Misreading the White House on the Middle East

03/10/2011 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are few things on which Israelis and Palestinians can find common ground these days, but both sides readily agree on the common refrain, "The United States does not understand the Middle East." However, increasingly it appears to be the reverse: Israel and the Palestinians do not seem to understand Washington.

In meetings with various Israeli and Palestinian officials in the region last month, as Hosni Mubarak held onto the last days of his 30-year regime, Israelis and Palestinians were adamant that the U.S. was mishandling its public statements in response to the unrest in Egypt, had fumbled the Middle East peace process since taking office, and faced diminishing influence in the region as a result -- seemingly confirmed by both sides unwillingness to budge from deeply entrenched positions despite the United States' best efforts.

To be sure, there is some basis for these statements insofar as the Obama administration has made tactical errors in the past two years. The view that Israel could accept a blanket cessation of settlement activity if only the United States called for it, and that doing so would lead to a resumption of meaningful negotiations, proved to be overly simplistic. But now Israelis and Palestinians are the ones projecting too simplistic a view of the United States that has been peddled from both sides of the political spectrum.

Following the United States' recent veto of a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as "illegal," the Palestinians and the Israeli left stated that President Obama had effectively "joined the Likud," that U.S. policy was being dictated by AIPAC, and that the vote proved that the Administration was more interested in safeguarding domestic politics than advancing Middle East peace. Subsequently, the Palestinians declared a "day of rage" against the United States, and Fatah went so far as to declare a Palestinian boycott of the United States.

Meanwhile, the Israeli right warned against the Administration's using the veto to demand concessions from Israel, rejected the statement opposing settlement activity given by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice following her vote, and claimed that the U.S. negotiations with the Palestinians prior to the vote, rather than a quick denunciation of the resolution, amounted to a U.S. betrayal of the Jewish state.

None of this should be surprising. The retreat to each side's entrenched positions, coupled with a denunciation of the United States, has become a common playbook for Israel and the Palestinians, who are loathe to demonstrate leadership of their own. Meanwhile the talk by both sides of the decline in U.S. power and prestige amounts to a kind of distorted self-fulfilling prophecy. That Israel readily diminishes and disregards the influence of its most important ally is both reckless and foolish. That the Palestinians would direct their frustration at a President who has arguably been more active in advancing efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood than any before him may be politically advantageous in the short-run, but ultimately lacks foresight.

While the Obama administration's strategy for obtaining Middle East peace may have been too opaque, the White House has made abundantly clear that its efforts have been predicated on the belief that leadership must come from the parties themselves. The U.S. call for a settlement freeze, support for the building of Palestinian institutions and security apparatuses, veto of the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution, and appeal for direct negotiations, are all consistent with this view.

The United States is currently navigating between two seemingly contradictory positions often articulated by U.S. policymakers, including those within the Administration. The first: "The United States cannot want peace more than the parties" versus the second: "A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national security interest of the United States." Both statements are in fact true: The U.S. needs peace, but it needs leadership from the parties to get there. U.S. policy should therefore focus on providing the parties with a clear path in order to generate momentum toward the choice which will demand leadership from both sides. Ultimately the decision will be that of the Israeli and Palestinian people, but the path the U.S. provides must be a lot clearer than the strategy we have offered thus far.

The persistent blaming of the United States for the current malaise of the peace process reflects a kind of Israeli and Palestinian denial of their respective responsibilities. The Administration has shown that it will not be blindly supportive of all of Israel's actions, nor will it pressure Israel into an imposed agreement. In the absence of creative leadership in the region, Israel remains on a path toward intensified global isolation, and the Palestinians toward recognition with perpetual occupation. The U.S. can blunt the momentum of the precipitous decline of the peace process -- and provide a different and better path -- but unless the parties own up to their own leadership deficiencies, their futures will remain in an intertwined freefall.