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The Acrobat

President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy seems to eschew symbolic triumphs in favor of a pragmatic vision that keeps all sides guessing. Israel could have a lot to gain by signing on.

David Samuels
May 23, 2011
President Barack Obama at the AIPAC summit in Washington.(Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama at the AIPAC summit in Washington.(Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

One way to distinguish a truly gifted politician from the pack of run-of-the-mill political actors is by how long he can walk the tightrope between ambiguity and commitment while keeping the largest number of policy options up in the air. By keeping his audience guessing about his true intentions for as long as possible, the canny tight-rope walker forces the parties to any given dispute into the role of mesmerized spectators. Boo, and one of the balls might drop to the ground. Applaud, and maybe the juggler will keep juggling a while longer. The circus performer’s talent that is required here can be joined to any kind of politics, liberal or conservative, successful or not. Franklin D. Roosevelt had it. Yasser Arafat had it. Ariel Sharon had it. And Barack Obama has it.

Obama’s ability to maintain his balance without committing himself stood out in sharp relief over a dramatic four days in which both sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict tried to paint the president of the United States as a partisan whose judgment could not be trusted. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told the New York Times that the first of two presidential addresses on the topic—given last Thursday—“contained little hope for the Palestinians”; Obama’s second speech, delivered yesterday at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, inspired a dismissive retort from Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who said it showed that the U.S. government will continue “to support the occupation at the expense of the freedom of the Palestinian people.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the American Jewish community portrayed Obama as a betrayer of Israel—one who had either ignorantly or maliciously plucked crucial negotiating cards out of Israel’s hands by mandating a retreat to the indefensible 1967 borders in the face of two decades of Palestinian rejectionism. Obama’s critics were not entirely off the mark: The president had publicly adopted a key Palestinian negotiating point as official U.S. policy. Yet there was also something unbalanced about the attacks, which seemed to willfully ignore political and historical reality. After all, America’s strategic partnership with Israel since the 1967 war has been founded on the paradoxical idea that a strong Israel will be able to make territorial concessions to the Arabs. America gains influence through Israeli strength, which it builds up and then waters down to make the Arabs happy, furthering the dependence of both sides on Washington.

One outcome of this dynamic is that Israel’s strongest supporters in the White House often take steps that dramatically undermine Israel. It was no accident that George W. Bush backed both Ariel Sharon and the creation of a Palestinian state. Ronald Reagan—a steadfast friend of Israel if there ever was one—also halted the invasion of Lebanon and let Arafat escape to Tunis, tried to force the Israelis to negotiate with the PLO, denied the Israelis the right to attack the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, then cut off military aid when they did. Yet Reagan’s seemingly antagonistic policies toward Israel make sense when seen in the context of the Cold War, the Iran-Iraq war, and other major U.S. commitments of his era. The surprise of this week is that it appears the same may be true of Obama, who may be thinking about the Middle East in more subtle and original ways than either the Israelis or Palestinians have yet given him credit for.


The political theater began last Thursday, when Obama delivered a somber and contradictory speech about America’s attitude toward the changes that have swept the Middle East in recent months. It was a wizardly piece of stagecraft whose purpose was to lay out a concrete set of American attitudes and preferences against a backdrop of ambiguity, in order to preserve the widest possible scope for future action. America likes democracy and will reward liberalizing and democratizing regimes, at the same time as it won’t disown repressive allies, like Bahrain. America is not hostile to political Islam but supports liberal values, like freedom of religion and speech, and gender equality. The contradictions in these positions are obvious, but life is full of contradictions.

The one place in which Obama was uncharacteristically specific about an expected sequence of actions and responses was his outline for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president’s invocation of the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement reportedly left Netanyahu incandescent with rage. The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, was apparently angered by Obama’s call for a “non-militarized” state. Pundits were quick to tease out tiny differences between the president’s statement and various U.S.-backed frameworks for a two-state solution that have been gathering dust for the past decade. Ignoring the reality of 20 years of negotiations, many Jewish and pro-Israeli commentators attempted to frame Obama’s speech as a devastating embrace of Palestinian demands that would force Israel back to its 1967 borders—only nine miles wide at their narrowest point, Netanyahu informed the president, who had no doubt heard it all before—and invite another large-scale war in the Middle East.

Speaking to AIPAC on Sunday morning, Obama appeared to win over most of the crowd without substantially backtracking from the positions that had provoked such outrage on Thursday. “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately,” he argued.

Except that wasn’t quite true. Missing from both the post-game analysis and from the president’s own remarks was any mention of what appears to be a central paragraph in Obama’s Thursday statement: “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The idea that the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees are core issues of the conflict that should be left for last seems at first glance like a familiar restatement of the approach that has governed peace negotiations since Oslo, which is to negotiate the easy stuff first, and do the hard stuff later. What was new and potentially revolutionary in Obama’s speech is the setting up of two sets of equivalencies, which are to be negotiated in sequence: first, Territory and Security, and then, Refugees and Jerusalem. Obama proposes negotiations about territory and security leading to a withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank, with agreed-upon land swaps, while recognizing that any such agreement will fail when it comes to Jerusalem. Essentially, what Obama is proposing is an arrangement in which Israelis and Palestinians negotiate a map from which Jerusalem is excluded, and dictating that that map will look more or less like the 1967 borders, with large settlement blocs included inside Israel in exchange for equivalent patches of sovereign Israeli territory being ceded to a future Palestinian state.

Which brings us to the right of return. Since Oslo, Western observers have operated on the assumption that the Palestinian “right of return” is mainly a rhetorical device that will be abandoned in any final settlement in exchange for compensation and the resettlement of refugees inside Palestine. The Israelis have stipulated that a negotiated settlement will mean the end of all Palestinian claims against Israel and would entail the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The conventional reading of Obama’s proposed pairing of territorial and security negotiations before Jerusalem and refugees would therefore be that the two “wrenching and emotional” issues are mainly important as theater, since neither side means what it says. Just as the Israelis have repeatedly proven willing to negotiate the boundaries of Jerusalem, the Palestinians know that the right of return is a fantasy and that they will ultimately recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order to obtain a state of their own.


The question, then, is whether Obama believes that Jerusalem and the right of return are real issues—the core of the crisis—or not.

Having spoken with most of the leading figures in Fatah over the past decade, it is my sense that the real fantasy here is the arrogant assumption that the Palestinian leadership will abandon its most deeply held principles in exchange for what even moderates see as a shriveled slice of historic Palestine. Indeed, reviewing my notes of conversations with all of Arafat’s key political advisers and security chiefs, including Mahmoud Abbas, I can’t identify a single one who expressed any clear willingness to abandon the right of return, or recognize Israel as a Jewish state. At best, these were framed as issues for future negotiations that would need to be submitted to a vote of the entire Palestinian people—including an estimated 4 to 6 million refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader I’ve ever spoken with—secular moderates included—imagined Israel as a permanent feature of the political landscape in the Middle East. All saw it as a more or less unnatural creation that would be subsumed, peacefully or not, by the resurgence of Arab Palestine in 20, 50, or 100 years.

A gifted politician who has the added advantage of having grown up partly in Muslim Indonesia, Obama seems acutely aware of the importance of symbolic, emotional politics, even as he prides himself on his own reasoned detachment and as he keeps relatively little patience for narratives of victimhood at home or abroad. I also believe that he is entirely serious when he says that he understands that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a party—namely Hamas—that denies its right to exist. What Obama has set up, therefore, is a juggler’s paradise, in which he can keep both sides in suspense while he walks the tightrope toward a practical resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

In the best of all possible worlds, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators might build confidence negotiating about security and borders within the 1967 parameters that Obama has now established as official U.S. policy, and then be willing to tackle the so-called core issues. But seeing as that approach has failed repeatedly over the past two decades, it seems unlikely that Obama simply intends to try the same thing again.

Obama’s strategy for an Israeli-Palestinian deal therefore seems predicated on two assumptions:

1. Jerusalem and the right of return are the issues on which the two sides are least likely to agree.

2. An agreement between the two sides on these or other issues has been further complicated by the pact between Fatah and Hamas.

Given these assumptions, the outlines of Obama’s proposed pathway to peace become clearer: a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank at the direction of the president in exchange for security guarantees and other inducements from the United States. The Israelis would be forced to remove settlements and bring their troops home from most of the West Bank as they did during the disengagement from Gaza. The Palestinians would be handed most of their state on a platter and could then simply wait until the president forced the Israelis to give way on Jerusalem and refugees, too.

So, why would Israel sign on to such a disaster-in-the-making? The answer is that they won’t, and won’t have to. While Obama’s negotiating strategy leaves room for Palestinians and Israelis to agree on refugees and Jerusalem, it pointedly does not assume that any such agreement will be reached—only that a “foundation” for possible future agreement will be laid. What Obama anticipates, then, is that an agreement probably won’t be reached, in which case the Israelis will withdraw from most of the West Bank, where the Palestinians will establish a sovereign and non-militarized state. As that happens, the Israelis will continue to hold onto Jerusalem, and the Palestinians will continue to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and demand the right of return. In fact, both sides are likely to harden their respective positions—the Israelis in the face of national trauma, and the Palestinians in the face of short-term triumph.

What Obama has very cleverly done therefore is to appropriate the Israeli proposal to establish a Palestinian state with interim borders—albeit on terms that the Israelis don’t particularly like. Yet each side stands to gain something very real from an interim arrangement that they would be unlikely to gain from an actual peace deal: The Palestinians would receive almost all of the territory they claim for an interim state—except Jerusalem—while holding on to their national dream of one day reclaiming all of Palestine from the Zionists. The Israelis, meanwhile, get a U.S.-sponsored end to the tar-baby of occupation and boatloads of shiny new weapons while holding on to major settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem. Hamas doesn’t have to sign a peace deal with the Israelis, and the Israelis don’t have to sign a peace deal with Hamas. America will benefit by having followed through on its promise—made by George W. Bush and repeated by Obama—to establish a Palestinian state. The millstone of Israeli occupation will be removed from around the necks of America and Israel, both of which will presumably find it easier to make friends in the Middle East.

All that is missing from this vision, of course, is the Jimmy Carter-era peace-treaty-signing ceremony photo-op on the White House lawn, whose chances of happening anytime in the near-to-intermediate future are close to zero. Unlike Bill Clinton, whose appetite for grand gestures often resulted in stalemates, or worse—including the nightmare of the Second Intifada—Obama the pragmatist may in fact view the signing of a symbolic peace treaty as negative for both sides. Eschewing symbolic triumphs for the creation of a new set of facts on the ground is a strategy that may not move fast enough for Obama to reap credit during his term in office, but—if it works—history will place victory at his feet. The Israeli occupation would, for the most part, be over; Hamas might take over the West Bank six months later, but the Israelis will have a recognized border and plenty of rockets, which will help them keep the peace just as well or badly as they do on Israel’s other borders, with less international fuss. Once the last Palestinian refugee dies in 2049, maybe someone will have the bright idea of trading some part of East Jerusalem and the Muslim quarter of the Old City for an end to ancient refugee claims and formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. By then, the president of the United States will probably have other problems to juggle. And if he needs a refresher course, he might just look back to Obama’s performance this past week.

David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.