Thanks to Paul Woodward (and Rupa Shah) for pointing me to a terrific blog post by Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy, in which he delves deeply into the political implications of the suppression of the Goldstone Report. Those implications are obviously most severe for Mahmoud Abbas, who comes in for the harshest criticism for toadying to the American consul general (not even an ambassador for God’s sake!) when he came calling. Where Lynch’s analysis is superb though is in ferreting out the more subtle consequences for the Obama administration as well:
…The most likely tactical considerations behind the administration’s decision [to block Goldstone] seem short-sighted. Its move likely responded to the intense public and private Israeli campaign against the report, and probably aimed at winning back some positive relations with the Israelis and maintaining momentum on the peace process. But if the administration’s hope was that killing the report would make the issue quietly go away while winning some political capital with the Israelis, it is likely to be disappointed. Quite the contrary: the report is becoming a major political issue in the Arab world, badly damaging the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, while Obama seems to be getting little credit from Israeli public opinion or the Israeli government.
…There seems to be little question that Abbas’s decision to go along with American pressure will have a significant impact on the popularity and legitimacy of the PA…Whatever gains made by Fatah after its Bethlehem conference and by Fayyad with the announcement of his agenda for a Palestinian state are likely to be washed away in this deluge. The credibility of the Hamas narrative about the PA’s collaboration with Israel and unrepresentative nature will be strongly enhanced. And it will not help Salam Fayyad establish authority that he has been fingered by some sources as the person directly responsible for the decision.
Why was the PA leadership put in this untenable situation? The Obama team has consistently identified building Palestinian Authority legitimacy and capacity as a key part of its strategy. Did nobody consider the impact that such an important symbolic issue as the perceived suppression of the Goldstone report would have on this supposedly crucial dimension of the strategy?
Lynch continues his critique by discussing the impact the Goldstone fiasco will have on U.S. credibility in the Arab world, which had been bolstered by the Cairo speech in June:
At the wider Arab level, the American stance on the Goldstone report has galvanized doubts about the credibility of Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world and claims to genuine change. The skeptics who demanded deeds to match words are having a field day. As much as the inability to prevail in the battle over the settlements hurt Obama’s credibility with the Arab world, at least he got some credit for trying, for prioritizing the issue and paying some costs to keep at it. But the Goldstone report decision looks to most of the Arab public as a straightforward capitulation to Israel and abdication of any claims to the moral high ground. It will further undermine the Cairo promises, which look ever more distant.
Lynch astutely characterizes the ho-hum reception the American gift has received in Israeli circles:
I have searched in vain for signs that the Israeli public or hawkish commentariat have given the Obama administration any credit for its efforts. Israeli commentators seem to have simply taken the American protection for granted, or grudgingly acknowledged it in passing, without revising their views of Obama. The scornful, dismissive tone of the hawks towards Obama continues, while doves largely ignore it or disagree. If there’s been a concerted effort to leverage the decision to improve his standing with the Israeli leadership or public, I haven’t seen it.
Actually, Lynch neglects an important statement from Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, practically hyperventilating with glee over the kibosh America put on the report. But even here, Oren’s thank you was so crudely fashioned (saying the American statement could’ve been “drafted in Tel Aviv”) that it did far more damage than good.
Here is Lynch’s final assessment of the debacle and this is where he is most damning:
I would hope that such a decision [to bury Goldstone] would have seriously anticipated the implications for the legitimacy and efficacy of the Palestinian Authority, for Obama’s credibility among Arab and Muslim audiences, or for how to leverage it into real gains with the Israeli public.
Lest anyone think that Obama is having a bad month merely regarding the health care reform issue, think again. He’s having a pretty bad month on the Israeli-Arab front as well. I find it hard to believe that an administration that started with such hope and promise has fallen so far so fast. But unlike some doubters, I don’t believe these defeats are mortal blows. In politics, leaders have come back from worse deficits to triumph in the end. Obama is a sharp and sagacious politician. He could still pull this one out. But not if he repeats a month like this very often.
He was ill-served by whoever recommended that he adopt this plan regarding the Gaza human rights report. I don’t know whether it came from Susan Rice or Hillary Clinton or somewhere else. But it was tone deaf and crude in the most unfortunate way. Obama, when he is at his best, is known for nuance, clarity and subtlety. The neutering of this report came like a sledgehammer blow to the solar plexus. Not very Obama-like. I just hope he can regain his footing and take back the narrative from his detractors.