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March 05, 2010

The American national security case for forging Middle East peace
Posted by Joel Rubin

The U.S. has more than 200,000 troops engaged in conflicts across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, has grave concerns about the spread of weapons of mass destruction there, depends heavily on oil exported from the Persian Gulf and is attempting to end the "clash of civilizations" mentality that has plagued American-Muslim relations for the past decade.

All of these facts have a direct impact on American national security interests.

Therefore, with the imperative of protecting American national security in mind, President Obama concluded in 2009 that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help to bring stability to that region while supporting America’s long term security interests.

Importantly, this position did not conflict with either the Israeli or Palestinian public’s position on peacemaking.  It is well understood that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two state solution and are willing to make territorial compromises to get there.

It is also important to note that the administration’s position on Middle East peacemaking did not take place in a vacuum. Obama’s national security philosophy overall is rooted in the pursuit of policy goals through active American diplomacy, engagement and pragmatism.

And it now turns out that this is also a winning approach domestically, as it has become clear that Americans trust the president on national security. Yet even more importantly, Americans want to see results.

If there has been a lesson from the past year out of the health care debate, it is that Americans like to see their presidents both set and accomplish goals. The lack of a health care bill on the president’s desk, despite his calls for one, has hurt the president politically.  On the other hand, the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan — and its implementation — has helped the president politically.

The numbers bear this out. Don’t ask me. Ask Gallup, whose January 2010 poll corroborates this view.

In that poll, Obama scored better with the American public on national security issues than he did on domestic issues. Specifically, 49 percent of all Americans approved of Obama’s handling of terrorism and 47 percent of foreign affairs, compared to 40 percent for the economy and 37 percent for health care.

Nonetheless, despite the policy strengths and political support for Obama’s pursuit of Middle East peace, Israel’s staunchest defenders in Washington failed to strongly support him when he needed it most, thereby helping to doom the centerpiece of his national security policy on the Middle East in 2009.

Why is that? In particular, why did these groups and individuals politically undercut the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the peace process, especially when its resolution was so clearly aligned with American national security interests?

Ultimately, while the Palestinians are not blameless for the diplomatic stalemate, it is the Israelis and Americans who hold the overwhelming power in this relationship — meaning that the Americans and Israelis carry the main burden of resolving the conflict. It is therefore time for the United States. to expect more out of Israel when it comes to supporting American national security goals.

Yet unfortunately, the most recalcitrant American opponents of a restarted peace process, as well as the silent majority of Americans who enabled the pushback against the Obama approach, missed the forest for the trees.  They made arguments about why Israel couldn’t be expected to do what the president was asking them to do on settlements and negotiations, and instead never took into account the impact that this would have on American national security.

In a healthy relationship, both sides give a little. This truth was clearly lost on these Obama opponents, whose actions helped neither Israel nor the U.S. Obama’s approach is good for Israelis, Palestinians, and the United States, and it is past time for America’s Israel supporters to stand with the Obama administration in helping it to achieve its Middle East peace goals.

The moment is urgent. American security priorities are being damaged daily by the lack of a resolution to the conflict. The failure to have Middle East peace undermines American diplomatic credibility in the region, gives an excuse to extremist groups to foment anti-Americanism, and hampers America’s ability to be the guarantor of regional security and stability.

This situation must be reversed.  The status quo on the Middle East is a victory only for those who oppose American national security priorities.  The status quo is also a recipe for domestic political failure. Just look at the health care debate, which if it has taught us anything, it is that good policy seen to its conclusion is good politics.

It is time therefore for the United States to forge a Middle East peace in order to advance its national security interests, and it is time for American supporters of Israel to help the administration complete the job.

(This piece first appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle here.  The author's views are his own and do no necessarily reflect those of the National Security Network.)

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