Obama's "Dangerous" Mideast Analysis

Last week during a press conference in Beijing, President Barack Obama endorsed one of the most propagandized of pop theories regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about Israel's plan to build 900 apartment units in Gilo - a Jewish neighborhood of southwest Jerusalem beyond the Green Line - Obama remarked:

I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel's security. I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbors. I think it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous.

In other words, Israeli settlement-building causes Palestinian terrorism.

It is worth pointing out that this idea is so widely discredited that even Jimmy Carter - after initially including it in his controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid - has rejected it. Of course, the main problem with this theory is that it is morally outrageous: the notion that anything justifies targeting and killing innocent civilians is repugnant to decent people.

But more importantly, the theory is flat out wrong. After all, terrorism is typically an organizationally coordinated activity, in which the costs associated with attacks (acquiring materials, building a bomb, arranging transportation, etc.) are often too high for any individual - no matter how "embittered" he might be - to bear. Moreover, terrorist organizations - like other political players - are strategic actors: they strike when the strategic environment permits them to do maximal damage, and not merely when developments on the ground make them angry.

Recent developments reinforce the extent to which strategic realities - and not Israeli construction - determine Palestinian terrorists' decision-making. This past weekend, Hamas announced that it would halt rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, with one Hamas official acknowledging that the group wanted to prevent another round of Israeli retaliation. Indeed, given the strategic environment, Hamas fears further destruction in Gaza much more than it wishes to avenge new apartment units in Gilo.

None of this should be surprising to President Obama, whose supposedly "realist" outlook should give him an appreciation for the precedence that strategic interests take over emotional ones. On the other hand, a strange pattern seems to be emerging in the President's foreign policy prescriptions: realist principles take a hiatus whenever he is dealing with the Middle East.