Thomas Friedman: Obama has too much homework to focus on Middle East

Thomas FriedmanNovember 12, 2012 

Israeli friends have been asking me whether a re-elected President Barack Obama will take revenge on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the way he and Sheldon Adelson, his foolhardy financier, openly backed Mitt Romney. My answer to Israelis is this: You should be so lucky.

You should be so lucky that the president feels he has the time, energy and political capital to spend wrestling with Bibi to forge a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I don't see it anytime soon. Obama has his marching orders from the American people: Focus on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not on Bethlehem, Palestine, and focus on getting us out of quagmires (Afghanistan) not into them (Syria). No, my Israeli friends, it's much worse than you think: You're home alone.

Of course, no one here will tell you that. To the contrary, there will surely be a new secretary of state visiting you next year with the umpteenth road map for "confidence-building measures" between Israelis and Palestinians. He or she may even tell you that "this is the year of decision." Be careful. We've been there before. If you Google "Year of decision in the Middle East," you'll get more than 100,000,000 links.

Is this good for Israel? No. It is unhealthy. The combination of America's internal focus, the post-Arab awakening turmoil and the exhaustion of Palestinians means Israel can stay in the West Bank indefinitely at a very low short-term cost but at a very high long-term cost of losing its identity as a Jewish democracy. If Israelis want to escape that fate, it is very important that they understand that we're not your grandfather's America anymore.

To begin with, the rising political force in America is not the one with which Bibi has aligned Israel. As the Israeli columnist Ari Shavit noted in the newspaper Haaretz last week: "In the past, both the Zionist movement and the Jewish state were careful to be identified with the progressive forces in the world. ... But in recent decades more and more Israelis took to leaning on the reactionary forces in American society. It was convenient to lean on them. The evangelists didn't ask difficult questions about the settlements, the tea party people didn't say a word about excluding women and minorities or about Jewish settlers' attacks and acts of vandalism against Palestinians and peace activists. The Republican Party's white, religious, conservative wing was not agitated when the Israeli Supreme Court was attacked and the rule of law in Israel was trampled." Israel, Shavit added, assumed that "under the patronage of a radical, rightist America we can conduct a radical, rightist policy without paying the price." No more. Netanyahu can still get a standing ovation from the Israel lobby, but not at UCLA.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers have learned that the Middle East only puts a smile on our faces when it starts with them: with Israelis and Arabs. Camp David started with them. Oslo started with them. The Arab Spring started with them. When they have ownership over peace or democracy movements, those initiatives can be self-sustaining. We can amplify what they start, but we can't create it. We can provide the mediation and even the catering, but it's got to start with them.

We've learned something else from our interventions in Afghanistan and Libya: We willed the ends, but we did not will the means -- that is, doing all that it would take to transform those societies. That is why we're quitting Afghanistan, staying out of Syria and relying on sanctions, as long as possible, to dissuade Iran from building a nuclear bomb. These countries are too hard to fix but too dangerous to ignore. We'll still try to help, but we'll expect regional powers, and the locals, to assume more responsibility.

Finally, we really have work to do at home. Soon Americans will be asked to pay more taxes for less government. It's coming. It will not make us isolationists, but it will change our mood and make us much pickier about where we'll get involved. That means only a radical change by Palestinians or Israelis will get us to fully re-engage.

The other day, in an interview with Israel's Channel 2, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority declared: "Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. This is Palestine. I am a refugee. I live in Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel."

This was a big signal, but Bibi scorned it. The Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote an open letter to Netanyahu in Haaretz, taking him to task: "This is a bit embarrassing, but I will remind you, Mr. Netanyahu, that you were elected to lead Israel precisely in order to discern these rare hints of opportunity, in order to transform them into a possible lever to extricate your country from the impasse in which it has been stuck for decades."

So my best advice to Israelis is: Focus on your own election -- on Jan. 22 -- not ours. I find it very sad that in a country with so much human talent, the Israeli center and left still can't agree on a national figure who could run against Netanyahu and his thuggish partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- a man whose commitment to democracy is closer to Vladimir Putin's than Thomas Jefferson's. Don't count on America to ride to the rescue. It has to start with you.

My president is busy.


Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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