By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
New York Times News Service
President Barack Obama leaves for Israel next week. It is hard for me to recall a less-anticipated trip to Israel by a U.S. president. Little is expected from this trip. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted from a necessity to a hobby for U.S. diplomats. Obama worked on this hobby early in his first term. He got stuck as both parties rebuffed him, and therefore he adopted, quite rationally, an attitude of benign neglect. It was barely noticed.
The shift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from necessity to hobby for the U.S. is driven by a number of structural changes, beginning with the end of the Cold War. There was a time when it was feared that an Arab-Israeli war could spur a wider superpower conflict. During the October 1973 war, President Richard Nixon raised America’s military readiness to Defcon 3 to signal the Soviets to stay away. That is unlikely to happen now, given the muted superpower conflict over the Mideast. Moreover, the discovery of massive amounts of oil and gas in the U.S., Canada and Mexico is making North America the new Saudi Arabia.
Of course, oil and gas are global commodities, and any disruption of flows from the Mideast would drive up prices. But though America still imports some oil from the Mideast, we will never again be threatened with gas lines by another Arab oil embargo sparked by anger over Palestine. For China and India, that is another matter. For them, the Mideast has gone from a hobby to a necessity. They are both hugely dependent on Mideast oil and gas. If anyone should be advancing Arab-Israeli (and Sunni-Shiite) peace diplomacy today, it is the foreign ministers of India and China.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine last week, Robin M. Mills, the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, noted that “according to preliminary figures ... China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest net oil importer.” Mills described this as a “shift as momentous as the U.S. eclipse of Britain’s Royal Navy. … The U.S. is set to become the world’s biggest oil producer by 2017.”
At the same time, while the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates across the Arab-Muslim world, and solving it is necessary for regional stability, it is clearly not sufficient. The most destabilizing conflict in the region is the civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen. It would be great to erect a peaceful Palestinian state, but the issue today is: Will there be anymore a Syrian state, a Libyan state and an Egyptian state? Finally, while America’s need to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace has never been lower, the obstacles have never been higher: Israel has now implanted 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, and the Hamas rocket strikes on Israel from Gaza have eroded the appetite of the Israeli silent majority to withdraw from the West Bank, since one rocket alone from there could close Israel’s international airport in Lod.
For all these reasons, Obama could be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Israel as a tourist. Good news for Israel, right? Wrong. While there may be fewer reasons for the U.S. to take risks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is still a powerful reason for Israel to do so. The status quo today may be tolerable for Israel, but it is unhealthy. And more status quo means continued Israeli settlements in, and tacit annexation of, the West Bank. That’s why I think the most important thing Obama could do on his trip is to publicly and privately ask every Israeli official he meets these questions:
“Please tell me how your relentless settlement drive in the West Bank does not end up with Israel embedded there — forever ruling over 2.5 million Palestinians with a colonial-like administration that can only undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy and delegitimize Israel in the world community? I understand why Palestinian dysfunction and the Arab awakening make you wary, but still. Shouldn’t you be constantly testing and testing whether there is a Palestinian partner for a secure peace? After all, you have a huge interest in trying to midwife a decent West Bank Palestinian state that is modern, multireligious and pro-Western — a totally different model from the Muslim Brotherhood variants around you. Everyone is focused on me and what will I do. But, I just want to know one thing: What is your long-term strategy? Do you even have one?”