The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Don't expect too much from T.J. Friedman

Several years ago I decided that reading and blogging about what Thomas Friedman writes was tiresome, and I haven't linked to much by or about him since then. I will break this rule for his latest column, on the whole quite reasonable about being fed up with the impasse with the peace process (although of course he criticizes the Palestinians in part for the wrong reasons), which some people like my friend Phil Weiss think is a call to turn off the aid spigot to Israel. Here's the passage he and others think may hint at this:

If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.

I don't see how this can be interpreted as a call to cut off aid to Israel. It's at best a call to cut off aid that supports the Middle East Peace Process, which is largely aid to the Palestinian Authority. But I wouldn't even read that much into it. I am pretty sure Friedman will never, ever threaten the Israel-US relationship.

It's a bad habit to pay attention to bad writers when they write something we like. In this column many may sympathize with MEPP fatigue; but his analysis is flawed. Friedman is sick of intransigeant Israelis but also of Palestinians (i.e. the PA) for not wanting negotiations before a settlement freeze. This is a ridiculous assessment, much like the recent about-face about Israel's "unprecedented concessions" by Hillary Clinton is ridiculous.

Obama offered set the standard to restart MEPP talks by talking about a settlement freeze -- a complete settlement freeze, not a partial one. The PA said, OK, that works for us. It is now the US that is changing that bar, not the PA. But the Obama administration now appears to be blaming the PA and the Arabs for not accepting its own about-face, i.e. for sticking to the rules of the game Obama had set at the beginning of this round of pre-negotiations.

A much better analysis of US policy is provided by Daniel Levy, a dovish former Israeli official and advisor to Ehud Barak (to be frank, the kind of person I am generally skeptical of.) In this condemnation of Obama's amateurism, he explains the missed opportunity for dealing with Israeli intransigence and gets a nice dig in at Hosni Mubarak:

The Obama team's call for a comprehensive settlement freeze was consistent with past U.S. policy (notably Bush's Roadmap of 2003), although it was perhaps treated with more seriousness coming from the new 'hope and change' President. The Israel Prime Minister's answer came in June, and it was a rejectionist one: no full freeze, and no limitations whatsoever on settlements in East Jerusalem. That is when the malaise set in.

The administration had three possible options in responding:

1) Stick to its guns and calibrate a set of escalating consequences in response to possible ongoing Israeli recalcitrance.

2) Make a smart pivot by declaring, for instance, that if Israel could not for its own reasons freeze settlements, then this would make all the more urgent the need to quickly define and agree a border for an Israel-Palestine two-state solution. And the U.S. could reasonably have adopted a formula regarding that border (such as based on the 1967 lines, minor mutual modifications to accommodate settlements close to the Green Line in a one-to-one land swap). The U.S. could have explained to its Israeli friends that absent a defined border, the settlement freeze would have to be comprehensive, but in the discussion on borders, there could be more flexibility given the one-to-one land swaps.

3) Dig themselves into a hole. Insisting on a freeze, heightening expectations, without a plan for achieving that end, and by then acceding to talks with the Israeli government over koshering aspects of settlements expansion.

It is certainly legitimate for the administration to have not chosen option one, and to have decided that this was the wrong issue and/or wrong timing to escalate with the Netanyahu government. My own preference would have been for option two, and indeed, the administration could reasonably be perceived to have laid the ground deftly for such a pivot. Unfortunately, they went for option three, and it all came crashing down around their feet this week.

The Secretary's last minute stop in Cairo to round off the trip said it all. The Mubarak regime tried to help salvage some American pride, lining up behind the Secretary's efforts. Except that it is precisely the Mubarak government whose credibility is so severely questioned in the region, it is the largest Arab recipient of American financial assistance, and is obsessed with leadership succession--in short, getting a smile out of the Egyptian leader doesn't even register on the congratulatory charts.

Is consistency really too much to ask? If the settlement freeze really is an impasse, I would favor for some form of negative consequence for Israel. But perhaps that is politically impossible for domestic US reasons. So the second option, shifting the emphasis to what Israel considers its permanent borders -- something it has always avoided defining -- would be a better start.