After more than 20 months of trying, the Obama administration will this week convene direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks in Washington D.C. Even if it is well founded (and it is), the administration must be understandably irked by the barrage of skepticism that is greeting this week's peace summit, with reaction mostly ranging from scorn to yawn -- with only a few exceptions.
This time around the parties are perhaps setting a record in starting the blame game even before they start the talks. And this unpromising picture got even more gloomy in the last days and hours with the shooting attack that left four Israeli settlers dead near Hebron and the comments over the weekend by an Israeli religious leader who has more Knesset members to deploy than any other (Shas spiritual guru Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said of Palestinians that "God should strike them with a plague.")
While the Obama team is approaching these talks with requisite displays of caution, they are nonetheless engaged in an exercise that raises expectations and have now set a one year timeline for concluding peace talks. Don't expect "mission accomplished" banners either tonight during the Iraq address or tomorrow at the Iftar White House peace dinner. But this is an administration that set out its stall on the importance of Israeli-Arab peacemaking from day one and has doggedly pursued that goal ever since. The proximity of these two Middle East-related presidential diary entries -- the Iraq end of combat operations speech and the Middle East peace summit -- might be coincidental, though one hopes that they are not.
It was the Congressionally-mandated Iraq Study Group of wise elders (led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton) which most effectively connected the dots on America's involvement and national security interests in the Middle East. The Baker-Hamilton group's logic was that to re-stabilize the region, to reassert U.S. credibility and leadership, and to gain the cooperation of the neighbors in standing up a functioning Iraq, the U.S. would be need to be effectively and successfully proactive in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. That applies as much if not more today than it did when the report came out in December 2006.
This interconnectedness of regional issues has been made all the more pertinent in recent weeks with the heightened speculation on what the next American -- and just as important Israeli -- moves will be on Iran. The Obama administration is beginning to face the following equation in 2011: allow the hardliners at home to define your presidency as it relates to the Middle East and foreign policy as being a stark binary choice between "appeasement" or military action on Iran; and allow the hardliners in the region to feast on the wreckage of another failed peace effort; or drive the agenda on the President's terms by creating a new Israeli-Arab equilibrium based on comprehensive peace, two states, and the Arab peace initiative, thereby silencing the critics at home and abroad and placing Iran in front of a hard new choice of its own--get on board with the new peace and security dynamic or be out on a limb and lose your diplomatic trump card of American perfidy on Palestine.
So the administration has a keen interest in avoiding the fate of previous peace efforts, and indeed the events of this Wednesday and Thursday will be a demonstration of an ever deeper investment in achieving a peace breakthrough.
Why then all the doom and gloom?
Much of the pessimism surrounding this week's peace summitry derives from the rather stunning lack of originality in the approach being pursued by President Obama and his team. As currently structured, this peace process really does resemble the movie that we've seen before -- the one with the unhappy ending. It emphasizes the direct, bilateral negotiations with America as a facilitator and a cast of support characters that has a decidedly retro feel (the Jordanians and Egyptians). Special Envoy Sen. Mitchell's ongoing references to 700 days of failure in Northern Ireland are fast approaching their own expiration date--he has been at this task for close to 600 days already.
There is no approach to speak of thus far that bears a distinctive Obama imprimatur. There are not any terms of reference for the talks that will begin on Thursday. More specifically, the U.S. seems to be if not ignoring than at least currently wishing away the core and harsh Palestinian-Israeli realities that are most likely to undermine this effort.
On the Palestinian side this refers to just how narrow is the base of political legitimacy of the Palestinian interlocutor and how enfeebled is its political and implementing capacity. Leaving aside Hamas for a moment, much of Fatah, the other smaller factions that make up the PLO, and virtually all of organized and mobilized Palestinian civil society and diaspora groups have now placed themselves in opposition to this week's process and to the negotiations and negotiators.
A meeting of non-Hamas and broadly respected political and civil leaders was convened in Ramallah last Wednesday, but then disrupted and broken up by PA security personnel just before its opening. The Palestinian leadership is not even attempting to defend its presence at the talks in substantive terms. Rather, they are focusing on shifting the blame for their very presence in Washington to the Arab states who green-lighted their attendance and failed to support a further holdout, the donor states who they claim were threatening to bankrupt the PA, and of course the U.S. for insisting they attend -- or face having a dead cat placed at their door.
As for Hamas, they can largely relax, watch the PA leadership squirm, and clip the political coupons. No incentive has been created for Hamas to okay this new peace process; in fact quite the opposite. Their spoiler role is being encouraged. While the Northern Ireland analogy of an eventual IRA/Sinn Fein acceptance of ceasefire and democratic rules of the game is true, they were certainly never asked to recognize the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's union with the British mainland as a precondition for entering talks. Had that been the case, Senator Mitchell would have passed his 7,000th day of trying in Ireland. Yet that is essentially the pre-conditional ask being made of Hamas.
On the Israeli side it would be delightful if the Israeli leadership and body politic were chomping at the bit to end the occupation, take on the hard line settlers, and make way for an independent, viable Palestinian state based on '67 lines, including in Jerusalem. Imagine if the only thing holding that up were a Palestinian side ready to acknowledge Israel's right to exist (the PLO did that in 1993), competent Palestinian security forces (senior IDF officials have been praising the PA on that score) and transparent management of Palestinian pre-state institutions (Fayyad is getting high marks on that front, too).
It appears that the talks are predicated on just such a premise. It is though a wholly fantastical one. Israel is a deeply reluctant de-occupier--unless this reality is hard wired into any peace effort, it will fall woefully short. Israel has spent 43 years entrenching an occupation, Israel has controlled the territories for over two-thirds of its existence as a state, over 500,000 Israelis live beyond the Green Line, Israel has invested billions in infrastructure to serve that settler community, and Israeli companies benefit from this status quo. The settlers and their supporters constitute a formidable political foe in Israel. Left to their own devices, Israeli leaders (whether deep down they are pro- or anti-occupation) will prefer to avoid the moment of truth and of confrontation with the settler behemoth.
The talks may even collapse before they have barely begun over the settlement issue -- with the limited moratorium that has been in place since last November due to expire on September 26th. As the Prime Minister arrives in Washington, settler NGOs are launching a campaign to resume full and extensive settlement construction with robo-calls and adverts quoting the PM and other Likud leaders, speaking in favor of renewed of settlement growth. The leader of the settler movement, Dani Dayan, is due in the U.S. to drum up support for this project. The existing moratorium, which is threatening to end, is itself a compromise of a compromise with carve-out exemptions for East Jerusalem and for 3,000 units in the West Bank already under construction, guaranteeing that settlement expansion so far this year has kept apace with, or even outstripped, the average of previous years.
Settlement growth not only complicates realities on the ground but also crushes Palestinian belief in the process and the legitimacy of those Palestinians engaged in peace talks. A situation where settlements grow in parallel to peace negotiations is the continuation of an Israeli approach along the lines of: "what I consider mine you have already conceded is mine" (Israel inside of the Green Line), "part of what you consider yours is mine" (the settlement blocs), and "the rest of what you consider yours -- let's talk about it". While another fudge on the settlement issue allowing further Israeli exemptions (even if the settlers howl that this is not enough and stage visually dramatic showdowns with the government to protest) is perhaps likely and could be foisted on the Palestinians, this hardly helps matters.
Given the current Palestinian leadership's dependence on America and Israel, and their lack of an alternative political strategy to this dependence, another twist could always be applied to the Palestinian arm -- at some stage though we are likely to be carrying that arm severed from the body of the Palestinian public (if we are not there already).
Finally, this week's peace summit will not even have the warring parties in the room. While on the Israeli side it is true that the settlers and greater Israel maximalists are represented in the government, the same cannot be said of the Palestinian or Arab participants. The Fatah and other PLO-faction skeptics, let alone Hamas, have no voice -- direct or indirect -- and even the PLO leadership in attendance is there under duress. The Syrians, Lebanese and outer ring of Arab actors such as Saudi Arabia are absent. The Egyptian and Jordanian leaders represent countries already at peace with Israel, and the possible attendance of the Egyptian President's son Gamal Mubarak -- at a time when succession is so high on the Egyptian agenda -- may provide a hint as to what their not-so-concealed agenda really is. It seems almost petty to point out that peace is made with one's enemies, not with one's friends or dependents.
So Why Pay Attention to This? Why Maintain Hope?
The main reason anyone is showing up is that the American president is the one doing the hosting and the inviting. And the main reason for hope rests with the potential that President Obama, having taken ownership of this issue, will pursue decisive leadership down the line. As a candidate, Barack Obama flirted with a definition of pro-Israel that was more sophisticated and more relevant to contemporary realities than the standard fare served up by pandering politicians (at a campaign stop with Jewish leadership in Cleveland, Ohio, he suggested that pro-Israel need not only be defined as pro-Likud. In insisting that a two-state solution and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is in the U.S. interest, President Obama is advancing a narrative that was adopted rather late in the day by his predecessor and that is very much the consensus of the U.S. military (as General Petraeus pointed out earlier this year while still heading CENTCOM, a message that resonates very widely in Pentagon circles).
Resolving the conflict, hard as that might seem, is the best available option for the U.S. The alternatives essentially boil down to continuing to manage the consequences of the ongoing conflict and Palestinian grievance for which America is in large measure blamed and which emboldens America's adversaries, emaciates is allies, and sucks the oxygen of America's credibility in the region -- or America distancing itself from Israel's occupation, an act that would fundamentally rupture the Israeli-U.S. relationship and would present a far more politically foreboding challenge than an act of cajoling Israel toward de-occupation.
The seemingly plodding progress made by the Obama administration thus far can be more generously interpreted as the U.S. methodically walking the parties to a place where decisive U.S. intervention and presentation of U.S. proposals becomes more possible, more justifiable, and more likely to succeed. According to that view, this week represents another and particularly important step in that direction. American officials have openly acknowledged that bridging proposals might be forthcoming and are showing a greater commitment to being present in the room at negotiations than has been the case in past efforts.
Finally in the hopeful column, by convening this peace summit and setting this particular one year timetable, the President is voluntarily and consciously raising the bar of expectations. Deadlines have come and gone before, often unnoticed -- and so might this one. But there is a pointed difference between convening a "this is it" peace summit in the twilight of one's presidency (as President Clinton did at Camp David in July of 2000) or proclaiming one year to make peace (as President Bush did at Annapolis in November 2007 as he entered his 8th year in office), and doing so according to a political calendar whereby your timetable expires just as your re-election campaign is kicking into high gear (as President Obama has just done). No, this will not be the defining issue of the 2012 election. Yes, Obama has chosen to add pressure to himself by aligning the peace timetable with the political timetable in this way.
The other key variable in this is the Israeli side. Israel appears to be entering a period of increasing domestic political turmoil. There is an undoubted rise in extremism and erosion of Israel's democratic credentials. Alongside that, Israelis are cognizant of a growing global trend towards taking punitive measures in response to Israeli actions that violate international law and norms of behavior (a grassroots sanctions movement that includes cancellations of music concerts in Israel, divestment from Israeli companies, and boycotts of Israeli goods connected with the occupation). Israeli cultural icons have just taken a stand with a broadly signed petition of refusal to appear at, or cooperate with, a soon to be opened theatre in the settlement of Ariel (including Israel's most iconic writers Amoz Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua). While the debate is not new, its current incarnation has a blunt and bold edge that distinguishes it and is in tune with the zeitgeist of Israeli democracy approaching a point of no return. The popular Israeli playwright Anat Gov wrote this in today's Yedioth Ahronoth:
The democratic laws that apply inside the State of Israel do not apply anywhere beyond the Green Line. That is an area that is governed by the army, and the laws of apartheid apply there in practice. There are roads that are for Jews' use only, roadblocks and a regular regimen of curfew. To come and perform in Ariel is to grant one's tacit approval to this abnormal situation, which leaves Israel as the last country in the Western world that keeps another people under occupation.
The question being asked against this backdrop is where to pigeonhole Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is he a Likud Prime Minister of Yitzhak Shamir vintage, or is he maturing in the Menachem Begin mold? Shamir when PM in 1991attended the Madrid peace conference but later admitted that he intended to schlep the negotiations out at least a decade and concede nothing (that decade of course expired almost a decade ago, the unfolding of events exceeded his expectations!). Menachem Begin withdrew from every inch of the occupied Egyptian Sinai, removed every settler, and made an historic peace (although he did not budge on the Palestinian question and massively ramped up the settlement enterprise). Netanyhau has welcomed the peace talks, has reminded Likud activists of the Begin legacy, is keeping his negotiating team small and composed of his confidantes (suggesting seriousness and a leak-aversion), and is also a man with a track record of being easily pressured. As a Prime Minister during both terms, Netanyahu has eschewed what he would probably call both military adventurism (no wars--not Lebanon, not the Territories, minimum security deterioration) and peace adventurism (very limited agreements on Hebron and at Wye River in his first term). By entering these talks he is in somewhat new territory, both upping the ante and creating expectations.
On balance, however, Netanyahu's actions and statements do not suggest a man standing at the precipice of a bold move to peace and de-occupation. Netanyahu formed an extreme right-wing coalition out of choice not necessity, insisted on those settlement expansion exemption clauses, has refused to enter negotiations with the Palestinians or Syrians on the basis of previously achieved advances, and is insisting on security arrangements, timelines, and unreciprocated and unilateral Palestinian acknowledgement of Israeli claims.
The tantalizing thing that Obama will have to deliver here is an Israeli political yes. A solution cannot be imposed on Israel, clear choices can though be presented. If there is an Israeli yes to real de-occupation gestating somewhere in the Israeli public and body politic, then it is not going to emerge on its own, that much is clear today. If the Israeli yes is there, it is going to take a c-section to bring it out into the world, and the only available surgeon is President Barack Obama.
The U.S. will have to be smart in the content of the plan it is proposing, both sides have rights and need to emerge with dignity, de-occupation will have to be real, and Israel's legitimate security concerns will have to be met--but not more than that. The context in which the plan is proposed is no less important than its content. The administration will need to remove the mist from its eyes on Palestinian political realities and address those shortcomings. The Palestinians can be allowed or even encouraged to rebuild a unified, inclusive, and capacitated national movement. At the same time, the very real asymmetries between representatives of an occupying power and representatives of an occupied people should be built in to the structure of peacemaking--substituting for unreasonable or unreachable demands on Palestinian capacity where this is needed to advance a two-state outcome. And all of this would be helped not hindered by taking a broader, comprehensive approach to peacemaking and advancing a plan that incorporates Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-Lebanese, and overall Israeli-Arab peace.
To deliver that Israeli yes, the right question will need to be asked--one rooted in guaranteeing Israel's future, that does not avoid real clarity, real de-occupation and hard choices, one that is well-marketed, and that crucially re-calibrates the incentives and disincentives for Israel of the status quo versus the peace option. When President Obama is ready with that plan and with that message, he should get on a plane and take it directly to the Israeli people. This week might just prove to be a milestone in that journey.