Tough Love Is No Love at All

Why Obama's approach to Israel is collapsing. Rapidly.

"Obama is not 100 percent right to confront Bibi on settlements," a Clinton advisor blew back at me after my July 1 piece "Cut Bibi Some Slack." "He is 200 percent right!" This from a guy who had argued for years that public confrontation is not the right way to deal with Israel because it undermines the confidence that is a prerequisite for progress in the peace process.

Barack Obama himself addressed the issue in a meeting with American Jewish leaders on July 13. Asked if it were a mistake to let "sunlight" show between the United States and Israel, the U.S. president demurred, "We had no sunlight for eight years, but no progress either."

Obama's conclusion that former U.S. President George W. Bush achieved nothing by working with Israel is amazing, considering that Bush brought the father of the Israeli settler movement, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw every soldier and every settler from every square inch of Gaza in August 2005 in the largest test of the "land for peace" concept in Israeli-Palestinian history. You would think the experience of the Bush years would have led the Obama team to an opposite conclusion: If settlements had been the obstacle to peace, why did Sharon's removal of 8,000 settlers from 21 settlements lead to the rise of Hamas, thousands of Qassam rockets fired at Israel, and war instead of peace?

And they might reflect on the testimony of Elliott Abrams, who negotiated the Bush administration's compromises on the natural growth of settlements that the Obama team now disavows. "There were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank," Abrams wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation ... the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza. ... There was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to ... confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the 'Greater Israel' position. ... He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze."

And they should heed the words of Sharon's negotiator in that bargain, Dov Weisglass: "Final-status peace treaties ... will require many American guarantees and obligations, especially in respect to long-term security arrangements. Without these, it is doubtful whether an agreement can be reached. Yet if decision-makers in Israel ... discover, heaven forbid, that an American pledge is only valid as long as the president in question is in office, nobody will want such pledges."

The theory of "tough love" toward Israel is also failing the test, if it is intended to win concessions from the Palestinian side. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who just completed intensive negotiations with an outgoing Ehud Olmert government that was continuing "natural growth" of settlements within the agreed Bush limits, now says the incoming Benjamin Netanyahu government must "stop all settlement activities in order to resume peace talks over final status issues." His chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, adds, "There can be no half-solutions with regards to the settlements."

This is a hardening of the Palestinian position. Abbas did not cut off negotiations when Olmert said publicly to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in April 2008, "It was clear from day one to Abbas ... that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter. ... Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem ... areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement." Abbas continued meeting with the Olmert government. In fact, Erekat boasted to a Jordanian newspaper a few weeks ago that he and Abbas achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees -- all while the limited growth permitted by the Bush understandings continued.

Now, Obama has generated inflated and unsatisfiable expectations in the Arab world, a belief that the U.S. president can and will force total Israeli capitulation and an absolute freeze. The Los Angeles Times reports, "President Obama's public quarrel with Israel ... is developing into a test of the U.S. leader's international credibility, say foreign diplomats and other observers." Anything less than a 100 percent halt "will not only disappoint the Arabs whom the president has courted, but also will be read by adversaries around the globe as a signal that the president can be forced to back down." Or, as Erekat himself put it on Voice of Palestine radio, "If settlement continues ... Arabs and Palestinians [will] believe that the American administration is incapable of swaying Israel to halt its settlement activities." A prominent Palestinian observer, Ghassan Khatib, states, "Should the U.S. government ... fail to make Israel abide by its international commitments, especially regarding ending the expansion of settlements, it will sabotage efforts to renew the political process."

The Obama people might actually learn something from Abrams, who warns that, when eventually there is a compromise between the Obama and Netanyahu governments regarding settlements, the two sides will put "contrasting spins" on the agreement for their respective audiences. It will be difficult for the Obama administration to explain why there are what will be depicted by critics as loopholes. Maybe then they will ask themselves whether they were wise to do it with a public fight?

For now, they are still on the wrong track. Days ago, Israel's new ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was warned that the United States wants a halt to construction of 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded, "There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city's east." How could the administration believe that any major Israeli political party could possibly agree to making any part of Jerusalem Judenrein? Just how far do they plan to go with this policy of confrontation?

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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Accurately)

Iran's state television channel barely showed any of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's Friday prayers. In doing so, it only aired the state's crisis of legitimacy.

Every week since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the country's public television has broadcast the Friday prayers at the University of Tehran, at which powerful clerics outline the state's position and criticize its enemies.

Not last Friday. As former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was leading prayers, televisions were showing old footage of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad selecting his cabinet.

The event was truly historic. Rafsanjani -- a powerful conservative and supporter of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi -- spoke to a crowd estimated at 2 million. He called for internal peace and an end to protests. But he also used the pulpit to make a political argument, as tear gas from nearby streets caused those assembled to rub their eyes. He said the Islamic Republic of Iran needed saving from factionalism. He warned that the cavalier detention of citizens gave "foreign powers" an excuse to criticize the state. He emphasized the loss of public trust in the government due to the month-long crackdown in the wake of the contested presidential election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. He criticized Ahmadinejad's manipulation and harassment of the press.

Throughout the weekend, the state channel showed only anodyne snippets of Rafsanjani's prayers and comments. This decision demonstrates the domestic public-relations campaign that Ahmadinejad and his loyalists have undertaken to discredit the opposition and attempt to quell dissent. And it shows that Iran's crisis of legitimacy has reached its apotheosis.

Since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Friday sermon on June 19, state television has given one-sided reports on the unrest, showing footage of protesters and announcing disturbances in Tehran, though never giving the full picture. It has described any dissenters as instruments of foreign powers, beholden to the "Satanic forces" of Britain, Israel, and the United States. Foreign journalists are commonly described as agents trying to overthrow the regime, and students as beguiled by royalists -- despite the broad demographic base of those taking to the streets. One report, for instance, pinned a violent protest on armed students. (It did not explain why bullets allegedly shot by the students were the same as those of the Basij, a state-backed militia.)

The Iranian state's narrative of the crisis is an expression of xenophobia rather than a story of domestic conflict. Its central aim is to compete for public opinion with satellite television channels offering an alternative version of events. Iranian state TV more or less depicts the reality of protests and protesters every day, but offers a different explanation for them -- one that absolves the regime of any responsibility for the unrest.

State television also allows the administration to use "scare-straight" tactics, fitting with its narrative. Since the 1980s, the hard-liners have arrested their opponents, tortured them in prison, and then broadcast their "confessions" (generally, the opposition figures admit to being foreign traitors). Ayatollah Kazem Shariat-Madari was one of the first victims of this scheme -- he was ordered into internal exile in Iran after he confessed to knowing about a 1982 coup attempt. (The same alleged scandal led to the execution of the head of the state broadcasting system, an appointee of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.) These "confessions" -- once intermittent -- now take up hours on public broadcasting every day, paving the way for the prosecution of opposition figures without a semblance of a fair trial.

Most worryingly, Iran's broadcasting agency has started using the television channel for crowdsourcing. A program called Gerdab, sponsored by the Revolutionary Guards, shows the faces of Mousavi supporters and asks viewers to call in and identify them in order to "restore national security."

Such tactics are heavy-handed, but they are also unlikely to work for long.

In the past, the hard-liners have succeeded in blaming outsiders for internal dissent. Not so this time. Reformers in prisons and detention centers in Iran include top clerics, politicians, and public figures. These people are committed to the main tenants of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and charges that they are doing the bidding of foreigners are simply not seen as credible.

And now, Rafsanjani himself is a victim of the regime's stifling of any dissent. One of the Islamic Republic's founding fathers, he is surely impossible to credibly portray as a puppet of foreign powers. The state simply looks illegitimate by refusing to broadcast his prayers, laying bare the deep-rooted crisis the Iranian authorities are facing today.

Just don't expect to see that story on Iranian TV.

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