Of the two pivots in debates about Middle East geopolitics – which side is responsible for continued Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, and in which direction does the “linkage” between those hostilities and Iranian-driven instability run – the Obama administration entered office taking an anti-Israel position on both.
The White House immediately identified the Israelis as the intransigent party. The president put the onus for new concessions on Jerusalem, established “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish State, and demanded that Israel implement a full construction freeze beyond the Green Line. Built as it was on shrill ideology rather than sober analysis, that diplomatic offensive failed to the tune of detonating the peace process. The White House eventually grudgingly reversed course.
“Linkage” is an analytic disagreement over direction and a pragmatic question of sequencing. Meeting with Obama in 2009, Netanyahu insisted no progress could be made on Israeli-Palestinian peace as long as Iran had a free hand regionally, since the mullahs would always use their Hamas and Hezbollah proxies to spoil negotiations. Obama answered by explicitly declaring “if there is a linkage… it actually runs the other way,” and that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations built on Israeli concessions were necessary for mobilizing a regional coalition against Iran.
It used to be that these competing theories were up for debate, with at least coherent arguments on both sides and insufficient evidence to choose one over the other. Not so much any more.
We’ve known since WikiLeaks the Obama administration and its water carriers were more or less lying about Sunni unwillingness to endorse anti-Iran efforts in the absence of Israeli concessions (or at least administration officials were more or less lying; foreign policy experts in think tanks and media outlets may just have been casually inventing anti-Israel and pro-Iran pseudo-sophistication out of habit). Saudi officials were in fact aghast at the president’s naive confidence in Iranian engagement and his languid approach to Iranian nuclearization, seeing him as a blustering amateur stumbling into one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
And now we know that, for their part, the Israelis were right about the role that Iran plays as a spoiler:
Iran paid the Islamist group Hamas to block a deal with the rival Fatah movement that would have ended a five-year rift between the two main Palestinian factions, a Fatah spokesman said on Tuesday… “We have information that Iran paid tens of millions of dollars to Zahar and Haniyeh in their visits to Iran,” said Ahmed Assaf, referring to Hamas leaders Mahmoud al-Zahar who visited Tehran last week and Ismail Haniyeh who was there in February.
Ironically, even if the president was right at the outset, his public linkage declaration guaranteed he would become wrong (a neat little example of Heisenbergian dynamics in international diplomacy: leaders aren’t free to analyze global affairs without changing them). By signaling that Israeli-Palestinian progress was a prerequisite to regional action against Iran, he incentivized Tehran to either begin or continue interfering in the peace process. Under the oft-repeated assumption the president is a Spock-like Grandmaster playing 3-Dimensional Geopolitical Chess while the rest of us struggle to follow along, he must have known as much. Maybe he just couldn’t help himself.