Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson,
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away?
—Paul Simon, Mrs. Robinson
Thought I’d take a break from jobs and the economy.
President Obama faces the most significant foreign policy challenge of his administration this week, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plays chicken with him over what is expected to be a Friday request for statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council. How Obama plays it, and how this plays out, will tell us a lot about what kind of statesman he in fact is, and what kind of stroke he has on the global stage. It could be Obama’s Camp David Accords—or his Iran Hostage Crisis. And the stakes and potential consequences couldn’t be bigger.
So, where the hell is he?
Obama has been virtually silent on the situation with Israel and the Palestinians in recent months, and frankly, it’s scary how far behind the fastball he is on this.
To be fair, to a certain extent the confrontation we now face is the inevitable result of flawed 20th Century international intervention. Recall that the entire region was part of the Ottoman Empire for several hundred years prior to World War I. The sovereign states of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria did not exist. Nor was there any Palestine as such. Modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan were all created out of the League of Nations’ French and British Mandates in the 1920s. Following World War II, the United Nations developed a plan to divide the land west of the Jordan River into two separate Jewish and Arab states, with an enclave including Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be administered as an international protectorate under U.N. jurisdiction. Typical of U.N. initiatives, however, the proposed division was untenably artificial and non-contiguous, bearing a closer resemblance to the patterns of a lava lamp than geopolitical borders. Having adopted an unworkable plan to create Israel essentially from whole cloth, the U.N. then abdicated responsibility, and conflict between the fledgling Jewish state and disaffected local Arabs followed immediately thereafter.
But to a large degree, Obama has brought the present showdown on himself through his own lack of international leadership. In his zeal to appease anti-Semitic/anti-U.S. regimes in the Muslim world, and the Islamophiles in Europe, Obama has repeatedly treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu like a used doormat. This had to suggest to the Palestinians weakness on Obama’s part, and diminished U.S. resolve to support Israel if not outright support for the Palestinian position. It is little wonder that they might perceive this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a shot at forcing their way into statehood, particularly with 2012 and the prospect of a dramatic shift in U.S. support for Israel looming.
Surely they are further emboldened by Obama’s careless lack of international leadership over the course of the “Arab Spring.” Obama has casually supported uprisings with little or no regard for who was going to fill the resulting vacuum. Hosni Mubarak may have been a brutal a-hole, but at least he was more or less reliable as an ally and as one who would keep the peace with Israel. What will rise in Egypt in his place is anybody’s guess. Lord knows who will take over in Libya, or in Syria or Yemen if those regimes are toppled—but I’ll bet you Obama doesn’t. I guess as long as it’s “change” it’s all good; never mind what we’re changing to.
That it has gotten this far with no action from the White House shows just how out of his depth Obama is as a Chief Executive, and we now face an extremely dangerous situation. The reality is that the Palestinian Authority has overwhelming international support. If Obama accepts the Palestinian demand for international recognition as a sovereign state, he shows further weakness. Israel will be left effectively alone, which may further embolden anti-Semitic extremists in the surrounding countries who still refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist—witness the recent destruction of the Israeli embassy in Cairo that went by without so much as a peep from Obama, much less the international community at large—and any other banana republic dictator who chooses to kick sand in Obama’s face. Moreover, recognizing Palestinian sovereignty lends legitimacy to actions by the Palestinians themselves against Israel as “national self-defense.” Particularly with no defined contiguous territory, the untenable situation the U.N. created in 1948 is perpetuated.
If Obama vetoes the demand in the Security Council, there will almost certainly be violent uprisings against both Israel and the U.S., despite Abbas’ disclaimers to the contrary. Indeed, the Arab community may see no alternative left but to establish Palestinian sovereignty by force, which at this point could mean joint military action—once again—by Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan . . . and a potentially nuclear Iran. They will likely have support, at least behind the scenes, from Russia and China. What happens if Turkey and Pakistan, which have been increasingly antagonistic to the U.S. and Israel, join as well? Even the Saudis may not sit this one out. Unlike 1967 or 1973, this time the U.S. may be forced to intervene militarily, at which point all bets are off.
Either way, this could get very, very ugly.
If we are to continue to have any meaningful, credible voice in the discussion, the President can’t continue to vote “present,” and he can’t wait for a poll, and he can’t lead from behind. He can’t wait to see what Richard Trumka, or the NEA, or the Sierra Club thinks. This issue requires bold leadership, and unfortunately it may already be too late. Obama needs to start with an unequivocal and repeated statement—he might even consider unilaterally inviting himself to address the General Assembly, assuming he can work out the scheduling—that any consideration of Palestinian statehood must be preceded by official recognition from every state on the planet that Israel exists as a sovereign state with the right to defend herself and her citizens, and that we will back her, militarily if necessary. Until all those who support Palestinian statehood publicly accept Israel’s right to exist, we can’t have this discussion.
But Obama also needs to have a concrete plan, and he needs to be active and tough—with both sides—about it. While it is true that there is going to have to be some negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians, the President needs to exert some muscle. The Palestinians and the international community have to understand that the violence has to stop, and ANY breaches are not going to be viewed as the isolated acts rogue terrorists, but as acts of war sanctioned by the Palestinian government. If you are in control as a sovereign government, then act like it. Either you get Hamas under control—NOW—or we will assume they are operating as your military-in-fact, and we will deal with you as we did the Taliban.
Any viable plan is also going to have to involve a contiguous geography for an independent Palestine, while addressing Israeli security concerns. To be workable, the borders would probably have to bear a closer resemblance to the 1967/1949 “green line” borders than not, andIsraeli settlements within a contiguous Palestine would have to go, painful as that will be for some—bear in mind that there are plenty of permanently displaced Palestinians, too. But Obama likely no longer has sufficient goodwill to be able to sell Netanyahu on either proposition.
This situation calls for a leader, not a campaigner. Would that Obama understood the difference.