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What Is “Daylight” Good For?

When Obama invited the leaders of American Jewish organizations to the White House a few weeks ago to discuss U.S.-Israel relations, he criticized his predecessor by saying that the lack of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel had thwarted progress on the peace process. Part of what his administration was doing, Obama said, was assuming a more “evenhanded” position from which the U.S. would be better situated to resolve the conflict.

This allows a basic strategy question: are the Arabs more likely to play ball with the United States the more “daylight” is opened up with Israel? Or does daylight create its own problems? The answers, respectively, are no and yes. Over the past few days, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait have, in quick succession, bowed out of the peace process. No gestures for Israel, no help for Obama.

One reason is that these states are confident Obama won’t criticize them the way he has arrogantly criticized Israel. Obama is so heavily invested in creating good vibes with Muslims that he can’t be seen having a row with them. Good vibes means no criticism.

But the other reason is the role of daylight itself. When the U.S. distances itself from Israel and curries favor with the Arabs, the Arab reaction is not to jump on board with the Americans and present a united front against Israel, the better to extract concessions. Instead, the Arabs respond by increasing their demands and redoubling their intransigence — because the Arab states really have little to gain from a Palestinian state, and actually a lot to lose. The Palestinians and the peace process have always been a tool to be used for beating up on Israel, and nothing else. This has been the cruel Arab game since the 1940s. The president still doesn’t get it.

Memo to the White House press corps: Obama has just been publicly humiliated by three Arab regimes. His signature Middle East initiative, the peace process, is effectively over. Obama will make of this as little as possible, and he will send George Mitchell around to have mock negotiations with people, and that’s perfectly understandable. But the press corps isn’t supposed to help him cover up his failure.