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Obama hinders efforts toward Mideast peace

Frida Ghitis  |
A recent post-election cartoon shows President Barack Obama, his hands on the steering wheel, as a voice from the GPS exclaims “Recalculating!” That’s the word familiar to anyone who has used a GPS and defied its directions or ended up making mistakes trying to reach a destination. It’s no secret Obama needs to make course adjustments. What is utterly perplexing is why he persists in taking some of the same wrong turns, especially the ones that have already taken him to dead ends.

I’m thinking about the latest snag in efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Clearly, the project has stalled. That’s not all Obama’s fault, but a major reason is that, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has admitted, Obama’s loud call for a settlement freeze — something Palestinians had never demanded as a precondition for talks — forced Abbas to make the same demand, bringing talks to a halt.

It is not wrong for Obama to exercise American power. But he is doing it in a way that plainly doesn’t work. Power is the ability to shape outcomes to your liking. Obama is producing precisely the opposite result of what he wants.

One could not fail to notice that in his latest visit to a Muslim capital Obama again took the opportunity to chastise Israel. That has become a troubling pattern with damaging consequences. Obama scolds Israel when the audience is filled with Muslims he wants to woo. The message to many Israel supporters is that Obama is willing to sacrifice Israel to score points with Muslims. That may not be his intention, but what matters is the impact.
Speaking in Indonesia, the president criticized an announcement by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee that took another bureaucratic step in the construction of housing in East Jerusalem, an area that Palestinians say they want for their capital and Israelis want to remain within theirs.

To be sure, it would be helpful if everything would come to a standstill in the area while the peace process moves forward. But life is more complicated than that. In Israel, there is a fierce tug-of-war between those who support and those who oppose givebacks. Obama is bolstering the wrong side.

If he wants to achieve results, Obama must convince Israelis that he has their backs as he urges them to take risks. One way he could do that is to criticize Palestinian violations of their commitments as loudly and publicly as he does Israeli settlements. There are plenty of opportunities for that.

Palestinians still speak of peace in English and deny Israel’s right to exist in Arabic. The group Palestinian Media Watch meticulously documents what airs on Palestinian Authority Television. PMW says that, “Contrary to the PA’s moderate statements to the West, its statements to its people in Arabic continue to delegitimize Israel’s existence, deny Israel’s right to exist, define the conflict with Israel in religious terms, promote hatred through demonization and libels, and glorify terror and violence.”

Recent programs included a game show where the answer to the question “What countries border Lebanon?” was “Syria and Palestine,” not Israel. The children’s program Best Home showed girls on a trip to the Galilee, Northern Israel, which they described as “Occupied Territory.” If that’s Occupied Territory, then the end of the occupation means the end of Israel. PA TV describes all of Israel as occupied. Maps replace Israel with Palestine, and political and religious leaders describe the conflict on camera as religious, not territorial, often praising violence against Israelis.

Somehow, this blatant rejection of Israel’s right to exist and of efforts to end the conflict does not make it into Obama’s speeches, even though it specifically violates Palestinian commitments to Washington.

Obama has a right to speak out when he thinks Israel is doing something wrong, but his selective outrage suggests to Israelis they cannot trust him. If Israelis don’t trust the American president, all his browbeating only serves to strengthen the resolve of those who would defy him and dishearten those who share his goals.

When it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, Obama is making the exact mistakes he made from the start of his presidency. Even those who would blame Israel for all the world’s problems must acknowledge Obama is not getting the results he wants. It is baffling, then, that he insists on gripping the steering wheel without making the necessary course correction.

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