31 March 2010

Roger Cohen on the changing Middle East

In a thoughtful opinion piece in The New York Times, 29 March 2010, columnist Roger Cohen reflects upon the changing political scene in the Middle East.

He starts with the observation that the passage of the US health care bill is an important foreign policy victory for President Barack Obama, because it demonstrates that he is a tough politician with a capacity to deliver.

On Netanyahu’s inept performance in relation to the Obama Administration, Cohen observes:

Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to think he could steamroll Obama. He earned a frosty comeuppance.

The Israeli leader toyed with Obama’s unequivocal call in Cairo last June for a “stop” to Israeli settlements. He allowed the ill-timed announcement that 1,600 apartments for Jews will be built in East Jerusalem. Then, rather than scrap that, Netanyahu chose cheap cheers from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”

(I say cheap because everyone knows Jerusalem is not a settlement. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem is rejected by the rest of the world and any peace agreement will involve an inventive deal on its status. To build is therefore to provoke.)

Obama was not amused. He airbrushed Netanyahu’s White House visit. The message was clear: The Middle East status quo does not serve the interests of the United States (or Israel). When Obama says “stop,” he does not mean “build a bit.”

On Netanyahu’s efforts to make Iran the key issue (efforts which were demolished quite effectively by Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria (see Fareed Zakaria on Netanyahu), Cohen says:

Obama’s stance has also demonstrated that his focus on Israel-Palestine will not be diverted by Netanyahu’s push to place the Iranian nuclear program front and center. This is critical: Iran cannot be a Palestine-postponing pawn.

Cohen sees a changing scene as a result of Obama’s stance:

Already, there are shifts in Israeli attitudes as a result of the new American clarity. Last year, Netanyahu described Iran’s leaders as “a messianic apocalyptic cult,” which was silly. Of late we’ve had Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, setting things right: “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, are going to drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not total ‘meshuganas.’ They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process.”

Barak also got it right when he said that, absent a two-state solution, Israel would be “either non-Jewish or non-democratic.”

Obama is now insisting Israel act to avert that unhappy outcome. Americans, prodded by a report from Gen. David Petraeus, are beginning to see the link between terror recruitment and a festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Planning in Washington on Iran has shown a “marked shift in thinking away from the war strategy,” as Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department official, put it to me.

Cohen’s overarching message is that realism is needed all around. America cannot afford a third Muslim war. Israel cannot afford to open an unprecedented Persian front. The Arab world will always regard Israel as a bigger problem than Iran.

Read Cohen’s piece in full here.

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