Opinion Columns & Blogs

Obama efforts in Middle East are a disaster

Now we can say, with no real doubt, that the Obama administration has suffered its first major foreign policy failure, and it's hard to see a way to recover.

In fact, the administration's Middle East strategy has been nothing short of a debacle, born of inexplicable naivete. Couldn't they see that previous presidents, going back more than two decades, had asked Israeli and Arab leaders to make exactly the same "gestures" — and none of those presidents had succeeded?

Certainly it is laudable that a new president plunged into this, the oldest major festering sore of the modern world, weeks after taking office. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter all paid lip service to the issue until late in their terms. Every one of them realized that the problem was so fraught, the chance of success so faint, that the most likely outcome of any major effort was embarrassment.

That's exactly what happened this time.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently returned from the Middle East furiously arguing, against the facts, that her trip had been something better than a humiliating flop.

Days after taking office, Clinton named former Sen. George Mitchell special envoy for the Middle East. His mission: to convince Arab states that they should offer some sort of gesture toward Israel, as a show of their interest in peace, and to persuade Israel to order a halt in new settlement activity.

Every president over the past 25 years has tried to persuade Israel to stop settlements. Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush held back $10 billion in loan guarantees until Israel froze settlement expansion. Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister then, refused nonetheless. No president since then has fared any better.

Similarly, every effort over the past 25 years to cajole the Arab states to offer Israel even the most modest gesture has been met with intransigent refusals. Nine months into this futile exercise, Clinton plunged into the debate with full force, putting her own reputation on the line.

Clinton stood beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and praised him for his talk about a so-called partial freeze of settlement activity, saying: "What the prime minister has offered in specifics of restraint on the policy of settlements" is "unprecedented."

Not true. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced a freeze in new settlement construction in 1995, just as Netanyahu has done. That "freeze" quickly thawed. Religious zealots ignored the rule, and the government did little to stop them.

The same is likely to happen now. This week, in fact, Israel approved 900 extra housing units at a settlement in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, announced that he was discouraged and disgusted and would not run for office again. In truth, Palestinians (and Israelis) often announce resignations one day and then change their minds the next. It's a negotiating tactic.

Even with his many flaws, Abbas is an irreplaceable player, the one Palestinian who is a credible, eager partner with the West.

Now, however, the Obama administration's Middle East strategy is such a mess that it may not even matter if Abbas resigns.