Commentary Magazine


Obama and the Middle East Mess

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened today as Hamas launched more missiles into Israel, including one long-range rocket aimed at Tel Aviv. Israel responded by calling up more reserves and striking back at the terrorist launching points. But while the world reproaches both sides today President Obama reminded us why he deserves a good deal of the blame for the mess.

Obama has largely held himself aloof from the conflict in recent weeks other than warning Israel to show “restraint” in response to both terror attacks and a missile barrage on its territory. But he did choose to contribute an op-ed to the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz today as part of its “Israel Conference on Peace” in which he extolled the two-state solution and declared “peace is the only true path to security for Israel and the Palestinians.”

Despite the boost from the president and the appearance of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Haaretz conference will be probably best remembered for proving just how intolerant the left can be. To his credit, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett accepted an invitation to speak to the forum but the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party was repeatedly interrupted by insults from the crowd of peaceniks calling him a “murderer” and “fascist.” As the Jerusalem Post reports (Haaretz has yet to file a story on the incident on its website), when he concluded his effort “dozens of people” stormed toward him. While the minister’s bodyguards fended off most of the attackers, one managed to get close enough to punch him in the back before he was whisked away. This is yet another reminder that for the left, especially the Israeli left, tolerance for opposing views is not consistent with their idea of democracy.

But despite these histrionics, Obama’s op-ed provided Israelis with a timely statement of how destructive U.S. policy has been. In the piece, Obama did extol the U.S.-Israel relationship in the same laudatory terms he used during his 2013 trip to the Jewish state. But he also went out of his way to praise Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a peace partner while pointedly offering no kind words for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even more tellingly, especially in the midst of a crisis provoked by a Hamas terror attack and prolonged by the Islamist group’s missile fire from Gaza, he also ignored the role that the Fatah-Hamas unity pact had played in torpedoing peace talks this spring and inspiring the current round of violence.

This is consistent with U.S. policy on Hamas in the months since Abbas embraced his erstwhile Islamist rivals. Though the PA government is now hopelessly compromised by the deal with Hamas, the U.S. has decided to pretend as if Abbas’s decision to make peace with the terror group rather than with Israel has no meaning or consequences. The administration blatantly violated U.S. law by continuing to funnel aid to the Palestinians in spite of provisions that prohibit such transfers in the event of Hamas participation in the PA. It has also made it clear that it believes Israel should treat Abbas’s new coalition as a viable partner in spite of Hamas’s refusal to adhere to the terms of mutual recognition and commitment to peace that Obama repeats in his op-ed.

What has this to do with the current violence? Everything.

Hamas’s decision to escalate the fight with Israel, both by sanctioning the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens and the subsequent missile attacks, is directly related to its belief that the unity pact marked a turning point in its long struggle with Abbas’s Fatah. Though Hamas was forced to make a deal with Fatah in large measure because of its cash shortages and isolation after its break with Iran and the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, it has revived its political fortunes by reverting to violence. If Hamas is allowed to stay in the PA without penalty and Israel is constrained by American demands for “restraint” from the sort of military offensive that will truly make the group pay a heavy price for its behavior, then its prospects for eventual victory over Abbas are improved.

The slide into what may be another intifada or at least another round of fighting in Gaza is blamed on Netanyahu’s supposedly belligerent attitude. But this is exactly what many observers feared would be the inevitable aftermath to another failed U.S. peace initiative. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks were acclaimed as a noble effort even if the odds were always against success. But by raising the stakes in the region at a point when everyone knew the Palestinian leadership was unready for peace, he set the stage for a chance for Hamas to interject itself into the process in this manner.

Even worse, by deciding to treat the Fatah-Hamas pact as no big deal, the U.S. sent exactly the wrong signal to both Abbas and Hamas. While Abbas was allowed to think there would be no price to pay for abandoning the peace process and embracing unreconstructed terrorists, Hamas soon realized that it could literally get away with murder without the U.S. blinking an eye or rethinking its determination to restrain Israeli efforts to deal with the terror group. The result is the current escalation that has damaged Abbas while allowing the Islamists to reclaim their status as the address for “resistance” against Israel.

Barack Obama may not have wanted the current fighting to happen and, indeed, he would very much like it to stop. But the administration’s maneuvering led inevitably to another blowup that had the ironic effect of weakening Abbas, the one figure in this mess the president actually likes.

America’s mixed messages are not the sole reason why the situation has deteriorated but they have played an outsize role in making things worse. If the president really wants to advance the cause of peace, he should forget about more bland pronouncements such as his op-ed, and start reminding both Abbas and Hamas that they will suffer if they don’t embrace the cost of peace. Anything short of that is a continuation of a policy that is exacerbating the conflict rather than solving it.

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4 Responses to “Obama and the Middle East Mess”


    Fine summary of the Haaretz conference and the blatant flaws in Obama’s Op-Ed. Commentary, however, would benefit from greater realism in its treatment of Abbas and the PLO. It is not an accident that the PLO feels comfortable in a unity government with Hamas, just as it is not an accident that the PLO has now refused different peace offers from Israel’s left/Labor, center/Kadima, and right/Likud. While Abbas made a single public statement criticizing the kidnapping of the three Jewish boys, his own faction (Fatah) called for Palestinian Arabs to hide any evidence that could lead to capture of the kidnappers and caricatured the boys as three rats on its homepage. In the latest round of peace talks, the PLO refused to even sit at the negotiation table with Israel most of the time, preferring instead to use the US as an intermediary. As senior PLO officials have revealed on multiple occasions, the only significant difference between Hamas and the PLO is about tactics; the PLO thinks the international community can be persuaded to isolate or dismember Israel slowly, toward the same goal of its eventual destruction. At this point, there is no longer a “peace process” and the PLO is not a “peace partner.” After two decades of delusion, Oslo’s “vision” of peace with terrorists is DEAD. Time to re-focus on the various options for the Jewish State of Israel to move forward as the sole sovereign power in Judea and Samaria. Different options have been put forward by Bennett, Glick, Sherman, and others. Maybe someone at Commentary has an even better idea. But perpetuating the failed “peace process” is deeply destructive to Israel because as long as it treats the PLO as a peace partner and it doesn’t assert its right to Judea and Samaria, Israel is in a no-win moral situation as an unjust “occupier”. As the Clintonites used to say, it’s time to MOVE ON.

    • JACK LEVEY says:

      Well said, sir. I would add only that there never was a peace process and the PLO was never a peace partner. Arafat never had any intent to make peace with Israel, and could not have delivered peace had he wanted to. The PLO, despite all the wishful thinking of the Clinton Administration, never amended its charter to remove its categorizing Israel as an illegitimate Zionist entity to be destroyed. The so-called peace process was dead on arrival. Sadly, many innocent people died afterward as a result of Israel and the US deluding themselves that the process would lead to peace.


    In response to rocket attacks on its cities, a country would be well within its rights to respond commensurately. That is, any country but Israel which is held to a different standard by the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the EU, the NY Times Editorial Board and of course, Obama. Historically, Israel’s concern for civilian casualties incurred in armed conflict with its adversaries hasn’t engendered good will in any of the above or the Arab world. It has compromised its ability to execute militarily and turned certain victories into quagmires of stalemate. As international opprobrium for Israel couldn’t be worse, it ought to fight war with one objective in mind: victory. If the cowards of Hamas want to employ human shields and situate rocket launchers in residential neighborhoods, that’s their problem, not Israel’s.

    • JACK LEVEY says:

      And of course by CNN, who told Israel’s spokesman that Israel has no right to cause any civilian casualties no matter how many rockets are fired into Israel, how many human shields Hamas employs, and how many extraordinary efforts Israel makes to avoid killing or injuring civilians.

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