Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Israel yesterday that its increasing isolation in the region means it must take “risks for peace.” This shot fired over the bow of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was made in comments to reporters traveling with Panetta, who is on his first trip to the Jewish state since assuming the leadership of the Pentagon.
But it is not likely to make much of an impression with the Israeli people for the simple reason that, unlike either the Obama administration and the international press corps, they understand Israel has been taking risks for peace for 18 years. Panetta’s statement, like so much of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, seems to reflect a mindset that treats the events of the last 18 years as meaningless. After the Oslo Accords, the peace offers that both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas rejected and the withdrawal from Gaza that turned that area into a terrorist state, how can any American speak as if Israel has stood pat all this time rather than, as the historical record proves, taken terrible risks for which it has gotten little reward?
The Panetta visit is meant to reassure the Israelis who are understandably worried about the way in which the Arab Spring has led to more hate for the Jewish state rather than democracy for the Arabs. It is an unfortunate fact that there is nothing Israel can do to repair relations with countries like Turkey and Egypt, whose governments are whipping up antagonism for reasons that have little to do with the policies of the Netanyahu government. As dangerous as this is, it is the helplessness of the United States in the face of these trends that is most troubling.
President Obama came into office hoping to curry favor with the Arab and Muslim world by distancing the United States from Israel. While that policy shift helped fuel Palestinian intransigence and doomed the already slim hopes for Middle East peace, it did nothing to make America loved. But as the situation in the region deteriorates, Obama still has no answers other than to blame Israel and to demand it take “risks.”
While it is to be hoped Panetta will reaffirm the U.S. security cooperation with Israel that has survived Obama’s predilection for picking fights with Netanyahu, there is reason to worry the administration is looking to set the stage for a new round of pressure on the prime minister. Despite the pledges that the United States will work to preserve Israel’s military edge over its hostile neighbors, the timing of the visit may mean Washington is looking to demand payment for its veto of Palestinian independence at the United Nations.
But even if Netanyahu were to make the concessions on settlements and Jerusalem that Obama wants, there is little reason to believe the Palestinian Authority is interested in signing any peace deal. Rather than muscling Israel, the administration needs to make it clear to the Palestinian Authority, whom Panetta is said to be hoping to “re-engage,” that they cannot continue to be the beneficiaries of American largesse while at the same time doing everything in their power to torpedo the peace process.
Weakening Israel or creating the impression the United States is seeking to undermine its government only makes it less likely the Palestinians and other nations in the region will work for peace. By arriving in the region demanding Israel take “risks” they have already undertaken, rather than making it clear to the PA they will get nothing from their refusal to talk, Panetta has only ensured the standoff will continue.