Blood or Treasure? Obama's Crucial Choice in the Middle East

Writing about U.S. Middle East policy used to be a
boring job. You'd start out with "The U.S. supports Israel's stand
on..." and then just fill in the details. No longer. Many pundits
claim to smell the winds of policy change blowing from the White House.
Every word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the president or
his advisors is now parsed by journalists like so many soothsayers
studying oracle bones.

Writing about U.S. Middle East policy used to be a
boring job. You'd start out with "The U.S. supports Israel's stand
on..." and then just fill in the details. No longer. Many pundits
claim to smell the winds of policy change blowing from the White House.
Every word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the president or
his advisors is now parsed by journalists like so many soothsayers
studying oracle bones.

Mr. Obama himself remains as cryptic as those bones and as open to divergent interpretations. At a recent press conference ,
he cautioned that "the two sides may say to themselves, 'We are not
prepared to resolve these issues no matter how much pressure the United
States brings to bear.'"

Aha! said the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz , Obama thinks peace "may be beyond reach." Meanwhile, over at the Jerusalem Post , the headline was: "Obama: U.S. Cannot Impose Peace."

In the same breath, though, the president added: "It is a vital
national security interest of the United States to reduce these
conflicts because... when conflicts break out, one way or another, we get
pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of
both blood and treasure."

Blood and treasure ... Aha! the New York Times exclaimed ,
the president is signaling "a renewed determination to reinsert himself
into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute." "Obama's recalibration of U.S.
Middle East diplomacy is ground-shifting," Times columnist Roger Cohen reported from Jerusalem. "He's being pummeled from the usual quarters but he'll stay the course." Noam Chomsky, however, speaks
for the many skeptical observers who expect Obama to stay on the old
course of U.S. backing for Israel's domination of the Palestinians.

Yet rumors of change are distinctly in the air. "If
Israeli-Palestinian talks remain stalemated into September or October,
[Obama] will convene an international summit on achieving Mideast
peace," says one typical report . The U.S. will no longer veto "UN security council condemnation of any significant new Israeli settlement activity," says another . The U.S. will push for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, says a third .

Some Washington insiders claim that Obama intends to propose his own peace plan. Obama denies this, but were he to change his mind, Bill Clinton, for one, says he would "strongly support it." When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was questioned
about the possibility and he responded only, "That time is not now," he
left plenty of room for speculation that the time might be coming soon.

Such speculation is rife in Israel, where the editors of Ha'aretz advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "accede to Obama's recommendations, lest it end with an imposed settlement."

So far there's nothing but a riot of rumors. Still, most of those
rumors have been floated -- think "trial balloon" -- by some faction
inside the Beltway, if not inside the administration itself. Right
now, the rumor mill may be the strongest weapon of those insiders eager
to push U.S. policy in a new direction when it comes to Israel. In that
sense, the unprecedented buzz of speculation already in the air could
be considered their first victory: opening up the possibility of a
serious debate in Washington (at last) about the realities of the
Middle East and American policy.

Right-wingers are, in turn, mobilizing to quash that debate before
it really begins. Whether they succeed -- and what Obama actually does
in the end -- depends largely on how much countervailing pressure he

Certainly, a heated discussion on the left is now focused on
precisely what steps the U.S. should take to curb the Israelis and gain
justice for the Palestinians -- a vital question, to be sure. Yet
there's a curious scarcity of discussion about why the administration
is opening up room for debate now and, should it recalibrate policy,
what its ultimate aims will be. Those questions deserve careful
attention -- and they turn out to be closely linked to each other.

Protecting Troops or Interests?

Obama seemed to explain his motives succinctly enough when he
offered that striking warning about the risks to American "blood and
treasure." According to the New York Times ,
he was "drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife
and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism
and terrorism," echoing a recent warning from Centcom commander General
David Petraeus, the man in charge of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Apparently this new message from the military elite, more than
anything else, is moving the Obama administration toward pressing the
Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, to make real concessions for
peace. As journalist Mark Perry, who first broke the Petraeus story, says: no DC lobby -- not even the Israel lobby -- "is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military."

But are U.S. military lives really the Pentagon's chief concern? As the Times
added in passing, Petraeus "has denied reports that he was suggesting
that soldiers were being put in harm's way by American support for
Israel." The general's denial was quite accurate. When he briefed the
Senate Armed Services Committee, he said nothing about troops. What he
said was that "anti-American sentiments" fomented by the Israeli-Arab
conflict "present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our
interests" in what Washington still likes to call the Greater Middle
East. According to Perry, the Pentagon's private warning to the White
House, too, was only about threats to U.S. "interests."

The sole administration official who may have issued a warning
specifically about danger to U.S. troops was Vice President Joe Biden,
who reportedly
told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "What you're doing here
undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq,
Afghanistan, and Pakistan."

Troops or interests? The distinction is far from trivial.
"Interests" are measured in national wealth and power, not the quality
of individual lives. So here's the crucial question overlooked by most
observers tracking Obama's every halting step when it comes to Middle
East policy: Is the administration's highest goal to protect blood or
treasure, human lives or American interests? It cannot do both and so,
sooner or later, it -- or a succeeding administration -- will have to
choose one or the other.

That choice will be critical if the administration does indeed plan to change the Middle East status quo .
Not even Obama's most eloquent words will be enough to get the job
done. Palestinian Authority leaders have shown that they won't come to
the negotiating table in a serious way without concrete evidence that
they'll achieve a viable state of their own. To achieve anything less
would doom them in future elections.

On the other side, as Tony Karon has written , until there is a "downside to the status quo
for Israel... things are unlikely to change." So if the Obama
administration is going to go down in history as the author of an
Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, it must do what Bill Clinton never
did: Put together the right package of sticks and carrots.

It really could happen. No conflict goes on forever, and no
political leaders are immune to carefully crafted pressures and
inducements. But again, the president and his advisors will have to
make the most basic of decisions: blood or imperial treasure?

Here's how the options look at the moment:

Convincing Divided Palestinians: The Obama administration has already dangled a big fat carrot in front of the Palestinian Authority: Biden's statement in Ramallah that the U.S. is "fully committed" to achieving a Palestinian state "that is independent, viable, and contiguous."

The Palestine Liberation Organization rejected
Clinton's peace parameters in 2000 because they would "divide a
Palestinian state into three separate cantons connected and divided by
Jewish-only and Arab-only roads and jeopardize a Palestinian state's
viability." In fact, every plan Israel has ever offered, or even hinted
at accepting, would leave a new Palestinian state as an "archipelago"
(as the New York Times put it ) of disconnected patches of land.

If, however, the U.S. turns Biden's word -- "contiguous" -- into a
binding commitment, encompassing virtually all of the West Bank and
Gaza, it would be hard for the Palestinians to walk away. It would be
even harder if the U.S. offered another feasible and very green carrot:
a promise of many dollars flowing for many years from Washington to
Palestine. That's how Jimmy Carter bought peace between Israel and
Egypt in 1978 by promising billions dollars of aid to both sides (money
still flowing by the billions today).

Aid to Palestine could be presented as compensation to the
Palestinians who fled their lands and homes in 1948, which might help
defuse the "right of return" issue. Many Palestinians would express
understandable outrage, but when former Chairman of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization Yasir Arafat wrote in a 2002 New York Times op-ed
that "Palestinians must be realistic with respect to Israel's
demographic desires," he was clearly signaling that a deal could be
cut. Palestinian leaders reportedly offered the same deal to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two years ago.

If such a U.S. plan is to succeed, however, these carrots must be
accompanied by a stick: forcing the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to
share power with Hamas. Any peace agreement that excludes Hamas is, in
the long run, likely to fail.

This raises the crucial "blood versus treasure" question for the Obama administration. Thus far it has followed its predecessor in doing its best to pry the two Palestinian parties apart, while labeling Hamas a "terrorist" group bent on Israel's destruction.

As Israeli commentator Uri Avnery recently wrote ,
the continuing Fatah-Hamas split "is, to a large extent, made in the
U.S. and Israel... The Americans have a primitive model of the world,
inherited from the days of the Wild West: everywhere there are Good
Guys and Bad Guys. In Palestine, the Good Guys are the Palestinian
Authority people, the Bad Guys are Hamas."

In Washington, though, the really bad guys are the leaders of Iran,
who seem bent on challenging American regional hegemony in the oil-rich
treasure chest of the Greater Middle East. As part of its overarching
plan to forge a pan-Arab, anti-Iranian coalition, the U.S. woos the
Palestinian Authority while demonizing Hamas as an Iranian stooge. To
do so, it must ignore the palpable softening of Hamas's positions, especially toward Israel.

If the administration insists on pursuing its quixotic crusade
against Iran by presenting a peace plan that excludes Hamas, the plan
will probably be doomed from the start (as will any chance of wooing
Hamas away from Iranian influence). In this way as in so many others,
the U.S. imperial policy of containing, or even destroying, the present
Iranian regime traps Washington in an endless tangle of contradictions, while maintaining an unpalatable status quo
that leaves millions of lives in danger -- all for the sake of
protecting American dominance in the Middle East. Think of that as the
treasure option.

A U.S. policy that elevated blood -- human lives -- over imperial
treasure would demand a power-sharing rapprochement between the
Palestinian Authority and Hamas in a single state, including the West
Bank and an unbesieged Gaza, that would be free to shape its own
foreign policy. Hamas is unlikely to accept Washington's calls
for "moderation" that are only coded demands to accept U.S. hegemony.
Genuine Palestinian independence is the only way to end the bloodshed
in the region.

Convincing Reluctant Israelis : The current Israeli
government seems determined to prevent that outcome at all costs. What
might induce the Israelis to change their minds? The most obvious
political weapon would be a reduction in military aid, which the U.S.
now supplies to the tune of more than $3 billion a year. Though enthusiasm for Israel may be waning slightly in Congress -- mainly among Democrats -- there is, at present, no prospect that Congress would agree to cut that aid.

Israeli journalist Amos Harel suggests
that there may be no need to follow through on such a move. A mere
leak "about an intention to reconsider the extent of U.S. military aid"
-- something easy enough for the administration to arrange -- could
suffice, shaking confidence in Israel's long-term economic success and,
Harel predicts, "affecting the credit rating so dear to the hearts of
economists. Israel's security dependence on the United States is

That's an intriguing speculation, but it doesn't get much attention
in Israel, where commentators focus much more on another kind of
dependence. There's a growing fear there that the world increasingly sees it (as a leading Israeli think tank has warned) as an illegitimate pariah state.

The country's president, Shimon Peres, recently said flatly :
"Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the
United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of
need." Lots of Israeli voters seem to agree. The majority "dread the
global isolation of Israel," Bernard Avishai has written
from Jerusalem. He calls them "the party of America," because without
continuing strong support from Washington, they fear Israel will be
left isolated, with no dependable allies at all.

Columnist Shmuel Rosner, hardly a dove, predicts
that if Obama "signaled that Israel could no longer take unconditional
US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu's domestic support would quickly
evaporate." Again, perhaps no more than a strong signal with a hint of
real muscle behind it could get a genuine peace process rolling.

Though this issue is largely ignored in the American mainstream
media, it's huge in Israel. In fact, only one foreign policy issue is
larger in the Israeli public's mind -- not the conflict with the
Palestinians, but the fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon. No matter how
fictional Iran's nukes may be and how real the Israeli nuclear arsenal,
the Israeli fear of Iran is all too genuine.

That's why, along with its veiled threats, the administration has
been dangling a juicy carrot for the Israelis, too: a promise of strong
anti-Iranian measures, which would make it much easier for Netanyahu
(or any Israeli leader) to accept an imposed peace plan and survive

Yet Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters are hardly grateful.
They rightly see the U.S. playing the anti-Iranian card to pressure
them into making what they consider totally unpalatable compromises
with the Palestinians. And they resent it. Their mantra is
"de-linking" the two issues. They want the U.S. to ramp up the pressure
on Iran without putting any further pressure on Israel to move toward a two-state solution.

The Twisted Web of Empire

The Obama administration has so far refused to consider this
possibility. Apparently it's interested only in a peace that serves
imperial interests, that protects the "treasure" of regional influence,
not to say domination, in the oil heartlands of the planet.

From Washington, the seat of empire, every conflict looks like a
strand in a single web that spans the globe. All the contradictions in
its Middle East policy are tangled threads in that twisted web. As long
as the ultimate goal is to preserve imperial power, "de-linking" is not
an option anywhere, and certainly not in such a vital region. Nor will
an imperial U.S. risk the possibility of a less-than-subservient
Palestinian government, one perhaps even friendly toward Iran.

If the administration were, however, to place blood above treasure,
it would concede that the Israeli right-wingers are indeed right about
the necessity of de-linking, though for the wrong reasons. The Israelis
want the U.S. to put all the focus on some imagined future threat from
Iran, while ignoring the current suffering and injustices inflicted on
the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation.

The alternative, truly life-saving course would be to drop the
hysterical fear-mongering about Iran and its as-yet-nonexistent bomb,
while insisting on a viable, contiguous, independent Palestinian state,
with guarantees of security for both Palestine and Israel. Only that
way can the blood of Palestinians, Israelis, and American troops be
protected. All of them would be much safer if a real Palestinian state
were to come into existence with a government open to all political

If the odds on such a development are long right now, the flurry of
rumor and speculation suggests that everything about Washington's
Middle East policy is, at least, in flux and unpredictable. It all
depends on the climate here at home. As the public's pro-Israel tilt
wanes -- especially among Obama's Democratic base -- the political price for forceful U.S. intervention goes down.

The brewing debate about U.S. Middle East policy could, and should,
spawn a larger debate here on the question: Is empire the path to
national security or the greatest threat to national security? Which
do we value more: blood or treasure?

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