The Middle East Won't Be Ignored

The region boils over when left unwatched.

Flickr/The Israel Project.Under the title, "My president is busy," Thomas Friedman wrote on November 10 in the New York Times, addressing the Israeli people, "You should be so lucky that the President feels he has the time, energy and political capital to spend wrestling with Bibi [Netanyahu] to forge a peace between Israelis and Palestinians." The prominent columnist, who spent several years in Beirut and Jerusalem, urged President Obama to forget about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for now and focus on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, rather than on Bethlehem, Palestine. He added the president should concentrate on getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. "No, my Israeli friends," said Friedman, "it’s much worse than you think: You’re home alone."

Well, we are not alone at home. Whether the unemployed people in Pennsylvania like it or not, the Middle East is their back yard. We share the same mess. Less than a week after Friedman wrote those words, a new round of violence between Israel and Hamas reminded the American president that if you run away from it, the conflict follows you. If you ignore it today, it will be much harder to resolve tomorrow, or even to manage. The escalation in the southern border of Israel represents, by way of example, the price of a sit-back American policy.

In a recently-published report (“U.S. Policy in a Time of Transition”), a group of Middle East military and political experts wrote, "Solving the long-festering conflict between Israel and Palestine is a critical prerequisite for the creation of a stable regional economic and security environment responsive to the concerns of its peoples as well as to the vital strategic interests of the United States." The principal authors of the paper, Geoffrey Aronson and Col. Philip Dermer (Ret.), emphasized that U.S. leadership is vital because the parties to the conflict are demonstrably incapable of resolving it themselves. Thus they are obstructing a central objective of U.S. policy.

The report, which was written under the supervision of a steering committee headed by former Under Secretary of State Thomas R. Pickering (and including Lincoln Bloomfield, Jr., Adm. William Fallon (ret.), Ellen Laipson, and John Raidt) emphasized that the status quo is untenable. Moreover, they warned that failure to realize a peaceful two-state solution undermines trust and diminishes U.S. credibility.

The experts urged the United States to exercise leadership in seeking a transition from a state of conflict to an era of peace that accommodates the legitimate security interests of all parties.

The current crisis shows that if the violence at Israel’s southern border is not cooled down in the first act, rockets reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the second act. An air raid that is not restrained in the first two days can escalate to a ground operation. A showdown in Gaza can get out of control and deteriorate into a strategic conflict between Israel and Egypt. The 1978 Camp David agreement, one of the outstanding achievements of U.S diplomacy since World War II, is in jeopardy. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is at risk. Who remembers the Iranian nuclear threat when Israeli aircraft made in America are targeting a territory that is, under international law and the Oslo accords, under Israeli occupation?

Once again, the Israelis and the Palestinians show that they are neither willing nor able to solve their conflict without the involvement of a responsible adult. Once again, President Obama is not playing this role. In the last four years the Palestinian and the Israelis have learned that Obama prefers the role of Netanyahu puppet. In spite of the fact that the Arab Spring has changed the rules in the Middle East, Obama played business as usual. He undermined every attempt to reward the pragmatic Palestinian government, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, for its efforts to maintain peace and build efficient institutions. The United States ignored UN resolutions that called for the lifting of the Israeli cordon around Gaza and vetoed UN resolutions that condemned the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

No, Tom Friedman, my friend, your president cannot be too busy for us. True, he was too busy to become involved with us in his first term. Hence, he wasted those four years of Mideast diplomacy on petty things, courting the Jewish organizations. I don’t expect favors. One American president after the other has told us that ending our conflict and stabilizing the region was one of America’s most vital interests. And who else can ensure that it gets done? The collapsing EU? Russia? China? Those who refused to talk to the PLO ended up fighting Hamas. Those who refuse to talk to Hamas will end up confronting the Global Jihad. The festering problem is brewing radicalism throughout the region. And the bad guys, from both sides, have no intention of sitting back and waiting until Obama finds a minute or two to extinguish the flames. They will supply it with more and more gasoline and will not relent until it will be too late. Hillary Clinton's emergency visit to the region is an encouraging sign that President Obama has realized he cannot afford to be too busy for us.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.