As President Biden traveled through the Middle East this week, he was caught between the demands of human-rights activists and pro-Palestinian campaigners and the hard realities of the U.S. national interests. His administration had hoped to revive the Iran nuclear deal while pressuring Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians and reducing American commitments to and engagement with the Gulf Arab states. That policy mix thrills Democratic Party liberal internationalists but ignores reality.
It collapsed under the weight of Iran’s using Mr. Biden’s commitment to re-enter the nuclear deal as cover for a massive buildup of weapons-grade uranium while strengthening its relations with Russia and China, and of the failure of Mr. Biden’s green-energy agenda in the face of spiking oil and gas prices. The president now seeks to strengthen old American alliances with countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
This won’t be easy. Arabs and Israelis alike remember the serial failures of the Obama administration: the disaster of its pro-democracy policy in Egypt, its misguided embrace of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a leader of “democratic Islamism,” its failure to establish order in Libya after helping engineer the overthrow of
its dithering over the “red line” in Syria, its feckless acquiescence in
reassertion of a Russian role in Syria. All eroded regional confidence in the wisdom and even the competence of America’s senior political leadership.
Unconscious of their diminished prestige, senior Obama administration officials alienated Israeli and Palestinian negotiators by attempting to dictate the terms of peace. Secretary of State
lectured his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors tirelessly about their true interests. “You Palestinians can never get the f— big picture,” White House national security adviser
admonished the chief Palestinian negotiator
At a White House meeting on March 17, 2014, Mr. Obama tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President
to sign on the dotted line, telling him: “Don’t quibble with this detail or that detail. The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to that as this one.”
Mr. Abbas was unimpressed. He and Erekat, to say nothing of Israeli Prime Minister
saw the big picture much more clearly than the Americans did. U.S. officials had failed to grasp not only their own drastically diminished authority and prestige but the changing nature of Israeli society and the implications for American diplomacy in the pursuit of peace.
The more liberal wing of the Israeli political establishment was rooted in the “Ashkenazi ascendancy” that dominated Israel in the early decades of independence as thoroughly as WASPs once dominated American life. But over time a mix of Sephardic and Russian immigrants, along with the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic populations, began to challenge the old, largely secular and Western-minded elite. The old establishment held on in the judiciary, the universities and certain institutions in the security field. But its members were increasingly alienated from the less polished, less Western, less liberal, more religious and more Middle Eastern country Israel was becoming.
In an Israeli form of identity politics, right-leaning voters, resenting what they saw as discrimination and contempt from the establishment, banded together behind leaders like Menachem Begin (prime minister from 1977 through 1983) and Mr. Netanyahu (1996-99, 2009-21). These leaders were less open to American ideas and less vulnerable to pressure from Washington than their predecessors had been. The Russian, Sephardic and ultra-Orthodox voters who supported them mostly didn’t share the feeling of guilt about the Palestinians that haunted the old Israeli establishment. Their knowledge of Arab culture, language and attitudes left them contemptuous of what they saw as fuzzy-minded Americans spouting foolish platitudes about the Arab world.
They had even less respect for the opinions of American Jews. These Israelis or their parents were often refugees from Arab countries, where they had suffered discrimination and persecution. They felt they owed the world and the Palestinians no apologies. As they saw it, pampered and affluent American Jews who had never held a gun, patrolled a Palestinian street or crouched in the basement with their families as Palestinian missiles soared overhead had no business lecturing Israelis on where their boundaries should be.
Neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Obama seems to have understood how their own personal unpopularity in Israel changed the politics of peace among Israelis. As Jews from the former Soviet Union watched Mr. Putin run rings around Mr. Obama on the international stage, as Mizrahi Jews from Muslim countries heard Americans echo the flabby liberal rhetoric of a condescending Israeli establishment that despised them, association with those Americans became toxic. Right-wing politicians saw no reason to conceal their disdain for the Americans and their process; attacking Mr. Kerry in particular brought political dividends. Defense Minister
(2013-16), in conversations with journalists, would mock what he saw as American naiveté, messianic delusions and arrogance. The only thing that will save Israel, he was quoted as saying in 2014, “is for John Kerry to win his Nobel Prize and go home.”
Some of the key arguments the Americans used to convince Israelis to move toward a two-state solution lost traction. Unless a Palestinian state could be established, Americans often argued, Israelis would face the choice between becoming an undemocratic “apartheid” state ruling over an Arab majority and watching the Jewish character of the state disappear as Arabs took over the Knesset.
This demographic argument plays poorly among serious Zionists. In the 1930s and ’40s, Arabs heavily outnumbered Jews. The Jewish minority faced constant pressure from both the Arab majority and Britain, which administered Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations, to accept minority status in a single state. If the tiny, impoverished and almost friendless Jewish community could reject a one-state solution then, surely a nuclear-armed regional superpower whose technological capabilities the world envied could define its frontiers and chart its political course.
When U.S. negotiators warned that failure to fall in line with Mr. Kerry’s peace initiative would isolate the Jewish state, Israeli officials felt that the Americans had again lost touch with key regional dynamics. Even as Jewish settlements on the West Bank grew, Arab governments drew closer to Israel and openly impatient with the Palestinians. As the Obama administration shifted from a policy of reconciliation with the Arab world to one of bridge-building with Iran, many Arabs interpreted the seeming inaction, along with U.S. passivity in Syria, as a historic betrayal.
Public opinion in the Arab world, appalled at the bloodletting in Libya and Syria and shocked by America’s lack of any positive agenda for these critical regional problems, became more tolerant of their own rulers’ faults and less willing to support dangerous movements for political change. The Arab Spring never turned into summer. Nobody wanted to end up like Syria or Libya, and everyone could see how worthless American support had been to the Egyptian democracy movement.
In a world where Russia and Iran were prepared to brutalize Syria back into obedience to the Assad dynasty, the fate of the West Bank seemed less significant than ever. And Israel and its Arab neighbors alike increasingly saw America’s new Iran policy as their gravest security threat.
The new constellation of forces debuted during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014, just after the last flames of the Kerry process had flickered out. Following a series of mutual provocations and retaliations, the Israel Defense Forces launched massive airstrikes and missile launches into Gaza. Ten days later, Israeli ground forces moved into the strip.
As cease-fire negotiations dragged, it became clear that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Fatah (the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party in the West Bank) were quietly supporting the Israeli position in hope that Hamas would be hit as hard as possible. American negotiators sided with Turkey and Qatar, which pushed to end the fighting more quickly to reduce the death toll, a result that would come at the cost of offering Hamas a result it could spin as a victory.
For Israelis, one lesson seemed obvious. In a shooting conflict that saw Israelis firing on Palestinian cities, the heavyweight powers of the Arab world were backing Israel—against the U.S. Unintentionally and unwittingly, the Obama administration had achieved a goal that had eluded generations of American diplomats: It had laid the foundation for the integration of Israel into the Middle East.
Mr. Biden’s attempt to revive the core features of Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies left Arabs and Israelis wondering if the days of condescension and arrogance had returned. One hopes they haven’t, and that the president and his team succeed in regaining the respect of important leaders and power brokers across the Middle East.
Mr. Mead is the Journal’s Global View columnist. This is adapted from his new book, “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.”
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