Marc Lynch

Don’t fall for concern trolling on the settlements, but…

 Steve Rosen in today’s FP.com tells us that Obama’s policy towards Israel is "rapidly collapsing".  Elliott Abrams worries that the push for a settlement freeze might be bad for the Palestinians (I’m sure they appreciate the concern) and hints that George Mitchell might be on his way out (he isn’t).  A number of other remarkably ...

 Steve Rosen in today’s FP.com tells us that Obama’s policy towards Israel is "rapidly collapsing".  Elliott Abrams worries that the push for a settlement freeze might be bad for the Palestinians (I’m sure they appreciate the concern) and hints that George Mitchell might be on his way out (he isn’t).  A number of other remarkably similar pieces over the last few days, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Washington Post contribution, have seemed geared towards creating the impression that Obama’s strong position on Israeli settlements have backfired and put his overall policy in jeopardy. Is it?

 Not really. This is concern trolling, advice from those who aren’t worried that he’ll fail, they want him to fail.  The new line, it seems to me, is rooted in Netanyahu’s chosen strategy of confrontation with Obama.  He has shaken up the old way of doing things, and the old way of doing things feels shaken.  So its partisans are trying to shape a narrative that Obama is unfairly hostile to Israel and that he is failing.  The objective, most likely, is to derail his push towards a two-state solution that they fear might succeed and to embolden those who are uncomfortable with his approach but had been unwilling to challenge a popular President.  In other words, it’s a political strategy. 

 That said, there are real reasons to worry.  The settlement freeze was a necessary and important opening move for establishing Obama’s credibility with both the Palestinian and Israeli side but was always only a tactical step in and of itself.  Getting bogged down in the weeds of this issue for an extended period always risked diffusing the momentum built by Mitchell’s appointment and the Cairo speech — and being seen as backing down to the Israelis risked seeing all the painfully purchased credibility evaporate overnight (something already percolating through many Arab editorials).  At a moment when the Mitchell team likely wants to pivot away from the settlements battle to the real issues of final status negotiations, the latest spat over East Jerusalem is dragging them back down.  It’s a battle that they can’t really afford to fight, but they also can’t afford to "lose"… and it’s given Netanyahu and his supporters the chance they need to prevent forward motion.  

  As Brian Katulis and I wrote last week, both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides are both dangerously unprepared for a serious push towards a two-state solution.  Obama’s team needs to do more to build support for his policies with Israeli public opinion, which means thinking in terms of strategic communications directed towards the Israeli public rather than just trying to reassure Netanyahu.  It needs to rapidly rethink its approach to intra-Palestinian politics and change the absurdly self-defeating Gaza blockade.  So I agree that it’s time to move beyond the settlements battle, but for different reasons… and on different terms.  

 Steve Rosen in today’s FP.com tells us that Obama’s policy towards Israel is "rapidly collapsing".  Elliott Abrams worries that the push for a settlement freeze might be bad for the Palestinians (I’m sure they appreciate the concern) and hints that George Mitchell might be on his way out (he isn’t).  A number of other remarkably similar pieces over the last few days, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Washington Post contribution, have seemed geared towards creating the impression that Obama’s strong position on Israeli settlements have backfired and put his overall policy in jeopardy. Is it?

 Not really. This is concern trolling, advice from those who aren’t worried that he’ll fail, they want him to fail.  The new line, it seems to me, is rooted in Netanyahu’s chosen strategy of confrontation with Obama.  He has shaken up the old way of doing things, and the old way of doing things feels shaken.  So its partisans are trying to shape a narrative that Obama is unfairly hostile to Israel and that he is failing.  The objective, most likely, is to derail his push towards a two-state solution that they fear might succeed and to embolden those who are uncomfortable with his approach but had been unwilling to challenge a popular President.  In other words, it’s a political strategy. 

 That said, there are real reasons to worry.  The settlement freeze was a necessary and important opening move for establishing Obama’s credibility with both the Palestinian and Israeli side but was always only a tactical step in and of itself.  Getting bogged down in the weeds of this issue for an extended period always risked diffusing the momentum built by Mitchell’s appointment and the Cairo speech — and being seen as backing down to the Israelis risked seeing all the painfully purchased credibility evaporate overnight (something already percolating through many Arab editorials).  At a moment when the Mitchell team likely wants to pivot away from the settlements battle to the real issues of final status negotiations, the latest spat over East Jerusalem is dragging them back down.  It’s a battle that they can’t really afford to fight, but they also can’t afford to "lose"… and it’s given Netanyahu and his supporters the chance they need to prevent forward motion.  

  As Brian Katulis and I wrote last week, both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides are both dangerously unprepared for a serious push towards a two-state solution.  Obama’s team needs to do more to build support for his policies with Israeli public opinion, which means thinking in terms of strategic communications directed towards the Israeli public rather than just trying to reassure Netanyahu.  It needs to rapidly rethink its approach to intra-Palestinian politics and change the absurdly self-defeating Gaza blockade.  So I agree that it’s time to move beyond the settlements battle, but for different reasons… and on different terms.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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