As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Clinton's Middle East Adventure

Setting aside war policy, Barack Obama's strategy for dealing with the world, while secondary to current economic concerns, has been fairly good. He's delivered on the promise of using diplomacy over belligerence, most recently by sending envoys to Syria to hopefully break them out of Iran's sphere of influence, welcome them back in the world community, and move forward on an expected peace treaty between them and Israel. Obama's somewhat odd letter to Russia, seeking their help in controlling Iran's nuclear desires in exchange for removing missile defense, was a bit misunderstood. I think that the letter was part of an effort to reset US-Russian relations, and aside from Iran this includes strategic arms limitation talks and better economic cooperation. In 95% of the cases, you can see a fostering of better understanding with the nations of the world, a rejection of the unilateralism of the Bush years, and a move to a better path.

Then there's the other 5%. And that was highlighted by Hillary Clinton's Middle East trip this week. First, she arguably poisoned upcoming Iranian negotiations by expressing pessimism that they will be productive. I just don't understand why this is something you say out loud, even if the comments were in a private meeting and leaked (I wonder who leaked them - Dennis Ross?). Then there were her visits to Israel and the West Bank, which exuded both optimism for a solution and yet also a lack of even-handedness. She called the movement toward a Palestinian state inescapable, and the goal a comprehensive solution on all fronts. She also called plans by the Israelis to bulldoze Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem unhelpful, which they are. And yet, beyond the talk, in the first instance of tangible action at a donor's conference to rebuild Gaza, Clinton and the US limited and conditioned its aid package:

The Obama administration intends to spend most of a $900-million Palestinian aid package on support for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, rather than in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip communities that were badly damaged in the recent weeks-long Israeli offensive, a State Department official said Sunday.

Robert A. Wood, the department's chief spokesman, said that about $300 million of the money would be spent on humanitarian relief for Gaza, and the remainder would help offset the Palestinian Authority's budget shortfall and fund its economic development, security and other projects in the West Bank. The authority is run by the more moderate Palestinian faction Fatah.

None of the money will go to rebuilding Gaza, even though the aid is to be announced today at an international donors conference convened by Egypt for reconstruction in the war-scarred seaside enclave.

This is the same kind of walling off of Hamas that has paradoxically improved their standing with their own people. Marc Lynch writes:

But her remarks suggest that rather than seize on the possibility of Palestinian reconciliation, Clinton prefers to double-down on the shopworn "West Bank first, Fatah only" policy which has been conspiciously failing for the last two years. The concrete manifestation: two-thirds of the U.S. contribution to the reconstruction of Gaza will go not to Gaza but to the West Bank.

I understand what Clinton is trying to do, and appreciate the challenges facing her team as it navigates this shattered environment. But her approach risks missing an important possible opportunity to reshuffle the deck. Clinton has been pouring cold water on the hopes that the Fatah-Hamas dialogue might lead to a workable national unity government by insisting that such a government would only be acceptable if it met the pre-existing Quartet conditions [...]

This all seems stuck in a bit of time-warp. It ignores the two year history of Israeli and Western failure under the identical discourse and policy to deliver meaningful benefits to the Palestinian Authority or the West Bank. It ignores the reality of Hamas power in Gaza, and the reality of Fatah's limited capabilities and legitimacy (which were not enhanced, shall we say, by Abbas's performance during the Gaza war). And it ignores the promise of the dramatic moves towards Arab reconciliation and the accomplishment of a tentative Hamas-Fatah accord last week.

It's an open question whether or not there are partners for peace on the Israeli side, particularly with a new conservative government coming in and rocket fire still falling. But sticking with Fatah and isolating Hamas, AGAIN, makes no sense from a tactical perspective. We've seen this movie before. And it not only ignores the promise of the two movements' reconciliation, it threatens to poison it.

The effects of Clinton's signals may already be starting to be felt. Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of the leading "resistance camp" newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, suggests that yesterday's comments by Mahmoud Abbas suggest that he is being emboldened by Clinton's approach to already move away from the lines of the Cairo accord. Reports are already trickling in about the Hamas-Fatah committee meetings get bogged down. And Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal reportedly repeated yesterday warnings by other members of the Saudi leadership yesterday that the Arab peace initiative would not be on offer to Israel forever.

This feels like a badly bungled opportunity based on stale thinking. I would have preferred the approach of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry, who called for direct investment in Gaza, an honest assessment of the corrosive nature of Israeli settlements, and a need to deal with the realities on both sides.

...Kerry's been pretty good on Iran and direct engagement, too.

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