Is Obama Evenhanded?

Over the last week, the Economist tasked Daniel Levy and David Frum with debating whether President Obama is an "honest broker" in the peace process. Levy, who serves as director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force ("task force" sounds so martial, but whatever), argues that Obama's no-nonsense handling of Israel is a refreshing -- and hopeful -- approach, while Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, argues that Obama's role as mediator here is detrimental to Israel. The two do agree that, for better or worse, Obama's strategy and attitude is sharply different from Bush's, and perhaps from any president in recent American history. Here is a glimpse of their back and forth, the winner of which will be declared on Friday.

On previous attempts to broker peace:

Daniel Levy: Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Middle East policy, in his "The Much Too Promised Land" describes the three "bad boys" of Arab-Israeli peacemaking: Kissinger, Carter and Baker. ... Under Kissinger's guidance, when Israel dragged its feet on Sinai redeployment talks with the Egyptians, President Ford in 1975 announced a "reassessment" of the US-Israel relationship and froze new arms agreements. President Carter brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace at Camp David that included a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai to the 1967 lines and full settlement evacuation. This happened despite the fact that Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin was committed to keeping the Sinai and to personally retiring to the Yamit settlement there. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Baker imposed loan guarantee penalties on Israeli settlements' expansion in 1991.

David Frum: Messrs. Kissinger and Carter achieved successful and enduring results. One, Mr Baker, did not. What made the difference? The answer is obvious: Messrs. Kissinger and Carter were brokering disputes between Israel and Egypt; Mr Baker between Israel and the Palestinians. By 1973, Egypt had very finite demands upon Israel: It wanted the Sinai back and in return it offered a permanent end to hostilities. But Mr Baker tried to mediate with the Palestinians. The demands presented by the accepted leaders of the Palestinian polity are not finite. Nor can Palestinian leaders safely offer a permanent end to hostilities. (The Israeli, prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has again flushed out this unwillingness by his demand for the recognition of Israel's Jewish character.) The result was that Baker's much vaunted toughness led nowhere. ... If Mr. Baker's approach does not work, why repeat it?

On Obama's connection to Israel:

Daniel Levy: I sense that what irks Mr. Frum and others on the hawkish right is that under Mr. Obama, the relationship with Israel is not exclusivist and that America no longer seems to indulge in gratuitous Arab and Muslim bashing. That seems to me to be the central shift. He does not demean and insult Palestinians at every opportunity, and that is the red meat that the pro-Likud crowd misses so dearly.  He sees nuance in the Arab and Muslim world, including in the world of political Islam, and he also sees nuance in Israel, rejecting the nonsense of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd. There is an Israeli narrative, and there is a Palestinian and broader Arab narrative. Obama seems to be attuned to both, respectful of both, and able to distinguish what is constructive and what offers hope in each narrative from that which condemns all sides to living in further strife and insecurity.

David Frum: The narrative that moves [Obama] is an anti-colonial narrative, a narrative in which it is astoundingly possible to analogise Palestinians to American blacks under segregation. ... Perhaps the president imagines that by acknowledging this [the story of Isra] theological Islamic claim to Jerusalem, he can create a more positive atmosphere for compromise later. Perhaps he believes that if he salutes the emotional commitments of Israel's enemies, he can gain a hearing for Israel's substantive security needs. But it would be more intellectually economical to assume that the message the president is broadcasting is also the mood he inwardly feels: Israel's claims are practically unavoidable, but it is Israel's enemies who have right on their side.

On settlements:

David Frum: Even supposing a Palestinian state were a pressing and desirable outcome from a US point of view, it is important to recognise that the most significant obstacles to such an outcome arise within the Palestinian national community. Settlements are the consequence of Arab and Palestinian intransigence, not the cause. The United States cannot wish or talk that intransigence away. And if this president supposes otherwise, then this particular broker has disserved his only client: the people of the United States.

Daniel Levy: There might be a partial truth in Mr. Frum's claim that the president is moved by an anti-colonial narrative and draws analogies of Palestinians to American blacks under segregation. ... Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, actually drew these analogies. ... The discriminatory practices faced by Palestinians in the territories, and in different ways by the Palestinian-Arab minority inside Israel, are not something to be dismissed or made light of. ... When Mr Frum argues that "Settlements are the consequence of Arab and Palestinian intransigence, not the cause," he is simply refusing to acknowledge the realities of history or the injustices of occupation. ... Thankfully President Obama is not shaping up to be a defender of settlements--or of the occupation for that matter.

On Iran:

Daniel Levy: Iran, of course, is not part of the Arab world; it is simply not the subject at hand. ... Obama has never, repeat never, publically referred to Israel's nuclear arsenal directly, though he has on numerous occasions bluntly expressed his opposition to any Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capacity. ... here is a partial list of the strict sanctions regime the United States imposes on Iran, unilaterally (in addition to US-led international sanctions): No electronics or machinery (including spare parts for Iranian civilian aircrafts), no investing or lending of any kind (which applies to any bank that has any business in Iran, not just Iranian banks), and no goods with a value greater than $100, with only minor exceptions. Here is the comprehensive list of US support and assistance to Iran: zero. Here is the comprehensive list of the sanctions regime that the US imposes on Israel: zero. Here is a very partial list of US support and assistance to Israel under Mr Obama: implementation of the US-Israel MoU, $2.775 billion in assistance, initiation of a new strategic working group, funnily enough on Iran, as requested by Israel, $550m paid to Israel six months early as part of the financial-year 2009 supplemental appropriation (thereby incurring a cost in interest to the US treasury and benefits to the Israeli treasury), support for immigration resettlement to the tune of $25m and it goes on.

David Frum: Israel today confronts an emerging threat to its very existence: the Iranian nuclear programme. ... It is a good guess that unless something happens to halt it, Iran will gain the ability to test before the completion of Barack Obama's current presidential term. Running for an Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Mr Obama condemned an Iranian bomb as unacceptable. Since then, his words have softened considerably. ... But while the president proceeds gently, gently to coax Iran, he has shown no such restraint in squeezing the government of Israel. While the Iranian nuclear issue is delegated to the Secretary of State and presidential representatives, the president himself upbraids the Israeli prime minister on settlements and Palestinian statehood. Israel's most urgent survival concerns: secondary. The Arab world's most vociferous political concern: primary.