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One Year into the Obama Administration: Where Are We on the Middle East?

Posted: February 5, 2010

Remarks by Abraham H. Foxman
National Director, Anti-Defamation League
(as prepared)

To the ADL National Executive Committee
February 5, 2010, Palm Beach, FL

As you already can tell, there is a lot on ADL's plate these days: issues of global anti-Semitism, the delegitimization of Israel, Vatican-Jewish relations, cyberhate and cyberbullying, immigration, Hispanic relations.  All these matters are important. All are worthy of extensive consideration.

However, I'd like to use my time before you today to discuss another subject, one that wherever I go I hear many strong and diverse views about: President Obama and the Middle East.

The one-year anniversary of a presidency is always an occasion to assess how a new president is doing. Barack Obama is no exception to that rule. Everything he has and hasn't done during his first year in office has been dissected over the last two weeks.

I'd like to share with you my report card on how he's doing with regard to the Middle East, where we are today and where we should be going.

Let me begin with intentions because I hear a lot about that.  I believe that it's fair to say that in this regard the president fits nicely into the long tradition of American presidents on the Middle East and Israel, and he tried very hard in his first year to bring the parties together with good intentions.  So, I sincerely believe President Obama deserves a solid "A" for effort.

His goal, consistent with his predecessors and stated repeatedly, is to achieve a lasting and secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Arab states. He has committed his administration to sustaining the historic ties between Israel and America, noting in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world the "unshakeable" relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

Like other presidents, he sees the U.S. as the key outside player in trying to advance the peace process, but he says time and again that ultimately, the parties themselves have to make the decisions for peace.

He has articulated the importance of getting Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to contribute to peace by taking steps, however small, to normalize relations with Israel.

And he recognizes that the greatest threat to the region, to hopes for peace, and to American interests comes from extremist Islam, especially from Iran with its unrelenting drive to develop nuclear weapons and to destabilize the region.

The president's priority this first year has been to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Israel has always maintained, and we have agreed, that a true and lasting peace can only come through direct negotiations where the Palestinians finally accept Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state and the need to compromise. Therefore, the president's emphasis on getting talks restarted is consistent with our approach.

Where things have gone wrong is less a product of intentions than strategy. This is not as unusual as it may seem. George W. Bush surely was a great friend of Israel and was correct in believing that the development of democratic values and institutions in the Arab world was critical to efforts to bring peace. Unfortunately, the strategy employed included a role for Hamas in Palestinian elections, a decision for which the region is still paying a price.

The Obama Administration chose early on, particularly in its public rhetoric, to focus on Israeli settlement policy as the key to getting the parties back to the table.

Let's be clear. Israeli leaders on both sides of the political divide understand that in any final peace agreement, Israel will have to make major concessions on the settlement front. Four Prime Ministers -- Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and now Benjamin Netanyahu--have each in his own way taken steps that reflect this understanding.

It's a very different thing, however, to make settlements the key to peace, the key to peace talks. Such an approach which characterized the Administration from the outset distorts and minimizes the far greater obstacles to reaching an accord--Palestinian rejectionism, terrorism and the teaching of hatred of Israel. It unfairly puts the onus on Israel for the absence of negotiations. And it gives an ongoing excuse to the Palestinians not to talk.

The President has obliquely acknowledged some of these problems in his Time magazine interview with Joe Klein. He admitted that his Administration may have had unrealistic expectations about the ability of the two sides to move forward, thereby questioning the wisdom of his own strategy. 

So, in my estimation, the Obama Administration earned a "C-minus" for strategy.

The truth is, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated several months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu's moratorium on settlement building for nine months was an unprecedented political step which should have set the stage for the Palestinians to start talking and for Arab leaders to do something positive toward Israel.  So where do we stand now? And where would I like to see American policy go?

The irony of all this is that the administration, in contradistinction to their reading of events under George W. Bush, focused on trying to speed up the process toward peace. Instead, what they wrought in many ways was a wasted year without any negotiations. Let's remember that Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating before without any settlement freeze. Negotiations could have continued.

Since there are now no prospects for talks on the horizon, I believe the administration deserves an "F" for failure to deliver on results.

For now, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, continues to insist that he will not negotiate without a complete freeze in settlement growth, including in East Jerusalem. George Mitchell persists in his shuttle diplomacy but it's unclear whether we are any closer to resuming talks than we have been.

Let me suggest a few things I'd like to see from the administration this year.

First, I'd like to see an emphasis by the White House to the Palestinians as to the fact that Israel has made significant concessions regarding a Palestinian state and settlements and that further delays in talks are not justified or acceptable.

Second, the president should make better use of his bully pulpit to emphasize the moral and strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel. This would be especially critical in combating the growing, worldwide anti-Israel movement around the world, as represented by efforts to delegitimize Israel, boycotts, divestment campaigns and prosecutions of Israelis based on the Goldstone report.  Periodic statements by the White House reiterating the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship will go a long way to undermining the belief of anti-Israel forces that they are winning the day and that America too can be won over.

Third, I'd like to see the president focus on what is truly achievable in a region where the Palestinians continue to be divided between Palestinian Authority control of the West Bank and Hamas control of Gaza and where it remains unclear if the Palestinians truly accept a Jewish state.

What is achievable? I'm afraid a comprehensive peace including the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and a demilitarized Palestinian state is not yet ripe. On the other hand, economic and security cooperation between the sides has already improved during the first year of the Obama Administration and more should be done to improve the quality of life for the Palestinians and to ensure security against terrorism that is not solely dependent on Israeli security measures.

And if the parties finally return to negotiations, the emphasis should be on finding some kind of territorial agreement in the West Bank. Boundaries could be agreed upon whereby Israel could hold on to the settlement blocs, as envisioned in George Bush's letter to Ariel Sharon.  Palestinians could get in return official recognition of territory in the West Bank to establish an independent state while also being compensated for the amount of land that encompasses the settlement blocks (which would become part of Israel) with an equivalent amount of territory from Israel itself. This is not an impossible task and one worth pursuing.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: Iran and its nuclear aspirations. The administration is in a better position to pursue sanctions at the UN (despite the Chinese) and beyond because the apathy on the issue that was so prevalent for so long has dissipated because of Iran's fraudulent election and repression of its population while the world was watching and because they rejected the president's offer concerning uranium enrichment. The regime has been exposed for what it is. No one wants to see this kind of brutal, extreme government in possession of nuclear weapons.

We hope tough sanctions will be imposed. And quickly. As we've said many times before, Iran is not Israel's problem, it's the world's problem. But it is only Israel that is targeted by the regime for destruction. The priority in the months ahead must be to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear by whatever means are necessary.

I believe the American-Israeli relationship remains strong and remains a key to keeping hopes for peace alive. This is the year for the President to use the strength of that relationship to advance peace, to bolster Israel, and to foster American interests in that critical region of the world.

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Press Release:
ADL Issues Report Card On President Obama's First Year In Middle East Diplomacy

Address by Abraham H. Foxman to the ADL National Executive Committee

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