he did the Arab world with the much-heralded Cairo speech. The New York Times editorial board strongly urged the president to talk directly to Israelis in an attempt to convince them to pressure their own government (led by rightist PM Benjamin Netanyahu) to accept a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many Middle East analysts have declared that the public pressure placed on Israel by the White House is leading to an impasse of the peace process and that Obama either needs to back down on his demand that Israel halt settlement expansion or talk directly to the Israeli people to address their concerns.

Many of the same talking heads who advocate an American PR campaign in Israel have criticized the administration for levying pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction while asking nothing of the Palestinians or Arab regimes. Special Envoy George Mitchell (who appears to be running point on the American diplomatic team) gave a rare interview in which he attempted to clarify erroneous reports by asserting that rather than demanding gestures only from Israel, "we are asking everybody to do things."

Aluf Benn, an editor at large of the Israeli popular leftist newspaper Haaretz recently penned an opinion piece advocating an Obama PR push that was featured prominently in the New York Times. The Times then only two days afterward published an op-ed from their editorial board which was basically a reprint of Benn's, urging Obama to directly engage the Israeli public in order to convince Israeli PM Netanyahu to accept a settlement freeze. Benn argued that, "the Arabs got Cairo; we got nothing," and made the assertion that Obama had pursued a fresh dialogue with nearly every country on the map except for Israel. The Cairo speech, while directed primarily at Arab audiences was also intended for Israeli ears and included declarations of support for the continued alliance between the U.S. and Israel and urged Arab and Israelis to work together with the United States to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Obama has spoken to Israelis, Arabs, and the entirety of the Middle East on numerous occasions. The problem is, rarely does the bully pulpit (which Benn advocates when he's not telling Obama to drop his demand for a settlement freeze) work across borders. Levying real pressure on foreign leaders rather, is a proven strategy.

Talking to Israel (as many highly qualified and well respected experts advocate) is in no way an inherently bad thing, but I believe the policy has several serious drawbacks that have not been adequately examined.

First (and most importantly), direct media dialogue with the Israeli people will be seen by Netanyahu, his rightist coalition, and his many Israeli and American supporters as a direct confrontation and unwanted meddling in the intimate affairs of another foreign state. If Netanyahu feels like Obama is attempting to circumvent his authority and appeal directly to the Israeli public it will only strengthen his and his supporters' will to defy Obama's demands as a assertion of sovereignty. Furthermore, Obama does not only risk further distancing himself from Netanyahu and deepening the impasse, the possible gain from such a policy is inconsequential. The Israeli public is evenly split on its support for even a temporary settlement freeze and half of the population firmly believes Obama is siding with the Palestinians. Aluf Benn asserts that Obama needs to serve as the catalyst to start an honest, vigorous debate over settlements in Israel. This is simply ludicrous. The pages of Benn's own paper are daily filled with articles from leftists and moderates alike backing a settlement freeze and urging the government to pursue one. The problem is not that no debate is taking place in Israel, the problem is that Israeli society is obsessed with "security." A settlement freeze is largely seen as compromising on what matters most: Jewish safety in Greater Israel. The debate has already taken place and Israelis have decided for 40 years that despite their relative discomfort with the continued occupation of the Palestinians, Jewish settlements must be allowed to thrive in the West Bank for the security of the state. Barack Obama has no chance to cause a serious introspective ephiphany on the settlement enterprise in Israel. A precious few Israeli voices do cry out in the wind (none of them those of major political figures) that the settlements are unsustainable, harmful to Israel's long-term security needs, and a major obstacle to a political solution with the Palestinians, but these are far from enough to change the opinion of the society as a whole. Adding Barack Hussein (the Israeli right is keen on using his middle name to remind the public of his Muslim sympathies) Obama's words to those whispers will not change the situation. Benn urges Obama to convince Israelis to support his policies, but Benn himself rejects the call for a settlement freeze in the same article. The risks to launching a time-consuming PR campaign to directly engage the Israeli public and circumvent Netanyahu far outweighs the benefit of persuading a marginal amount of the Israeli public to pressure the prime minister to follow Obama. There exists no real chance for direct appeals to shake Netanyahu's rightist coalition either. As it stands now, the PM is popular and not suffering in any significant way by defying the Obama administration. Obama risks reaching a "point of no return" in his relationship with Netanyahu by embarking on a PR campaign directed at the Israeli public. Netanyahu may simply close down and play hardball with Obama, refusing to work with him at all and asserting that the American president in meddling in the intimate affairs of another sovereign state.

I believe those that advocate a PR campaign greatly overestimate Obama's influence. Yes, the Cairo speech received favorable press in the Arab world, but its leaders are not clamoring to fulfill Obama's demands that they make their own goodwill gestures to Israel. His fine words may have given him more credibility on the Arab street than any U.S. president in the last 30 years, but it did not translate to concrete actions by Arab regimes. Put simply, the state of democracy in the Middle East is abysmal and Arab leaders have no real reason to listen to their own people, even if they would cry out for their governments to work with the Israelis. (That was actually hard to type and keep a straight face.) Even the Palestinians, who have more of a functioning democracy than most of the Arab world, do not have much control over the actions of their leaders. Both Fateh and Hamas are now basically ruling by decree in the West Bank and Gaza respectively and refusing to listen to the desires of their own people. Palestinians have been strongly urging the factions to reconcile and form a unity government for over a year now, but this popular urging has not translated into any real pressure for the parties to reconcile. Only when Egypt became involved did Fateh and Hamas take any real steps toward reestablishing a central Palestinian government. Because of the lack of real democracy in the Arab world, Obama's PR campaign directed at the Arab and Israeli street will not work. The street (especially in states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinian territories) does not have the means to pressure the political elites to follow Obama.

So what are the other options?

Quite frankly, Obama's team needs to double their efforts to coax real confidence-building gestures from the various parties: a settlement freeze, easing of the Gaza siege, and allowing freedom of movement in the West Bank from the Israelis; reconciliation, political reform and institution building, and an honest effort to curb militants from the Palestinians; and normalization gestures such as allowing Israeli commercial flights to transit Arab airspace from regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab regimes.

Obama's efforts to convince the parties to make gestures should include ending settlement expansion, Palestinian reconciliation, the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the opening of Gaza's borders for humanitarian aid, easing restrictions on movement in the West Bank, and normalization from Arab regimes toward Israel. The Obama team must provide each party with an obligation they must fulfill and an incentive they will receive upon completion. Once real confidence-building gestures are traded, good-faith peace negotiations aimed at finally ending the conflict can begin and should start by confronting the major issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, security, and refugees.

With the amount of carrots the U.S. provides to the major players in this conflict in the form of weapons and military aid, such a process should not be difficult. The Obama administration should signal its intent to base various forms of aid on concrete contributions that further the peace process. This is how non-essential aid should work. Countries that support American policies such as regional stability and peacebuilding should receive the lion's share of our non-essential aid budget.

The Obama administration does not need to worry about the Israeli or Arab public. It only needs to focus on providing the leaders of these countries the incentives necessary to persuade them to pursue a good-faith, honest peace effort.

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