N.Y. Times and L.A. Times back Obama on Israel policy


A day after the Washington Post editorialized that President Obama had made "missteps" in demanding an "absolutist" freeze on settlements by Israel but not getting tough on the Arab states, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times editorial pages back up the president’s Middle East policy — although both suggest that Obama should be doing a better job of reaching out to the Israeli public to sell it.

The New York Times begins by commending Obama’s call for a settlement freeze, noting that he’s the first president since George H.W. Bush to push the issue with the Jewish state, and then states that "less visibly, but we hope just as assertively, the administration is pressing the Palestinians and other Arab leaders to take concrete steps to demonstrate their commitment to a peace deal." The editorial continues:

Under pressure from Washington, Mr. Netanyahu’s government has dangled a possible compromise: a temporary freeze in new construction, as long as 2,500 units now in process can be completed and Arab East Jerusalem is exempt. It is a weak offer.

While they press the Israelis, Mr. Obama and Mr. Mitchell are also asking the Palestinians and Arab states to do more. They are insisting that the Palestinians work harder to prevent incitement against Israel in schools and the media. They have asked Arab states — notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria — to signal the beginning of an acceptance by allowing Israel to fly commercial planes through Arab airspace or open government commercial offices in their capitals. They are also pressing Arab states to provide more aid for the fragile government of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

President Obama and Mr. Mitchell claim they are making progress, but so far there is little sign of it. Saudi Arabia, which has pushed Washington hard to revive negotiations, has been especially resistant. Mr. Mitchell would do well to remind them that a prolonged stalemate will only feed extremism across the region.

Israeli leaders do not often risk being at odds with an American president, but polls show broad support for Mr. Netanyahu’s resistance. President Obama, a skilled communicator, has started a constructive dialogue with the Islamic world. Now he needs to explain to Israelis why freezing settlements and reviving peace talks is clearly in their interest.

Meanwhile, on the left coast, the L.A. Times editorial spends a couple paragraphs explaining why it thinks those who claim Obama’s settlement freeze demand is "anti-Israeli and a sop to the Arab street" are wrong (although Jewish leaders did say Obama mentioned the Arab "street" a lot during their meeting earlier this month):

Evenhandedness usually is considered to be a positive attribute in diplomacy, but when it comes to the Middle East, many Israelis and their supporters see it as code for a pro-Arab policy. In that view, President Obama’s insistence that Israel freeze Jewish settlement construction is anti-Israeli and a sop to the Arab street. That’s wrong. Obama has committed himself to a comprehensive peace that would give Palestinians a state of their own and provide Israel with security and recognition from the wider Arab world. This is the right goal, but it cannot be achieved if Israel continues to expand settlements and create new "facts on the ground" ahead of a negotiated agreement.

The idea that Obama is "anti-Israeli" is far-fetched. Speaking at Cairo University in June, Obama declared categorically to the Muslim world that the bond between the United States and Israel is "unbreakable." Israel remains a key ally, the No. 1 recipient of U.S. foreign aid at more than $2.7 billion this year. The special relationship between the two countries was demonstrated once again this week by visits from four high-ranking administration officials. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security advisor James L. Jones, special envoy George J. Mitchell and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross traveled there to assure Israel of U.S. military cooperation and opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as well as to press the settlement issue and to try to put the peace process back on track.

The Times does criticize the Arab states as well, and urges Obama to convince Israelis of the rightness of his policy:

Arab states have been as resistant as Israel and just as wrongheaded. A Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that "normalization" comes only after Israel has changed its ways. In fact, the two sides should change in tandem, with Israel stopping construction and Arab states matching it with diplomatic contacts or multilateral meetings on issues of common interest. Obama has been criticized for failing to rally Israeli public opinion on the settlement freeze. That shouldn’t be so hard because most Israelis do not support settlements, but he does have to reach out to them, and he needs the help of Arab states to do so.

This is just the first step in inevitably painful negotiations. The hurdles ahead are enormous, starting with the fact that the Palestinian Authority controls only the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip is ruled by the radical Islamic movement Hamas; Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel won’t negotiate with this armed enemy. Meanwhile, settlements are but one of the overarching issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees. It’s going to be a long, hard slog toward the goal of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, but ultimately this serves the interests of Israel, its Arab neighbors and the United States. And it is a goal more likely achieved with an evenhanded U.S. policy.

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