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An e-newsletter delivering updates and analysis on current issues about Israel and the Middle East conflict

October 6, 2009

Obama pressures Palestinians to back off U.N.'s Goldstone Report, signaling a possible return to realism in Middle East strategy

Dear Friend of FLAME:

Last week the U.N.'s laughably misnamed Human Rights Council issued its Goldstone Report, which unsurprisingly heaped most of the blame for war crimes during the 2008 Gaza War on Israel, while giving Hamas a verbal slap on the wrist for 12,000 rocket attacks against Israeli civilians over the five years before Israel finally invaded.

This report recommended that unless Israel satisfactorily investigates these allegations, the Jewish state should be hauled before the International Criminal Court and prosecuted.

Suffice it to say, the Goldstone Report is a travesty---a mostly one-sided collection of half-truths, fabrications and biased interpretations, which give Israel absolutely no benefit of the doubt in its restrained attempt to defeat Hamas terrorists hiding among Gaza civilians.   

Had the U.N. adopted the Report's recommendations, it would not only have been an insult to Israel, but would also have implicitly condemned any nation that sought to defend itself from cross-border terrorist attacks. Perhaps more importantly, it would have undermined any possibility of bringing Israel and the Palestinians together for peace negotiations, a goal to which President Obama is so fervently committed.

Thankfully, on Friday the U.N. Human Rights Council shelved the Goldstone Report, avoiding this likely block to restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks.  Apparently, Palestinian officials dropped their backing for a Friday vote on the report after hard lobbying from the Obama administration, according to the Washington Post.

This week's FLAME Hotline article by Robert Satloff, makes the case that President Obama is becoming more thoughtful about his strategy for encouraging peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Satloff explains why Obama's approach in the Middle East so far has been such a disaster and why he seems to be taking a more realistic view.

However, this is certainly no time for pro-Israel activists to relax.  We can conjecture that the pure rejection Obama has received from Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab nations to his overtures over the past nine months has influenced his change of heart.  We can also assume that the pressure you and other supporters of Israel, including FLAME, have exerted, has also influenced the administration's evolving position.

To stay on top of Obama's new strategy---and to continue to help shape it---I recommend you review Robert Satloff's concise article below, taken from The New Republic.  Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Best regard,

Jim Sinkinson
Director, FLAME


If you have any doubt about the treachery involved in forcing Israel and the Palestinians into a two-state solution at this time---if you have the remotest belief that a two-state strategy would meaningfully benefit peace with Iran and the rest of the Muslim world---I recommend you review the recent FLAME position paper---"The Two-State Illusion: Would it solve the Middle East problem?" I think you'll appreciate its outspoken candor---and the compelling truth of its analysis.  For this reason, we have sent it to the President's office, as well as that of every U.S. Senator and Representative.  Most importantly, we've published this piece in national media (including college newspapers) delivering more than five million impressions to the American public each month.  Above all, if you agree that FLAME's assertive brand of public relations for Israel is important and valuable, I urge you to support us. Remember: FLAME's ability to influence public opinion comes from Israel's supporters like you, one by one. I hope you'll consider giving a donation now, as you're able---with $500, $250, $100, or even $18. (Remember, your donation to FLAME is tax deductible.) To donate online, just go to Now more than ever we need your support to ensure that Israel gets the support it needs---from the U.S. Congress, from President Obama, and from the American people.

P.P.S. President Obama has asked for input from U.S. citizens on his Middle East policies.  To give him your opinion about the need for the Palestinians and other Arab states to recognize Israel now, please write the President---immediately.

The end of the beginning: After nine flailing months, Obama is starting to get a handle on the Middle East peace process
by Robert Satloff, September 28, 2009, The New Republic

With apologies to Winston Churchill, President Obama may not have presided over the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week in New York, but he seems finally to have marked the end of an embarrassing beginning to his Middle East diplomacy.

The president and his senior advisors came to office nine months ago eager to say and do what George W. Bush didn't. In place of regime change, Islamo-fascism, and "you're either with us or against us," Obama focused instead on behavior change, engagement, and an emphasis on "mutual interests and mutual respect."

Early on, one of the biggest policy shifts came on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama said he wanted action from day one, in contrast to the perception-however erroneous--that Bush waited until the Annapolis conference, seven years into his presidency, to throw himself into the hard work of peacemaking. The result was Obama's appointment, on the first day of his administration, of former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy and his own personal commitment to push the process forward.

Mitchell was a sound choice [Editor's note: We at FLAME do not agree with this cavalier opinion about Mitchell's appropriateness] and the president's sense of urgency was itself inspiring. However, the strategy that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mitchell's team together adopted to jumpstart a diplomacy with a weak Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the old-new Likud prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was anything but.

Under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the recipe for peacemaking began with a heavy dose of U.S.-Israel partnership. Because the peace process is, at its core, about asking Israelis to give up the tangible asset of land for the intangible and inherently revocable promise of peace, building Israel's confidence in the strategic alliance with Washington has long been considered elemental.

The Obama team adopted a different approach. The process itself had gone stale, they surmised, and was in need of new energy. The jolt would come from securing two huge concessions. First, the White House would win from Israel a public commitment on a total freeze in construction in the "occupied territories"; then, the Administration would leverage that concession to win from Saudi Arabia, arch-guardian of Muslim sensibilities, an agreement to take unprecedented steps toward normalization with Israel.

There was a certain logic to this approach. Bringing Arab states into the process was a wise move; the divided Palestinians almost surely would never make the necessary movements to achieve peace without wider Arab backing. And targeting Jewish settlement activity was certainly meaningful to many Arabs, who saw rising numbers of Israelis in the West Bank as the antithesis of what a peace deal was supposed to promise.

But, remarkably, before the president went to Cairo and declared that "it is time for these settlements to stop" and before the Secretary of State characterized a freeze as "essential," no one in either the White House or Foggy Bottom seems to have asked some obvious questions. What does a freeze actually mean—no expropriation of land? no new settlements? no building in existing settlements? Would such a freeze apply equally to building in Jerusalem, the capital city that Washington does not recognize as such, as in some remote hilltop outpost? And would the eventual expiration of an agreed-upon period of freeze imply Washington's tacit approval to start building again?

On the political level, the failure to think through the freeze idea was even more damning. Was the freeze really necessary to re-start negotiations, given that Palestinians—from Yasser Arafat on down—have had no compunction negotiating with Israel for the last sixteen years without one? Once Washington went out on a limb and articulated its demand for a total freeze--including, as Clinton said, no "natural growth exceptions"—could the Arabs accept anything less? And wouldn't Washington's direct bargaining with Israel over a freeze relieve the Arab side from having to contribute anything to this process?

The result was a diplomatic train-wreck. In June, after Obama and Clinton publicly demanded a freeze--but before the Americans reached a deal with the Israelis - the president flew to Riyadh to ask Saudi King Abdullah to ante up in terms of incremental normalization with Israel. The king reportedly sent the president packing. As the former Saudi ambassador to Washington wrote recently in The New York Times, "For Saudis to take steps toward diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality." Translation: "We aren't going to pay anything to help you Americans achieve a settlement freeze. You are on your own."

Washington's fixation on stopping settlement activity did have a powerful echo in at least one Middle East country: Israel. America's freeze-mania managed to transform Israel's deep national ambivalence about the wisdom of expanding West Bank settlements into patriotic support for the right of Jews to live in their ancient capital. By giving off vibes that it wanted a freeze even more than the Arabs themselves, and that it wanted to halt building even in Israel's capital, the administration succeeded in making Netanyahu more popular than when he came to office in March. Obama's own approval ratings among Israeli voters fell to single digits—and this is before he had shown whether he had the mettle to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, the region's real strategic threat. Getting into a fight with Israel without having anything to show for it from the Arabs was not what the president bargained for.

In New York last week, Obama finally changed course. To the consternation of Abbas, who had been happy to watch the Americans negotiate on his behalf for the past few months, the president announced that restarting peace talks would no longer be contingent on reaching agreement with Israel on a settlement freeze. America wanted the parties to begin negotiations, without preconditions, as soon as possible, he said. And in a move replete with irony, he specifically asked Hillary Clinton—who had articulated the Administration's most hardline stance on settlements in June—to report back to him in mid-October on progress toward resuming peace talks. Speaking in the Waldorf-Astoria, the President's words applied as much to him as to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders sitting nearby: "It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals."

This nod to realism is a positive sign. Obama was not the first president to come into office with a policy rooted more in ideological attachment than dispassionate analysis, but, on this topic at least, he shifted gears more quickly than most. Indeed, another line from his Waldorf remarks suggests that he may now be on the right track in terms of the peace process. "I'm committed to pressing ahead in the weeks and months and years to come," he said. Yes, Mr. President, even with the best of intentions, forging peace in the Holy Land is indeed the work of years.


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