Voice

Stop Blaming Bibi

Sorry, folks: Benjamin Netanyahu is not the reason there is no Middle East peace.

It's been a bad month for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister has been hammered for being trigger-happy on Iran, he won't see his good friend Barack Obama at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and he's being blasted for intervening in American politics.

It's not the first time that the world has united in blaming Bibi for the Middle East's ills. As FP's own Josh Rogin reported, this time last year former President Bill Clinton was holding forth on why we don't have a peace process, and his view boils down to this: There's this guy Netanyahu -- he's a jerk and is unwilling to accept the terms I offered at Camp David as the basis for a settlement with the Palestinians. In a stunning assertion, Clinton said: "[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before -- my deal -- that they would take it."

I really like Bill Clinton. I used to work for the guy. But let's be clear. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a much better deal than Clinton offered Yasir Arafat. The Palestinians didn't accept it.

I'm aware of all the reasons many rational and right-thinking people want to pin the rap for the current impasse with the Palestinians and the bad U.S.-Israeli relationship on Bibi. And the Israeli prime minister certainly deserves a large share of the blame.

Bibi is no pushover. We dealt with him during the Clinton years and -- to use a Bush 41 phrase -- he was a tough trader. My views on what Israel should or shouldn't do on the Palestinian issue are different than his.

Still, I like Bibi all the same. He's a smart guy in a tough spot, and though he unceasingly seems to make his own situation worse, he doesn't have many easy choices. These days, no Israeli leader does.

Then there's the inconvenient fact that Netanyahu is (once again) the duly elected prime minister of Israel. Given Israel's peculiar parliamentary system, there's a reason why only he was in a position to put together a workable coalition. This fact generates a certain legitimacy of its own, which American leaders are obliged to respect.

Still, is Clinton right?  Is Bibi the key reason we aren't on the verge of a conflict-ending accord between Israel and the Palestinians?

There's no denying that Netanyahu is more intransigent on some key questions than other Israeli politicians. Bibi is expanding settlements in the West Bank, won't share Jerusalem, and is adamantly against any compromise on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. If Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz, or Ehud Olmert were in charge and had a supportive coalition, the situation would clearly improve.

But what are the current chances of reaching a conflict-ending agreement under those guys, or for that matter any Israeli prime minister? As the late Yitzhak Rabin, himself a two-time Israeli prime minister, used to say when faced with a scenario he thought unrealistic, "You can forget about it." The peace process is temporarily closed for the season, and not just because of Netanyahu. What follows isn't a brief for Bibi -- it's a brief for reality.

Palestinians

The peace process has always required two hands -- sometimes three -- clapping. And while there is a Palestinian partner (maybe even two with Fatah and Hamas), like the Israelis, the Palestinians are a very complex lot.

The Palestinian national movement today is in profound crisis. As I've written before, it's like Noah's Ark -- there are two of everything: prime ministers, security services, constitutions, foreign patrons, geographic polities, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And these divisions aren't going away. If anything, they're hardening.

Want to blame Palestinian dysfunction on the Israeli occupation? Go ahead, if it makes you feel better. But it won't change the harsh reality that without Palestinian unity that produces one authority and one negotiating position, there won't be a serious dialogue, let alone a Palestinian state.

And Palestinians themselves have to face the inconvenient truth that a state's viability lies in its capacity to maintain a monopoly over violence in its own society. Without it, frankly, no state can maintain the respect of its neighbors or its own citizens. Are we going to blaming Fatah' s dysfunction and Hamas's viability on Bibi too?

Gaps

If I hear one more time that we're "this close" to an agreement, I'm going to toss my lunch. Even if we were, it's the political will that's missing -- not the clever diplomatic formulae. And we're not even close in any case. On Jerusalem, refugees, security, and even the borders of the prospective Palestinian state, there are wide differences between Israel and the Palestinians -- and within the Israeli and Palestinian camps, too. This silly notion that everyone knows generally what the solution will be -- and that therefore getting there should be easy -- only trivializes how hard it's going to be to reach a conflict-ending accord. Details matter.

The Arabs

I can only chuckle now when I recall those who made the argument that the so-called Arab Spring would make it easier to deal with Arab-Israeli peace. Some said that now that the Arabs were democratizing, Israel would want to reach out. Others used the reverse argument: Now that Arab populism had gotten rid of the acquiescent, pro-American autocrats, Israel would have no choice but to settle up before the Palestinian problem radicalized the whole region.

Forget the demonizing or the idealizing. What the Arab Spring wrought above all was uncertainty, and a new populism that brought with it anti-Israel and anti-American tropes. Instead of making Israel more willing to deal -- or so fearful that it had no choice but to settle -- changes in the Arab world produced neither sufficient incentives nor disincentives to compel a shift in the status quo. Instead of bold moves, the watch word was risk-aversion, not risk readiness.

Iran

You heard it here first. There will be no Israeli-Palestinian deal until there's much more clarity on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. Regardless of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is America's next president, Iran will be the dominant issue over the next year. These are the issues that strategists across the globe will be occupied with: Will there be a military strike by Israel or the United States? Can high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy put together a grand bargain? Or will we see more of the same -- the continuation of sanctions and the perpetuation of a cold war between Iran and the West?

In any event, there will be very little room or incentive for serious moves toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, particularly on the Israeli side. Indeed, Israel has so teed up the urgency of dealing with Iran in 2012 that it's almost unimaginable 2013 won't bring some decision point. If it's military action, the chances of any peace process in the face of the subsequent regional turmoil would be slim. Indeed, in many respects, there's no greater drag on the peace process right now than the focus on Iran's nuclear program.

Face the Facts

Netanyahu not only shapes Middle East politics, he is also a product of his political surroundings. To regard him -- and much of the country he leads -- as solipsistic entities that exist in a vacuum independent of other factors, some of which are beyond Israel's control, is ridiculous.

The Palestinian house is a mess not just because of Israel -- the differences between Hamas and Fatah are real and durable. Neither Barak nor Olmert could reach an agreement, either. As for the Israeli people, it's not unreasonable to assume their current conservative attitude and interest in peace is shaped by their own assessment of how their neighbors are behaving. And that's not an altogether rosy picture, to say the least.

We can choose to pretend that the main obstacle standing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian peace is Bibi. That explanation suits our need to personalize problems, find easily digestible answers, and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a morality play that pits the forces of right against wrong. But it's also fundamentally incorrect: Netanyahu may not be the Israeli leader capable of leading his country to a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians, but he's not the single most important or only reason we don't have one.

I'm actually surprised that a guy as smart as Clinton -- who knows the world's a complex place -- feels that way. But then again, maybe not. At Camp David in July 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for not accepting his peace plan. Now, he's blaming Netanyahu and the Israeli public for the same thing. Clinton is right to be concerned that there's no serious peace process. But let's at least be honest about why we don't have one.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Reality Check

Handle With Care

Can Mitt Romney be trusted with the Middle East?

In a testy exchange with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, James Baker, then the U.S. secretary of state, set a standard in fantasy counterfactuals that I was sure could never be topped.

Responding to Assad, who wanted the United States to force Israel off the Golan Heights, Baker bluntly responded, "Yeah, and if a frog could fly, it wouldn't drag its balls on the ground."

I was wrong. Last week's assertion by a Mitt Romney advisor that, had his guy been president, the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi might not have taken place takes fantastical thinking to new levels.

After all, Baker was just kidding. Romney's guy may actually have been serious.

What's going on here? Is the Romney claim willful delusion -- just plain old campaign bluster -- or is there a serious point hiding behind the politics and the hyperbole?

Counterfactuals are fascinating exercises. What would have happened to the United States during the Great Depression and World War II if on that night in Miami in February 1933, one month before he was to be inaugurated, a mentally ill Italian bricklayer had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR? The world will never know -- but that won't stop anyone from speculating.

But in this case, the assertions of Romney's foreign policy prowess are a useful point of departure to offer up a few observations on the governor and his putative approach to the Middle East.

Before we start, some disclosure is in order. This really isn't a partisan political analysis. I worked and voted for Republicans and Democrats and am not attached, affiliated, or all that enamored by either campaign.

In fact I've come to identify the key dividing line for success in American political life as one not between left or right, Democratic or Republican, or liberal or conservative -- but between dumb and smart. And I want to be on the smart side.

So what are we to make of Romney's "I can protect America in the Middle East better than you can" claims?

First, without engaging in any gratuitous Romney bashing, I think it's pretty evident to any objective observer that he hasn't turned in a terribly strong performance to date on the foreign-policy front. He's had more than his allowed quota of gaffes. By criticizing the Brits as Olympic hosts in the midst of one of the happier times in their national life since they lost their Empire and offending the Palestinians by praising Israeli culture, Romney demonstrated a propensity for wandering off the highway into irrelevancies and self-inflicted wounds.

The governor's own views on critical issues -- such as the "red line" for an American  strike against Iran's nuclear sites --  have also been confusing and ambiguous. As recently as last week, Romney was still offering contradictory assessments of the threshold for military action: Was it Iran's acquiring the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, or producing the weapon itself?

Then of course there was the ill-timed, ill-advised blast at President Barack Obama's alleged weakness and fecklessness in responding to the attack on the Cairo embassy -- a statement that proved to be somewhat premature, and sent a signal that the governor had been too eager to jump on Obama and to politicize a foreign policy issue at the wrong time.

None of this, of course, is fatal. Candidates have been exaggerating and sticking their feet in their mouths since the early days of the republic. And with a little spit, polish, and a few good talking points and briefings, these candidates  -- red, blue, purple -- have done quite well as president on the foreign-policy front.

But Romney and his advisers ought to show a little humility. They (and he) haven't turned in an Oscar-winning performance so far, nor one that generates much confidence about how Romney would perform in his counterfactual presidency. What's more, the idea that President Romney could have prevented the current tide of attacks and protests against U.S. diplomatic missions is either excessive narcissism, willful self delusion, or just plain ignorance.

What has been loosed in the Middle East cannot be laid solely at Obama's feet. It is a perfect storm of sorts -- the confluence of profound anti-American sentiment that has built for years under Republican and Democratic administrations alike and has now been catalyzed by the Arab Spring, which has allowed public opinion to play a greater role in how events unfold across the region. Islamists eager to assert themselves against the West are using offenses against Islam to mobilize public opinion, and new governments (some Islamist) are much more hesitant to use force to control their own people and may actually see advantage in playing to the crowds.

To imagine that a Romney presidency -- with its muscular rhetoric and focus on an "America, right or wrong" ethos -- could have preempted these broad forces strains the bounds of credulity. Here's a counterfactual for you: Romney's holier-than-thou attitude could have easily made the situation worse.

That's not to say there aren't legitimate critiques of how Obama has handled the Middle East. Instead of going after the president with a two-by-four, the Romney campaign could have legitimately drilled down with more scalpel-like precision.

Should the administration have been clearer and tougher with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy when he was elected? Should they have made it unmistakable that he shouldn't confuse U.S. acceptance of his legitimate electoral victory with its staunch opposition to any Egyptian government effort to acquiesce in or promote anti-American views? Was the administration vigilant enough when it came to assessing the threat to its diplomats, particularly in a place like Libya, which has become the Arab Wild West since Qaddafi's fall?

But hindsight is always 20/20, and there's absolutely no indication that Romney -- given his gaffes, exaggerations, and muddled messaging so far -- would have been anymore sure-footed in the face of the momentous changes in the Arab world than Obama has been. Actually, after an initial period of wishful thinking (and acting) Obama seems to have emerged as a pretty competent steward of America's foreign policy.

Listening to Romney's boosters, you'd think that on the two core foreign-policy issues that had intruded on the campaign before the current outbreak of violence -- Israel and the Iranian nuclear issue -- a Romney presidency would have ushered in nothing short of a era of brilliant successes, tough action, and deft diplomacy.

I put these counterfactuals in the illusion category: There's no doubt that had Romney been president over the past four years, the U.S.-Israeli relationship, at a personal level, would have been much improved. (Though the governor's assertion that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus" is one of the most ridiculous statements I've heard on the subject in a long time.) Romney is more in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush "we love Israel" category than in the Obama "it's important that we have daylight between us" box.

Much of the improvement, however, would have resulted from Romney not dealing with the peace process or Israeli settlements at all. While I think Obama muffed both of these issues, Romney would probably have ignored them -- hardly a boon for American interests. The governor's latest gaffe, which seems to betray at best a nonchalance about the importance of Middle East peace and at worst a hostility toward Palestinians, won't do much to inspire faith in his competence either.

Finally, as hard as I try, I cannot identify the significant differences between Mitt Romney's Iran policy and Obama's approach. I'm not at all sure the governor can see them either. He seems a bit confused about whether he would urge force to preempt Iran from acquiring a capacity to produce a nuke, or only once it has a weapon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws little distinction here -- so perhaps Romney might be more inclined to give Bibi a green light to use force. Though I wonder if Romney were in Obama's shoes now -- 50 days before an election -- whether he too wouldn't be the "not now" president, in large part because of the uncertainties an Israeli attack would introduce.

Like all counterfactuals, this one ends with several questions we can't answer with any certainty. Would Mitt Romney be a better foreign policy president than Barack Obama? And WWMRD in the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East in which America is stuck?

I don't really know. But given his track record so far, I'm not in all that big a hurry to find out.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images