One of the primary foreign policy dilemmas facing the second Obama Administration is whether to make a concerted push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, possibly including presentation of a U.S. peace plan, the ultimate form of American involvement, or conversely, to maintain the standoff approach that followed the failed attempts of its first year in office. President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) gives us an opportunity to assess the options.
President Obama believes that Israel’s settlement policy may be sowing the seeds of its demise as a Jewish and democratic state and that, implicitly, Israel must be saved from itself. The Palestinians remain mired in their own endless dysfunctionality and inability to say “yes” to anything. The window of opportunity for a two-state solution may be closing. Indeed some believe that it has closed already.
There is thus a great temptation to push for a breakthrough. Indeed, an attempt to do so has become an almost obligatory tradition for all new U.S. administrations in recent decades, and Secretary Kerry is thought to be an avid advocate. Nevertheless, those who are truly committed to Israeli-Palestinian peace bear a crucial responsibility to avoid precipitous and harmful action.
The timing for renewed talks could not be less opportune. A major new American initiative is almost certain to fail. What President Clinton could not achieve in 2000 at Camp David and under the “Clinton Parameters”, on the basis of Ehud Barak’s dramatic peace proposals, and what President George W. Bush could not achieve in 2008, on the basis of Ehud Olmert’s equally far-reaching initiative, President Obama will not succeed in doing today.
From virtually every possible perspective, conditions are far less conducive now than before. Israel is led by a hardline Premier who has shown little willingness to compromise, and whose new coalition, even if somewhat more moderate overall, is likely to be stalemated on major foreign policy issues. The Palestinians are divided, possibly irretrievably, between a radical Islamist Gaza and a feckless PA in the West Bank. So long as this remains the case, it is unlikely that the Palestinians could reach, let alone deliver on, any consequential agreement. Moreover, there is reason to doubt whether Mahmoud Abbas, who failed to even respond to Olmert’s dramatic proposals, truly seeks peace.
Many believe that the contours of an agreement are known and that the two sides were actually close to one in the past. Indeed, premiers Barak and Olmert presented proposals calling for a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and virtually all of the West Bank, with a small land swap, and the division of Jerusalem. In all areas, except the return of refugees, Israel made dramatic concessions. It turned out, however, that what Israel and the United States considered to be about the maximum Israel could offer fell below the Palestinian minimum. There is no reason to believe that this has changed.
Moreover, American influence in the region is at a decades-long nadir and the United States is preoccupied with formidable domestic challenges. Europe is in even worse shape, and the newest iteration of the historic Arab Awakening continues to rock the region. As important as Israeli-Palestinian peace is, the pressing issues in 2013 are the events in the Arab countries and Iran. The mantra, that Israeli-Palestinian peace is essential to address the region’s other ills, which never held more than a kernel of truth, sounds even more off key today.
Egypt is in the midst of an ongoing revolution that will probably lead, at best, to a severe deterioration in relations with the United States and Israel, and possibly to the end of the March 1979 peace treaty. Syria is likely to become a radical Islamist state, if it even remains unified, and its violent final hours will overshadow any peace process diplomacy. Iran’s nuclear program is the primary issue in the region, along with Sunni-Shi‘a antagonisms that are now being militarized in and around Syria. Jordan is unlikely to remain the only Arab country at peace with Israel if Egypt abrogates its peace treaty. Almost all countries of the “Arab world”, a misnomer if there ever was one, face grave domestic crises so that their interest and ability to play a moderating influence over the Palestinians is even more insignificant than in the past.
This is not a pretty picture, but the Mideast has always been a tough neighborhood. The current no-peace, three-state reality is likely to be with us for a long time. In consequence, we may have to begin rethinking fundamental assumptions regarding the peace process and the nature of a final agreement.
Circumstances do not call for passivity, for doing nothing. They do call for sober consideration of diplomatic reality; the peace process cannot afford another failure. Israelis and Palestinians have come to virtually despair of the prospects of ever reaching agreement. Another failure will merely dash whatever residual hopes and good will exist, reinforce their deepest fears, and make the prospects of a future breakthrough, if and when more propitious circumstances arise, that much harder to achieve. Moreover, American diplomatic capital is a finite resource and should not be risked unless the prospects of success are significant.
The Obama Administration made a number of egregious errors in its initial handling of the peace process that it can now redress. The first was its naïve acceptance of the Palestinian narrative that the Israeli settlements and occupation are the heart of the conflict. They are certainly major issues to be resolved, but the true problem remains the nearly century-long Palestinian refusal to accept that a final settlement can only be based on a Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish Israel, not instead of it; that is, to finally come to terms with the concept of two states for two peoples. Understanding of this reality requires that U.S. diplomacy make a concerted effort to convince the Palestinians to finally recognize Israel for what it is, the nation-state of the Jewish people. The demand that they do so is not an Israeli negotiating ploy, but would mark a fundamental transformation of the conflict. Israel will only withdraw from territory and dismantle settlements when the Palestinians are ready for true reconciliation.
The Administration’s second error was the attempt to force a complete and permanent settlement freeze on Netanyahu. No Israeli Premier could have agreed to a permanent suspension in the three settlement blocs and Jerusalem, a reality recognized by the U.S. government in President Bush’s 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, a presidential commitment that Obama foolishly backed away from only to double back to it, and that even the Palestinians have come to accept. A more practical objective would be a settlement freeze outside the three blocs and Jerusalem, in itself a major concession that the new coalition will be hard-pressed to accept, in exchange for a commensurate Palestinian concession, for example, recognition of Israel’s Jewish identity, or beginning to resettle refugees still languishing in refugee camps 65 years later, or at least building them permanent homes there.
A third error was the belief that trying to reach agreement on the ostensibly easier issues of territory- and security-first would facilitate agreement on the more difficult ones, such as Jerusalem and refugees. In fact, these “easy” issues are difficult in their own right and in any case cannot be negotiated in isolation. What is needed is a comprehensive approach in which the two sides are encouraged to use concessions on the (very difficult) easy issues as tradeoffs for the truly complex issues. Otherwise, each side will be left with insufficient bargaining chips to get to the finish line, and nothing will happen.
The Administration’s final error was to create a sense of presidential opposition not just toward specific Israeli policies, but of animus to Israel generally. Bill Clinton’s positions were not very different in substance from Obama’s, but he was loved in Israel as a true friend. Indeed, ol’ Bill could probably be elected there in a landslide to this day. Obama is viewed as indifferent at best and a diplomatically isolated Israel craves approbation at least from the United States. Obama’s upcoming trip is an opportunity to at least partially change this perception.
In the current regional environment, conflict management, as opposed to resolution, is a tall order in itself. But the Administration should go beyond this and conduct a low-profile, low-expectations exploration of the possibility of renewing substantive negotiations—not just talks for talk’s sake. The prospects of failure are so overwhelming, however, that caution is the proper measure of valor. Careful, measured steps are best, and if any traction can be gained on that basis, then the Administration can build on them.
In the meantime, the Mideast presents more than enough other challenges, not the least of which are preventing a collapse of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and, with it, the treaty with Jordan, preserving the still fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, preventing a collapse of the PA and renewed violence in the West Bank, preventing a regional conflagration due to the meltdown in Damascus and stopping Iran’s nuclear program. In this case, precipitous “peace process” action and almost guaranteed failure are vastly more dangerous than a cautious go-slow approach.