When people follow issues for many years they usually develop coherent perspectives and positions. One can argue with them, disagree with them, debate them, or question them, but if they are based in reality you have to at least acknowledge them. David Ignatius has a long history of reporting and commenting about the Middle East. I usually consider Ignatius to be one of the more sober and clear-eyed commentators when it comes to regional matters.
This is important if you are talking about the future based on the past. The logical contortions and rhetorical ploys used by people to advance their agendas in this area of conflict are legion. Sometimes you need a whole bag of salt to swallow the talking points. However, in his most recent column, Ignatius pulled a new trick I had not seen from him before. I find it intellectually offensive because it attempts to undermine a significant policy change here in a very cynical way.
The issue is the settlement freeze.
Ignatius works his magic in his current Op-ed piece, which is a syndicated column appearing around the world.
He begins by noting
Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, seemed perplexed during his visit to Washington this month: At a time when America and Israel agreed on all the big issues - from Iran and North Korea to Afghanistan and Pakistan - how could the little issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank get in the way?He then goes on to explain that most of the current Israeli confusion is due to the fact that since the Nixon administration (as noted in one of his earlier columns), American foreign policy regarding the settlements has been consistent. Consistently two-faced. In public the settlements are decried while in private the Israelis are given the go-ahead. This was true for every administration from Nixon to Bush.
However, this time things are different. One of Obama's biggest applause lines in Cairo was his promise that his adminsitration would say the same thing in private that it says in public. Ignatius notes in his current piece that this policy has been put into practice.
The tough line on settlements starts with President Barack Obama, who made clear his opposition from his first days in office. He is backed by Vice President Joe Biden and Clinton, both former senators and longtime supporters of Israel.The result of this solid front is that it stymied Netanyahu's recent attempts to do an end-run around the White House and appeal directly to members of congress. That strategy has routinely worked in the past when a recalcitrant White House has sought to rein in Israeli policy. But not this time.
An influential hawk on the issue is Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a former member of the House Democratic leadership. Emanuel has special credibility as a strong defender of Israel's security. His father was born in Jerusalem and was a member of the militant underground organization known as the Irgun.
So what we have is a face-off brewing between the Obama administration on the one hand firmly set in its clearly articulated position, and the Netanyahu coalition government that is firmly committed to continuing the long-standing practice of land appropriation through whatever means are available.
A lot of the positioning will depend on the stability and resilience of these two governments. There is no doubt which one is stronger, which one has more popular support, and which one is more stable. That would be the Obama administration. No one is betting on an early election or even Democratic loss of control in the congress. Netanyahu, on the other hand, may wind up splintering his coalition for a variety of reasons. That calculus is not lost on the Obama administration. Ignatius confirms this.
The White House believes that if it comes to a showdown, Netanyahu will compromise. His coalition government, the administration reasons, is too weak to sustain an open break with its key ally, the United States. If Netanyahu defies the US, his coalition will splinter. The administration is already talking with Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and defense minister, who might form a new government if Netanyahu falls.Up to that point, everything Ignatius is saying is pretty straightforward and above board. However, following that to its logical conclusion means Israel would have to stop the land appropriations -- whether through "natural growth" or unofficially tolerated squatting. This is where Ignatius pulls his deceit.
That doesn't mean any breakthroughs are imminent, however. The more the administration pressures Israel, the more concessions the Arabs seem to want.That's interesting. He has named Israeli officials involved in this face-off. He has named US officials involved in this face-off. Leaving aside for the moment that "Arabs" are not a country, who does he cite on the Arab side to support his contention that this is not a path towards "land for peace" but just a slippery slope to ever-increasing concessions?
It's a hardheaded strategy, but it has one big flaw: The Obama team is assuming that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations - which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions. But that hope appears to be misplaced.I am not suggesting Ignatius made up the quotes. However, I find it notable he failed to provide a single name of a single Arab able to speak with any authority on this matter. Instead, he "balances" the article by providing an unnamed "senior Arab diplomat" to make the case for the Israelis. That is a transparent ploy and damages Ignatius' credibilty as an objective observer.
"What will I do in exchange for a settlements freeze? Nothing," says a senior Arab diplomat. "We're not interested in confidence-building, or a step-by-step approach," he continues. Instead, the Arabs would like Obama to spell out the details of a final agreement, now. "Unless we define the endgame, this will be a road map to nowhere," the Arab diplomat argues.
Ignatius quotes Rahm Emanuel as saying:
Emanuel has argued that if the Israelis insist on expanding settlements, "You're doing it on your own dime. We don't want our credibility to be compromised as you work out your domestic politics. We're not going to pay for that one."That key point is a game-changer. In one fell swoop it does double duty. First, it unmasks the Israeli canard that settlements enhance their security. Second, it raises a serious question Ignatius conveniently ignores. What makes Ignatius think this administration is going to be more accomodating of despotic Arab regimes that have less legitimacy than the Israeli government? People are already pointing to the recent elections in Lebanon as a victory for the Obama administration. I'm sure that lesson has not been lost on the other regimes in the region. I don't know who the "senior Arab diplomat" is that Ignatius cites, but I will bet money he is not from Syria.
Like the poker player at the helm, there's no question Obama's staff understands the importance of credibility when it comes to placing bets. If Ignatius wants to continue playing the game, he shouldn't be so quick to squander his credibility. He will need it if he doesn't want people calling his bluffs.