William Lamb, the second Viscount of Melbourne and Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minster (1834; 1835–41), was expert on the Irish Question, about which he wisely warned: “Now don’t go too fast, don’t ask for impossibilities, and don’t do anything damn foolish.” Would it be asking too much for President Barack Obama’s new Administration to heed Melbourne’s advice when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking? Apparently, yes: Having been through four presidential transitions, I can attest to the irresistible attraction of the siren call coming from the roiled shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in transitions from Republican to Democratic administrations.
The Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has already ramped up the volume of that siren call, just as it has disarranged many settled assumptions the incoming Administration may have had about the lay of the land. The return of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister will break even more diplomatic crockery. Under Netanyahu, the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace won’t end, but its direction may well shift from the Palestinian to the Syrian track. In any case, however the Gaza mess actually ends, it will not change what has always been true about Arab-Israeli diplomacy. There is a single formula (with variations, of course) for success; there are many formulas for something less than that.
The sirens have been unusually eclectic as of late. Even before President Obama was elected, he had been bombarded with advice from knowledgeable and well-intentioned Europeans, Arabs, Israelis, a slew of American “reformers” and, of course, his own advisers about the importance of engagement on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Against the backdrop of his predecessor’s disengagement during his first term—or so goes the argument—America must re-engage early and often, not just with speeches, frequent-flyer diplomacy and never-ending “processes”, but with something serious. American credibility is in tatters, the nation’s influence in a critically important region is in freefall, its friends are in trouble, and its enemies are using the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict to radicalize the masses and stir the pot.
Besides, there may well be new opportunities. Turkey has been facilitating Israeli-Syrian negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians have narrowed the gaps on the core issues of the conflict, and a 2002 Arab peace initiative is waiting to be exploited. Indeed, a modern day Melbourne in a parallel universe might advise a young, smart, ambitious president to “go fast, reach high, and take risks” in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Indeed, the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell, the first Middle East envoy since Secretary of State James Baker to have top-shelf political stature, proven negotiating skills and a capacity to really understand Arab and Israeli requirements, strongly points in this direction.
Yet another factor impels new ambition: the psychology of newly gained office. It nearly qualifies as an unnatural act for energetic new advisers to new Secretaries of State and Presidents to play the part of Dr. No, shooting down ideas and being anything other than advocates of can-do diplomacy. I know because I have made such can-do arguments myself. Well-intentioned, dedicated Americans put into positions of providing advice on Arab-Israeli peacemaking are simply unable to restrain themselves, no matter how grim the situation may appear. They cannot accept the invitation to policy paralysis that often flows from honest analysis. Even the Bush Administration in its final year or two succumbed to the siren call, and why not? After all, America isn’t a potted plant, and in the end isn’t trying and failing better than having not tried at all?
For the moment, the issue is not whether the Obama Administration will engage; it will, it is, and, if anything, the Gaza war has only made that imperative seem more urgent. Thus it is critical that the new Middle East policy team take an unforgiving look, devoid of all sentimentality or illusion, at what it will take to produce serious negotiations and to sustain successful agreements. It’s critical because failure does carry a price. For 16 years—eight under Bill Clinton when we stumbled at peacemaking, and eight under George W. Bush when we stumbled at war-making—America has had far too little success in a region critical to its national security. If we can’t achieve high-level success in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, we can at least avoid high-level failures. Even that, however, requires seeing the world not as we want it to be, but as it really is.
The New Middle East:
Much Nastier than the Old
The Bush Administration wanted a New Middle East, and it got one; it’s just turning out to be even nastier and more dangerous than the old one. Some things have improved, to be sure, but each positive tick seems to be paralleled by a negative tock. Notwithstanding President Bush’s own positive gloss on the region (delivered on December 5, 2008 at the Brookings Institution), how do things really look?
In one critical area the Bush Administration left a positive legacy: its anti-terror policies have prevented another terrorist attack on the continental United States. If the organizing premise of a nation’s foreign policy is the protection of its homeland, then the Bush Administration deserves significant credit here. Some disagree, contending that America is less secure because its policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have expanded and radicalized the numbers of those who hate and want to harm us. But there is no hard evidence for that argument, and the fact remains that America hasn’t experienced another 9/11 in more than seven years—nearly twice the length of U.S. participation in World War II. That surely counts for something.
As for the rest of the region, the tick-tock dialectic seems to prevail. The Syrians have withdrawn from Lebanon, but Hizballah is more powerful there than ever. In Iraq, the surge, combined with co-opting Sunni militias and the stand-down of key Shi‘a militias, has reduced American and Iraqi casualties, but no sustainable political compact or centralized authority capable of controlling the country yet prevails. The related good news is that Iran seems not to control Iraq’s Shi‘a elite or its government; the perhaps more than compensatory bad news is that Iran’s regional influence has grown anyway from U.S. blunders and protracted demonstrations of fecklessness. That goes as well for Afghanistan, where early gains have dissipated in the wake of a revitalized insurgency, a corrupt central administration and clumsy American military strikes resulting in numerous civilian casualties. Throughout the region, America is less feared, respected and admired, and almost everywhere American competence is called into question.
Before the winter’s Gaza war, President Bush could claim that he left the Arab-Israeli arena in better shape than when he found it: a full-blown war between Israel and the Palestinians. An Israeli-Hamas ceasefire endured; Palestinian security forces walked the streets of Jenin; Israeli-Palestinian negotiations logged hundreds of hours of serious talks about their conflict’s core issues; Israel and Syria were engaged thanks to Turkey’s good offices. But superficial calm masked more worrisome trends, as has since become clear. Mahmoud Abbas afforded a moderate center, but Hamas ruled in Gaza, making a mockery of the one-gun/one-authority principle, not to speak of one negotiating position. Even before the Israeli war in Gaza, economic deterioration was palpable and governance capacity in both Gaza and the West Bank was frail. Israeli politics, for that matter, are no beacon of stability or predictability these days, either.
In fairness to the Bush Administration, many of these developments were not its fault. Still, its neglect of the Arab-Israeli portfolio in the first four years almost guaranteed that it wouldn’t achieve much, let alone a Palestinian state, during the second four. The Administration may also have blown a genuine opportunity to build on an opening: the period between Yasir Arafat’s death in November 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas’s election as President in January 2005. But it dithered, refusing to invest in truly empowering Abbas, largely on account of wishing to enable Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan for Gaza, its own preoccupations with Iraq and its general lack of interest in the Arab-Israeli issue. Had it not dithered then, and had it not made subsequent misjudgments about basic conditions for Palestinian elections, the January 2006 Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections might never have happened. As it did happen, however, the possibility of a unified Palestinian polity negotiating with Israel was compromised, and the possibility of any agreement severely undermined.
Above all, this is the inheritance the Obama Administration would have found most limiting even had violence not erupted in Gaza. It would have faced a divided Palestinian house, in which no Palestinian organization or movement controls all the territory, resources, guns, people or negotiating positions usually associated with an emerging state. There are reckonings yet to come, to be sure, particularly between Israel and Hamas as they test one another in their post-confrontation “ceasefire” mode. Yet the real obstacle to progress resides in the fact that, for now, neither reconciliation nor confrontation seems likely to restore a functional Palestinian unity between Hamas and Fatah.
There are moments in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict where violence, insurgency and war have created political openings. October 1973, the first Palestinian intifada and the first Persian Gulf War are examples. It’s hard to see the Israel-Hamas confrontation as such a clarifying moment, however. Israel badly damaged the Hamas military infrastructure and restored for a good while its deterrent capacity, at least when it comes to Hamas’s use of high-trajectory weapons. But how wars are waged may not be as important as how they are perceived to have ended. And here Hamas, in the paradoxical world of asymmetrical warfare, did rather well. The organization survived, it still governs, and a thousand and one new myths and stories of their fighters’ bravery and the horrific suffering of Palestinian innocents have now driven a new narrative of struggle that plays well in Gaza, the West Bank and on the proverbial Arab Street. No Palestinian who does not sympathize with that narrative or who did not endure the days of war in Gaza can have legitimacy on Palestinian streets there.
Mahmoud Abbas, a good, moderate man who has the incentive to end the Palestinian conflict with Israel, is far weaker now than before. While Gaza burned, he could neither use his relations with Israel or America to restrain the IDF, nor save the Gazans, nor force the United Sates to intercede. That Israel must look to Hamas, not Abbas, to ensure the security of its southern towns or the return of its kidnapped soldier is all one needs to know. In short, while inter-Palestinian reconciliation remains a possibility and may even produce a superficial unity, what seems more probable is continuing crisis and dysfunction in the Palestinian national movement. Abbas and Hamas will have a tough time uniting on a common view of governance, armed struggle or negotiations with Israel. And this will make serious peacemaking, let alone deal-making, very hard.
In Israel, meanwhile, there is also political and policy dysfunction that bears on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Israel is in the midst of its own leadership crisis. A generation of founders with real authority, historical legitimacy and competence has given way to a younger generation of leaders—to three Prime Ministers over a dozen years, in particular, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert—who haven’t measured up. In the meantime, political division within Israel, which mandates coalition-tending of the sort that generally appeases settler constituencies and religious ideologues, has created real ambivalence about what to do with the West Bank. The February 10 election that set the stage for another Netanyahu government is likely to highlight that ambivalence. Maintaining his coalition will mean staying away from the most explosive of issues on the Palestinian track, Jerusalem in particular, which is why he may well look north to test the possibility of a deal with the Syrians. Even with the Labor Party in government, it will be excruciatingly difficult, and may well require a Likud Prime Minister to compensate the Right by creating additional settlements to secure Jerusalem and the West Bank. Under these circumstances it is fair to ask whether Israel has a leader with the authority and skill to lead the nation to conflict-ending agreements with either Syria or the Palestinians. It may well be that the emergence of such a leader depends on the rise of an heroic Arab counterpart, an almost unimaginable proposition in current circumstances.
Weak and constrained leaders with very tough issues to negotiate would in most circumstances be enough to dampen any mediator’s expectations. But there is more. The negotiations are vulnerable and exposed to two non-state actors: Hizballah and Hamas, who have exploited authority deficits in what amount to non-states (Lebanon and Palestine). They are also exposed to an Iran in league with those actors. Iran, moreover, sits at the nexus of everything America cares about in the region, from Iraq to nuclear proliferation, with a troubling capacity to frustrate Washington’s plans in hand.
Simply put, this isn’t your father’s peace process, where the issues could be compartmentalized and confined to an actual negotiating table. That Israel now believes an agreement with Syria for the Golan Heights must address Hizballah, Hamas and Iran confirms the point. Whereas in its three previous negotiating successes (the post-1973 war disengagement agreements, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the Madrid peace conference) the United States managed to insulate and control the peacemaking process, that is now no longer possible. There are now too many moving pieces that American diplomacy cannot control, and the mystique of American power and influence, too, has faded.
Keys to Success
Even if we factor in all the good news that has accompanied the bad, there are no quick or early breakthroughs waiting for the Obama Administration. Turkish-mediated Israeli-Syrian negotiations, hundreds of hours of Abbas-Olmert talks on the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security), and the Arab Peace initiative are all important developments, but none is really determinative. These developments are the stuff about which consequential things may come, assuming you have, as Henry Kissinger once said, a hand to pull the threads together.
Before saying what that hand needs to look like, some perspective is in order. It is painfully obvious, but worth repeating, that getting anything done in Arab-Israeli peacemaking is excruciatingly difficult and rare. In more than forty years, America has only had the three aforementioned high-profile successes. In this sense, effective American mediation can be measured not in continuous fashion, but in singular moments when a number of factors coalesced to produce success. On either side of these major successes there have been U.S.-generated diplomatic processes both good and bad, failures, some near misses, and half successes. But since 1991, with the exception of the Oslo agreements and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (achieved primarily by the parties themselves), America has failed to broker a single agreement of consequence that has endured.
As the Obama Administration crafts its policies toward the Arab-Israeli issue over the next several years, it must understand the four requirements necessary for success. These factors are now more important than ever because the negotiations still to be done between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians are the toughest yet. The easier deals between Israel, Egypt and Jordan have already been done. Having these factors in your pocket does not necessarily guarantee success; not having them in your hand, however, will almost certainly guarantee failure.
Leadership: America can tend the garden all it wants, but unless Arab and Israeli leaders are prepared to make and defend the key decisions on withdrawal, peace and security, there won’t be an agreement.
The connection here between incentives and power, motivation and capability, is absolutely critical. In every agreement ever reached between Arabs and Israelis, the leaders were authentic and strong—even heroic at times—and possessed both motive and capacity. There have been no exceptions: Begin, Sadat, Rabin, Arafat and King Hussein. In the past eight years or so, the formula for success hasn’t existed. Sharon and Arafat had the power but not the incentive; Abbas had the incentive but not the power; his counterpart Sharon, on the other hand, had the power but not the incentive. Both Abbas and Olmert, Sharon’s successor, lacked the power.
Weaker leaders can get to the negotiating table if the mediator is skillful and persistent enough. Even Arafat and Barak got to a table of sorts, after all. But there is no precedent for them reaching and sustaining agreements once there. Imposed or forced agreements are not possible; and there’s no room for recklessness or unbridled zeal on the part of the mediator, no matter how well intentioned, to try to bring about what cannot be. Bill Clinton’s experience at the Camp David Summit in July 2000 was painful evidence of that. Right now, unfortunately, we have Arab and Israeli leaders who are more prisoners than masters of their own politics and constituencies. Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad may have incentives to make peace with Israel, but it’s not at all clear, particularly in Abbas’s case, that they have the power to deliver. The same is true on the Israeli side, and that would be true whether Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu were Prime Minister. The last Israeli Prime Minister with the authority and power to deliver on a conflict-ending agreement (had he wanted one) lies in a coma. And it is critically important to note that the issue now is not that there is a right-wing government in Israel; the history of peacemaking in Israel from Begin to Shamir, and from Rabin to Olmert, has always been about hawks walking the walk, not doves talking the talk. The problem now is not that the government is right-wing but that it is weak and non-authoritative.
Urgency, Pain and Gain: What usually impels Arabs and Israelis to even consider taking risks in negotiations are changes in their situations that make the status quo no longer desirable or tolerable. The change usually comes in the form of a crisis or an opportunity that flows from it. This was the case in all three breakthroughs: the October 1973 war, Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the first Persian Gulf War, which set the stage for the Madrid conference.
We must remember, too, that qualifiers like “desirable” and “tolerable” must be defined in Middle Eastern terms, not American ones. To most Americans, the Arab-Israeli status quo is permanently undesirable and intolerable. But the status quo can be quite unpleasant and painful and still not move Arabs and Israelis to act. Indeed, this is sadly the normal state of affairs: Israelis and Palestinians have an extraordinary capacity both to absorb pain and to inflict it without feeling compelled to change much. In the case of Israel and Syria, for example, a very quiet, stable border across the Golan Heights, governed by a 1974 disengagement agreement, has all but guaranteed a comfortable status quo. Any pain to either side derives from the situation in Lebanon, where the two have clashed, most recently through a Hizballah-Israel confrontation. In the end, what sets the stage for the possibility of Arab-Israeli peace is pain accompanied by the prospect of gain. The trauma of war, terror and insurgency may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. It was, after all, the combination of the October 1973 war, U.S. disengagement diplomacy and Sadat’s initiative that made Egyptian-Israeli peace possible. And it was the first intifada plus the promise of Israel-PLO accommodation that made Oslo possible.
A doable deal: There’s little point in going to the negotiating table if Arabs and Israelis are unable or unwilling to negotiate an agreement. In other words, even strong leaders with incentives to deal need to see the logic of an exchange that will help them. In the end, negotiations succeed or fail depending on whether parties get what they need on substance. In the case of Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian agreements, they did; in the case of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, they didn’t.
For practical purposes, a doable deal means a deal that does not exceed the political carrying capacity of the respective communities. Trying to do too much in Arab-Israeli negotiations when the parties aren’t ready to pay the price is usually a prescription for failure, as Bill Clinton discovered in the final year of his presidency.
The “bridge too far” phenomenon is also the problem with a comprehensive peace, or in recent years, with the 2002 Arab summit initiative, which offers Israel peace with 22 Arab countries in exchange for withdrawal from the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The logic of this grand Arab-Israeli bargain is compelling on paper because what is being offered to each side seems attractive enough to justify the risks. But it’s hard to see the grand bargain working in practice. The Israelis will find it all but impossible to commit themselves to full withdrawal from two fronts, uprooting hundreds of thousands of settlers, dividing Jerusalem, working out a solution to the refugee issue, and creating security arrangements in which they can have confidence, all at once or even in phases. Nor is it clear that the Arab side could meet Israeli needs on security or normalization, let alone address Israel’s real fear when it comes to the broader issue of an Iranian nuclear capability.
On the doability scale, weighing the merits of an Israeli-Palestinian versus an Israeli-Syrian agreement, an honest observer would have to conclude that while both would be tough, the latter seems much easier. Two established states, a quiet border, fewer Israeli settlers and no religious or ideological deal breakers like Jerusalem make an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty compelling on paper. An Israeli-Syrian peace treaty also offers another tantalizing possibility: that such an accord might begin to reduce the leverage of Iran, Hamas and Hizballah.
This will not be easy to produce, however, for the Syrian-Iranian tie is a strategic one, and American patience and tactical agility will be important here. The Israeli-Palestinian track, on the other hand, involves an established state and a dysfunctional and divided national movement, a hot border, hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers and radioactive identity issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. A variety of interim agreements and temporary accommodations might be possible, but the prospect of a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, in which all claims are addressed and all irredenta abandoned, is slim.
The Obama Administration is thus likely to face a choice between the doable and the desirable: Either take what reality offers, or hold out for more with the possibility of ending up with nothing. Ignoring the Palestinian issue—the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict—won’t work. But allowing it to take American mediation hostage if there are opportunities on the Israeli-Syrian track would be irresponsible.
Effective Mediation: Should strong local leaders feel compelled to act and are able to identify a deal, a third party could act as an effective broker if it’s smart, tough and fair. Indeed, it must do so. There would have been no disengagement agreements between Israel, Egypt and Syria without Kissinger, no Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty without Carter, and no Madrid conference without Baker. And there’s no possibility of an Israeli-Syrian or an Israeli-Palestinian agreement without America, either—both as broker on the substance and as a coordinator and likely guarantor of the economic, security and political arrangements that will be required to sustain the agreement. To play this role in the past, American mediators had to be tough and tenacious, yet also gain the trust of both Arabs and Israelis. If we’re to play the mediator’s role effectively, we’ll have to do that again.
The Obama Administration faces these challenges with two handicaps. Both can be overcome, but not without difficulty. First, American mediation succeeds when all actors and relevant onlookers perceive the United States to be powerful, influential and capable of managing events. At the moment, the perception of America is rather that it is itself managed by events. We are not admired, feared or respected as much as we need to be to pull off a major, successful mediation. In a sense, America has neither the mediator’s mystique of a Kissinger or Baker, nor the driving force of a Carter. Our friends worry about our reliability; our adversaries, particularly Hamas, Hizballah and Iran, believe they can get the better of us and block our designs.
Second, our relationship with Israel is out of whack. We must and will continue to be Israel’s best friend. But the special U.S. relationship with Israel, which is driven by shared values and which both serves our interests and gives us leverage, relevance and credibility in the region, has become too exclusive. We’ve lost the capacity to be independent of the Israelis, to be honest with them when we don’t like what they do, or to maintain the tactical agility and flexibility to help construct a negotiating process that has a chance of succeeding. Our close ties with Israel probably prevent us from being a strictly honest broker, but it is a mistake to conflate honesty and effectiveness. We must be an effective mediator by becoming an advocate for what serves a successful agreement—not at all the same thing as being in effect a lawyer for one side over another. How an Obama Administration handles Israel in regard to the special versus exclusive relationship may well determine the degree to which we can regain the mediator’s mystique and succeed in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Governing is about choosing, and the young Obama Administration faces huge challenges at home and abroad. These include dealing with the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression and, of course, preventing another, possibly even worse terrorist attack on the continental United States. Frankly, if President Obama can restore America’s economic health and prosperity, keep Americans safe at home and even marginally improve our image in the world by the end of his first term, he’d be well ahead of the game and on his way to becoming a truly consequential President.
Seen against that measure of political focus, even a region as important as the Middle East looks a little less critical. The Arab-Israeli problem, moreover, is only one of several challenges in the region the new Administration must confront. Extricating America from the trillion dollar social science project called Iraq in a way that enables us to leave without the image and reality of having lost, dealing with a renewed insurgency in Afghanistan and the cauldron now boiling in India and Pakistan, and identifying a more effective approach to Iran will all be top priorities.
That is why according too much importance to the Arab-Israeli issue would be a mistake, particularly if local leaders aren’t willing to step up. But ignoring the issue because there are no prospects for quick or easy breakthroughs would be equally unwise. America thus finds itself in a kind of diplomatic investment trap. Pursuit of Arab-Israeli agreements will be difficult to achieve, but equally difficult to run away from. If we run, our friends will suffer and our adversaries will benefit. If we engage, seeking to do too much, and fail, we will get generally the same result. The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all is an appropriate slogan for a college football coach; it’s not a substitute for a foreign policy of the most powerful nation on Earth.
The Obama Administration will therefore have to find the right balance between doing too much and not doing enough. A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty will be excruciatingly painful and difficult to achieve. But it’s possible. In making that judgment, much will depend on what risks the Arabs and Israelis themselves are prepared to run, and politics on both sides must play out for a while before that will become clear—if it ever does. In any event, whatever the Arabs and Israelis propose, let’s make sure it makes sense for America as well. Lord Melbourne’s advice still rings true. Above all, we shouldn’t do anything damn foolish.