The Middle East Goes to Hollywood

By James Gundun – Washington D.C.

From the beginning the White House’s announcement of ‘indirect talks’ between Israel and the Palestinians felt like entering a theater rather than sitting down to a real negotiating table.

The gap in perceptions was immediately noticeable. US and Israeli officials spoke of a breakthrough and returning to direct negotiations as quick as possible, political speak for continued disagreement on settlements and Jerusalem, among other issues. Meanwhile Palestinian and Arab League officials warned, whether they meant it or not, that this was America’s last chance to adopt an equal position to the conflict.

But everyone shared a commonality – desperation – that drove them to act.

As March transpired it became evident that people around the world had walked into a multiplex, not a singular theater. We aren’t watching one show, but a handful running simultaneously. One version plays the US-Israeli “crisis,” another the “fake crisis.” The US media is sponsoring one showing, the Israeli media another, while the international and Muslim media share time over a screen. And the overall performance, which started as one act, has multiplied into three: the false start of “indirect negotiations,” then Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, and now the aftermath and future.

No surprise then that situation appears more confusing than ever – the goal of any illusion.

Though so many to choose from, one of the most recent and illustrative examples comes from Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times. While US conservative pundits slam President Barack Obama’s “hard line” on Israel, Cohen’s pseudo “tough on Israel” stance can be found in liberal editorials and op-eds across the US media.

Lapping up the idea that the White House is finally holding its ground, Cohen opens with Washington’s hottest myth: “The passage of the U.S. health care bill is a major foreign policy victory for President Barack Obama. It empowers him by demonstrating his ability to deliver. Nowhere is that more important than in the Middle East.”

Mesmerizing many US commentators and some in the international media, this theory misses (or intentionally ignores) the central divergence that a host of Senators and Representatives helped Obama deliver health care reform. He doesn’t have a finger of support to pressure Israel into compromise with the Palestinians, whose well-being is of little concern to Congress. He might not have the necessary support in his own cabinet.

This false perception distorts the rest of US-Israeli relations and conjures more myths in the US media.

“Obama was not amused,” Cohen writes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Jerusalem is not a settlement. “He airbrushed Netanyahu’s White House visit. The message was clear: The Middle East status quo does not serve the interests of the United States (or Israel). When Obama says ‘stop,’ he does not mean ‘build a bit.’”

Myths within myths are at work. One is that Obama came down hard on Netanyahu and won’t settle for less than a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. How quickly his AIPAC speech has been forgotten, when he crowned Jerusalem “the undivided capital of Israel.” Swift Arab condemnation forced him to backtrack less than 24 hours later.

If he didn’t get Jerusalem in 2008 though, what chance did 2010 have?

Israel, already sensing weakness from Obama, proceeded to approve and build in East Jerusalem since his first day in office, with scant reaction. So much inaction that General David Petraeus rushed the White House to build a temporary raft – “indirect talks” – before the peace process completely sunk. But the White House soon denied a promise that it would hold Israel accountable, and even Petraeus ultimately backtracked on his statements.

To those like Richard Cohen, “Nothing will happen in the Middle East unless the United States is seen as an honest broker able to criticize both sides when needed. Obama’s anger sped a needed clarification and freed debate.”

But the silent treatment is why “indirect talks” are currently in the dump and why America is still viewed as a corrupt broker.

From one myth to the next: Obama issued clarification on Jerusalem. Having publicly spoken twice on Israel and Palestine in March, he used both opportunities to reaffirm America and Israel’s unbreakable bond; neither the Palestinians nor Jerusalem was mentioned either time. Anger seemed absent from his public statements, with barely a hint of wrongdoing.

Like the Gaza War, Obama prefers silence to confrontation, which leads to a third myth: the White House snubbed, punished, or sought to weaken Netanyahu by “airbrushing” his visit. Speaking of AIPAC, this is exactly what the Israeli lobby and Congress demanded, including three quarters of the US House of Representatives.

AIPAC’s open letter, after circulating around Congress for a week, is the finale of individual initiatives from Senators Barbara Boxer and Lindsey Graham, and Republican Whip Eric Cantor, to name just a few.

"We recognize that, despite the extraordinary closeness between our country and Israel, there will be differences over issues, both large and small,” reads the letter. “Our view is that such differences are best resolved quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits long-standing strategic allies."

So the White House actually gave Netanyahu the exact treatment Israel requested. On cue, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down the notion that Obama had “punished” Netanyahu by keeping their talks private.

“I’m puzzled by the notion that somehow it’s a bad deal to get two hours with the president almost entirely alone,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a lot of punishment to me.”

Even more eye catching were the words of David Axelrod, who played bad cop after the Biden fiasco. Switching back to good cop he told CNN, "This was a working meeting among friends. And so there was no snub intended. This was not about formalities… We have a deep, abiding interest in Israel’s security."

You might think these officials would break the illusion that Obama is flexing a backbone with Israel, or that Netanyahu has been punished in some way, but the show continues uninterrupted in the US media.

And it will despite Obama telling MSNBC in a recent interview, “I think the underlying relationship is solid as a rock. So my commitment, my personal commitment, to Israel’s security is unwavering, and I think that there is broad bipartisan consensus on that.”

“This is a disagreement among friends about how to move forward,” he said. “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it. But it’s not just on the Israeli side. I’ve been very clear that the Palestinians have to take steps.”

This is what real US policy looks like – still trying to pass the problem from Netanyahu back on the Palestinians – and where Cohen’s real objective kicks in. The task assigned to the mainstream US media: make the White House look tough on Israel when it’s not.

Cohen concludes, “Obama is now insisting Israel act to avert that unhappy outcome. Americans, prodded by a report from Gen. David Petraeus, are beginning to see the link between terror recruitment and a festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict… These are real shifts. They are prerequisites for the rapprochement with the Muslim world Obama rightly seeks. Lo, even the Middle East moves.”

Yet a link has always existed between the Israeli Palestinian conflict and external Muslim insurgencies and terrorism; only beginning to notice the connection now suggests sluggish intelligence. The White House was also late on Jerusalem, allowing Israel to slide all the way until now instead of standing firm initially. Then there’s rumors of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement on East Jerusalem settlements, which Cohen and most of the US media dutifully ignored.

The hard line is already soft. These aren’t real moves – they’re fake moves, reasons why the peace process isn’t moving.

Not so coincidentally Israel’s media is showing a similar version of the US performance. Several days ago the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot quoted an unidentified Netanyahu confidant as saying, "We’ve got a real problem. You could say that Obama is the greatest disaster for Israel – a strategic disaster.”

The Israeli media has generally split one of two ways, a wake up or doomsday call, but both lead to the same conclusion as the US media: Obama and Netanyahu are locked in a bull fight. A section of the Israeli public wanted to see Washington restore a sense of balance to the relationship and they’ve enjoyed the show.

Netanyahu himself says otherwise though, and while he has good reason to play nice this might be his most honest side.

"I want to say clearly, these comments are unacceptable to me,” he told his cabinet soon after the leak. “They do not come from anyone representing me. There were areas in which there was swift agreement. "In areas where there was disagreement, we tried to take, and we did take certain steps to narrow the gaps in order to move the (peace) process forward.”

But a kernel of truth can be found in the Israeli media’s obsession with Obama’s show spoiler, if one exists. The US media’s job is to accentuate the White House’s moves and turn them into real pressure on Israel, in hopes of parlaying this courageous stance into popularity within the Arab world. Though some analysts bought in, the Muslim media in general has peered through the US-Israeli “crisis," partially designed to conceal and preserve the status quo.

Seen here in its most likely form is a small dent that can be smoothed over – and is. If left unfixed it could turn into a crack, then a leak, and maybe into a real problem. Were Obama to blink now Netanyahu would surely steamroll him, but presently the interpretation of US pressure is wildly exaggerated. So many strings and shadows are visible behind the front actors that nothing seems real.

What isn’t overblown is the impending crisis between Obama and the Muslim world, where an actual crisis is brewing.

PA officials have longed to hear anything from Obama personally, so to only receive the “Palestinians must stop inciting anger” card instead of holding Israel accountable must drive them mad. Again Obama has gone silent as Israel zones off religious sites, arrests or kills Palestinian youths, then denies live ammunition was used. Palestinian “incitement” – protesting – is singled out by America’s highest office.

Obama should get ready for more if that’s his attitude. PA officials are rightfully holding out of "indirect talks" as long as possible, fearful of public backlash from both the non-violent and violent resistances, and are preparing their own pressure on Washington.

“We are aware of the fact that Israel has decided to employ cruel force to repress the popular demonstrations,” Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud al-Alul said during Palestinian Authority meetings. “They see that the Palestinian leadership is taking an active role and that the popular struggle is heading towards major escalation. Our struggle has a price, and we are willing to pay it.”

President Obama is unlikely to take a real stand against Israel any time soon, but judging by the packed theaters in America the shows could go on even in the event of a total meltdown. Luckily the diversity of new media allows other outlets to display more realistic viewings, however modest this evolution may be.

Now will the Palestinians and Arab states make their own movie, either one-state or unilateral statehood, or keep booing the US version?

–  James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. Contact him in The Trench, a realist newsletter, at He contributed this article to

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