Fixing Obama's 'Israel Problem'

The Obama administration has an 'Israel problem,' and its recent focus on freezing Israeli settlement construction is a far cry from the solution, according to the Israel Policy Forum's report released last Monday, which distills the opinions of a distinguished group of some twenty former and current Israeli officials, analysts, and academics during a private Roundtable discussion convened by IPF in Tel Aviv last month.

The report provides a diverse assortment of Israeli perspectives on how the Obama administration can modify its approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to improve its poor standing in the eyes of Israelis, and help create momentum toward a two-state solution.

In the recent past, Barack Obama has not enjoyed much popularity in the world's only predominantly Jewish state. A few weeks after Obama's landmark speech to "the Muslim world" in June of this year, merely 6% of Israeli Jews considered him to hold pro-Israeli attitudes; the same poll revealed that almost 90% saw George W. Bush as pro-Israeli.

The minds behind the IPF report coalesced around one chief grievance: the administration's chosen strategy of calling for a total freeze on the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories. The report critiques it as an excessive precondition and an impractical demand. In the past few months, the nature of the settlement freeze has become the centerpiece of the Palestinian case against coming to the negotiating table with Israel.

On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu offered a concession by promising a halt on residential construction for the next ten months. But Palestinian leaders are dissatisfied, because the moratorium does nothing to hamper construction in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, and allows for the completion of up to 3,000 housing units that are already being built.

If freezing settlements is a misguided focal point for sparking negotiations, then what is the Obama administration to do? The participants of the Roundtable discussion recommend that the current negotiations be either accompanied or supplanted by a multilayered policy that pragmatically enhances the viability of a Palestinian state, thereby creating a more hospitable atmosphere for dialogue.

The paper is sprawling, and deliberately eschews prescribing one clean solution to the administration's troubles, but its most salient theme is replacing the negotiable with the feasible. It advocates incrementally diminishing Israeli presence in the territories and taking practical steps to enhance the Palestinian standard of living. Tempering the growth of settlements is one metric by which this progress can be measured -- but no specific element of this process should be considered a prerequisite for advancing negotiations. Focusing on gradual and practical development "improves the chances of the success of [American envoy George] Mitchell's talks, or protects them if the talks break down."

These incremental steps range from adjusting the security fence in Jerusalem to reforming Palestinian judicial, economic, and political institutions at an accelerated pace. The participants of the Roundtable discussion were divided about whether these steps should be implemented before or simultaneously alongside negotiations. In either case, the assumption is that making a Palestinian state significantly more realistic "will inevitably and inexorably impact the political atmosphere on both sides and the viability of negotiations."

Some members of the Roundtable were outspoken supporters of the Fayyad plan, the proposition of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who argues that the Palestinians' best shot at independence is the de facto creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank in just two years, by concentrating on achieving the governmental and economic progress required to actually function as one. As a putatively apolitical vision, the Fayyad Plan meshes well with the incrementalist and hands-on approach fleshed out in the IPF report.

"The Fayaad plan is special because it's practical, and it will change the reality without declaration. What lies between many of the Israelis and many of the Palestinians is slogans and rhetoric, and the Fayyad plan puts it aside, and says 'OK, we shall concentrate our efforts on building a state, and changing the reality on the ground,'" said General (ret.) Ephraim Sneh, former Israel Deputy Defense Minister, during a conference call regarding the IPF report last Monday.

The other major ideas produced during the Roundtable discussion centered primarily on the role of the United States and regional actors. Many contributors to the report felt that the US must play a critical role in mitigating Palestinian fears of the pitfalls of becoming a provisional state, and that Israel's Arab neighbors should fulfill their responsibilities as detailed in the Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap.

The participants of the Roundtable discussion are undoubtedly aware that their policy advice is easier said than done. But the very purpose of homing in on practical steps that improve the prospect of negotiations is to recognize that sometimes, the act of doing makes the act of saying a great deal easier.