Hold those premature victory dances

 Yesterday, Israel hawks appeared to be competing over who could do the best victory dance after the Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas photo opportunity went down without an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze. Netanyahu’s intransigence certainly did harm American standing and prestige in the region, and undermined a number of key American foreign policy goals — just as ...

 Yesterday, Israel hawks appeared to be competing over who could do the best victory dance after the Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas photo opportunity went down without an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze. Netanyahu's intransigence certainly did harm American standing and prestige in the region, and undermined a number of key American foreign policy goals -- just as one would expect from a close ally and friend.  Why this black eye for American standing so delighted certain pundits is an interesting question. 

 But the victory dances, while entertaining in their own way, were premature. They celebrated a relatively minor tactical win, which carried some significant costs for their own position at the wider strategic level.  Put bluntly, in exchange for an evening's backslapping and triumphant TV play, they got a pissed off President who is more committed than ever to doing exactly what he said he would do and who is more -- not less -- inclined to demonstrate his determination to play the role of even-handed broker. 

 The President's UN speech today makes this very clear. Obama said extremely clearly that despite Netanyahu's running out the clock ahead of the trilateral, "we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."  He then laid out a clear American position about where the game should now shift: 

 Yesterday, Israel hawks appeared to be competing over who could do the best victory dance after the Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas photo opportunity went down without an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze. Netanyahu’s intransigence certainly did harm American standing and prestige in the region, and undermined a number of key American foreign policy goals — just as one would expect from a close ally and friend.  Why this black eye for American standing so delighted certain pundits is an interesting question. 

 But the victory dances, while entertaining in their own way, were premature. They celebrated a relatively minor tactical win, which carried some significant costs for their own position at the wider strategic level.  Put bluntly, in exchange for an evening’s backslapping and triumphant TV play, they got a pissed off President who is more committed than ever to doing exactly what he said he would do and who is more — not less — inclined to demonstrate his determination to play the role of even-handed broker. 

 The President’s UN speech today makes this very clear. Obama said extremely clearly that despite Netanyahu’s running out the clock ahead of the trilateral, "we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."  He then laid out a clear American position about where the game should now shift: 

The time has come to re-launch negotiations – without preconditions – that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security – a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.

I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult. But all of us must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we only lend it lip-service. To break the old patterns – to break the cycle of insecurity and despair – all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks over a constructive willingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and its right to exist in peace and security.

 That’s tough, even-handed, and clear.  It’s exactly what needed to be said, and it throws down the gauntlet directly and at the Presidential level.  Netanyahu won September 22, but Obama and his team aren’t playing to win a day.  They’re playing to win the game: achieving a two-state solution which protects American national security interests, along with the vital and just interests of both sides. 

I’ve had plenty of criticisms of the Obama team’s tactical choices along the way — letting the settlements battle draw out, not acting to alleviate the Gaza disaster, unreasonably expecting Arab concessions in response to tepid Israeli statements, and do on.  But they’ve made it clear that the time for games is coming to an end, and that their patience is wearing thin.   To succeed, they are going to need to have some real sticks to wield — and I suspect that they will be better able to wield them after demonstrating such astonishing restraint in the face of Netanyahu’s repeated provocations.  

Lord knows I’m not optimistic about final status negotiations– I’m never especially optimistic — but in this instance I think a lot of people are being blinded by shiny flashing lights and missing what’s really going on.  

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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