When President Obama appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process on only his second day in office, one cannot imagine he envisioned the region being mired in a painful stalemate less than a year later. On the contrary, his early engagement was designed to keep such an impasse from occurring.
Unfortunately, mistakes were made. The U.S. went too far in demanding nothing less than a complete settlement freeze, ensuring that the Palestinians could demand no less. The popular right-wing government in Israel remained obstinate on the freeze; the U.S. then backtracked, causing the Palestinians to cry foul and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to threaten not to run in the next election. In the process, Israelis have lost trust in Obama (if they ever had any to begin with is debatable), and the Palestinians have lost their once high hopes.
In the past, when similar Arab-Israeli stalemates have gripped the region, and a void of creative ideas has caused an upswell of hopelessness for any "peace process," many have turned to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to suggest new ideas or support thoughtful policy approaches for overcoming such a deadlock.
While his ideas have by no means been flawless, they have stimulated fresh thinking, encouraged creative problem solving and, at times, inspired a degree of hope.
So, it was especially disheartening to read Thomas Friedman's latest missive on how to overcome the current stalemate, "Call White House, Ask for Barack,"in which he argues that in the absence of strong prospects for any real movement toward a two-state solution the United States should "take down our 'Peace-Processing-Is-Us' sign and just go home."
Friedman sums up what he calls a "radically new approach" for U.S. Arab-Israeli diplomacy in these four sentences: "When you're serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix."
Friedman may be correct that rising above the current stalemate requires a radical new approach. The U.S. certainly needs to reassess its expectations and recalibrate its approach to diplomacy in the Middle East. But abandoning efforts entirely - essentially having a policy based on doing nothing at all - would be incredibly irresponsible.
"Give us a call" ... after another round of violence
As Friedman might say "we've seen this movie before." Violence sparks in the region when 1) rejectionists fear progress in the peace process (see: Hamas suicide bombs, Rabin's assassination) and when 2) political progress appears hopeless (see: first and second intifadas).
The absence of any meaningful gestures to support Mahmoud Abbas, and the recent prisoner release to Hamas in exchange for a videotape of captive Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, have seemingly added further strength to the perception that violence, not diplomacy, produces results.
And in the absence of any prospect for political progress, we have already heard growing warnings that a third Palestinian intifada could be sparked.
If diplomacy were abandoned entirely, violence could very likely ensue as the alternative. Some fear that a third intifada would be even more violent and deadly than in the past. There is no way of knowing whether such violence could spin out of control, bringing on a wider, and deadlier, regional conflict.
One cannot imagine this is the "pain" that Friedman has in mind when he writes: "Today, the Arabs, Israel and the Palestinians are clearly not feeling enough pain to do anything hard for peace with each other..."
It is hard to understand how abandoning a conflict, and thereby potentially sparking exactly the kind of violence - and possibly regional warfare - we hope to avoid, could be in the interests of the United States.
It's not our habit--it's our interest.
Friedman ridicules hope for peace in the Holy Land as merely "our habit." He likens U.S. Arab-Israeli diplomacy efforts to "a callisthenic, like weight-lifting or sit-ups, something diplomats do to stay in shape, but not because they believe anything is going to happen."
This is likely news to George Mitchell, who stepped out of retirement to take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, stating "There is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended." Surely, at 76, and with his legacy of success mediating a resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict intact, Mitchell doesn't need the exercise.
Mitchell knows it won't be easy. Recalling his experience in Northern Ireland, he told reporters upon his appointment as Mideast envoy that "we had 700 days of failure and one day of success. For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow."
It is also hard to imagine that National Security Advisor Jim Jones was doing the diplomatic equivalent of jumping-jacks when he recently said that if he could tell President Obama to resolve one conflict it would be the Arab-Israeli one.
The reality is that the United States may indeed want peace more than the parties seem to--because it is critically important that it be achieved for our national interests as well. If we sit around and do nothing, the parties will not be the only ones to suffer. Our challenges to stabilize the Middle East, combat violent extremism, strengthen moderates, and halt Iranian nuclear ambitions would become far more difficult. Even more, when there is a vacuum in the region, someone inevitably steps in to fill the void.
Who will be calling?
On Monday, Ethan Bronner of The New York Times reported that unlike in the past, Mahmoud Abbas' threat to not run in the election called for January 24th is being taken seriously by his colleagues. Furthermore, some believe that Abbas may resign before that date and his colleagues may go with him, effectively dissolving the Palestinian Authority.
"Let them call us when they are ready," Friedman seems to say. But the key point is who will be the "them" on the Palestinian side?
Without the Palestinian Authority, it is likely we would see the end of the so-called "Fayyadism," the growth of the West Bank economy under Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, coined by Friedman just three months ago as having the potential to "start a trend in this part of the world -- one that would do the most to improve Arab human security -- good, accountable government."
In addition, without the P.A., it is questionable what would become of the U.S.-trained Palestinian National Security Force, also hailed by Friedman just months ago. In an interview last month, Major General Diab el-Ali, a commander of the force, warned that the security progress in the West Bank "is still very fragile and very much connected to a political solution. If there is no political horizon, we're all likely to suffer a serious regression."
If Abbas, whom former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh recently described as "the most courageous partner we have had," cannot manage any significant achievements via diplomacy, it is difficult to imagine a new, even more moderate Palestinian leadership emerging in his place. Rather, it is more likely that Hamas or other more radical factions would work to fill the void. The United States cannot afford to gamble against such a possibility. But quitting now - even for a short time - would be the equivalent of doing just that.
Indeed, we have seen this movie already.
Friedman writes that "This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel." In this regard, he is absolutely right. We have already seen an ineffective U.S. laissez-faire approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking--it was called the George W. Bush administration.
But don't take my word for it. In January 2004, Friedman wrote:
"These two nations are locked in an utterly self-destructive vicious cycle that threatens Israel's long-term viability, poisons America's image in the Middle East, undermines any hope for a Palestinian state and weakens pro-American Arab moderates. No, you can't draw any other conclusion. Yet the Bush team, backed up by certain conservative Jewish and Christian activist groups, believes that the correct policy is to do nothing. Well, that is my definition of insane."
On that I couldn't agree more.
Cross-posted from the The Mideast Peace Pulse Blog