Obama Causing America's Stature in the Middle East to Deteriorate: Heavy-handed U.S. intervention has stalled the Arab-Israeli peace process
By Mortimer B. Zuckerman, US News & World Report, October 15, 2010
Why did the Palestinians terminate the Arab-Israeli peace talks? The justification cited was the Israeli refusal to extend the moratorium they had put on construction in the settlements. It is a phantom excuse, the product of President Obama's heavy-handed intervention.
It is never a good idea to expect parties in conflict to negotiate in the glare of publicity. Attitudes are struck to appease partisans, and they impact negatively on the "private" talks. Why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out is itself a piece of grandstanding that does not serve the Palestinians, since in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu they have a leader who can deliver. Netanyahu has a strong parliamentary coalition and a high degree of public support. He has already made a public commitment to an independent Palestinian state, and he is the first Israeli prime minister to commit to a moratorium on all settlement construction.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated for almost 20 years without settlement construction becoming a fundamental impediment. A peace agreement was achieved with Egypt without prohibiting settlements. The Palestinians signed the Oslo accords without a moratorium on settlements and even acknowledged that Israel would be building on the West Bank, not to mention that the Israelis evacuated all the settlements in Gaza. To this day, all of the Israeli construction put together doesn't even cover 2 percent of the West Bank. And this doesn't take into account that Netanyahu was clearly prepared to consider maintaining, at least informally, a partial moratorium in the form of limiting building solely to agreed-on blocks that would be retained by Israel in any final peace agreement. This was hardly the first time Israel responded to American calls for a moratorium in the hope of enticing Palestinians to agree to talks. President Carter induced then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to agree to a three-month settlement freeze during the Camp David negotiations. It made no difference to the Palestinians; they just kept on refusing to negotiate.
So why should the settlements have become the one issue to kill the talks? The key reason is that from the very beginning of his presidency, Obama put the construction in the settlements at the center of his Middle East strategy. It was the original sin that has hamstrung the possibility of successful talks. Public advocacy of the freeze not only put Israel in a bind, but it also put the Palestinians in an even tighter bind, giving both little room to maneuver. When Obama spoke repeatedly for a construction freeze in the West Bank as a public condition for the renewal of talks, it turned the settlement freeze from a dignified wish into a threshold demand that needed to be met in full. It also set a bar that made it impossible for the Palestinians to compromise. Abbas cannot be less Palestinian than the U.S. president.
This wasn't the only American miscalculation. Having gotten Israel to agree to a 10-month moratorium, why did the United States tolerate Abbas's spending the first nine months equivocating? Then the president publicly demanded an extension ahead of the 10 months, thereby rewarding the Palestinian Liberation Organization for its delay.
The effect of all this was to put the Israeli prime minister into a box, limiting his choices to a humiliating capitulation or direct confrontation with the United States. If he had continued the freeze without any Palestinian reciprocity, he would have been seen as betraying the settlers and his previous commitment, too. His pledge to limit the moratorium to 10 months would have proved worthless. He would have destroyed the last vestiges of the trust he needed, and still enjoys, with the pro-settlement wing of his party. In Middle East culture, it is critical to stick to one's word and not be seen as buckling under pressure. For Netanyahu to do otherwise, while the Palestinians were not required to do anything to advance the peace process, is not a workable arrangement in an arena where unilateral concessions are seen as a weakness rather than a constructive contribution.
This was especially sensitive since the Palestinians initially asserted the moratorium was not significant. Indeed, it was part of their rationale for not entering direct talks and then wasting nine of the moratorium's 10 months. Now something that was originally deemed insignificant is suddenly indispensable.
In other words, the crisis over the moratorium was Obama's creation. As it is said in the Middle East, both parties were put up in a high tree and left without a ladder to get down. Paradoxically, the whole issue of the settlements is of secondary importance, because it would have been resolved by definition once the parties agreed to boundaries. Settlement construction on the Israeli side of the line would then be permitted, and the other side of the line would be turned over to the Palestinians.
Even the notion of a two-month extension of the moratorium made little sense. Why not a longer extension? Nothing much could have happened in two months except for the fact that it would have carried over past the U.S. congressional elections. Even worse, extending it by two months would have given the Palestinians the power to blackmail Israel indefinitely, as they would have the opportunity to renew their threat to cease negotiations at the end of the two-month period.
The net result was to pressure Netanyahu into an unnecessary concession that he is unable to make politically. Furthermore, the American obsession with the settlement freeze also cornered Abbas. The United States was urging him to go back to the table while making it impossible for him to get there. Even worse, it raised the question among Israelis of whether Abbas was inflating the issue of settlement construction as a way of skirting the need to make the tough decisions in a serious negotiation. Or perhaps his hope was to provoke a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, as well as to get the world to blame Israel for the failure to commence a serious dialogue.
Obama's public focus on the freeze has also frozen his own capacity to be a peacemaker. The Arab leaders view the freeze as a test of the effectiveness of the Obama administration. They now think that if Obama can't enforce the freeze on Israel, he'll be unable or unwilling to force his opinions on the Israelis during the ongoing negotiations. The Israelis also view the freeze as a test of their credibility, for it will dramatically reduce their ability to say no. In turn, this might induce the Palestinians to become even more hard line, tempting the United States to press the Israelis again and again. At risk, then, would be the political support Netanyahu needs to deliver; remember, this is a democracy not a dictatorship. No wonder the Israelis feel they are being punished for the misjudgments of the Obama administration, which failed to distinguish between the crucial and the marginal issues.
What should Obama have done? He should have told the parties it was up to them to work out these differences. The result of meddling is that almost the entire Middle East leadership looks upon American diplomacy as amateurish. What has come out of this administration is an unending number of speeches and press conferences that have placed the Israeli-Palestinian issue under the media spotlight. Progress requires truly private negotiations—far from the cameras, spotlights, microphones, and press conferences. The historic breakthroughs have been achieved through private channels and private diplomacy: consider how Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger achieved the opening to China. The landmark Oslo accords were achieved through private talks and in complete secrecy and should serve as a model for all Middle East negotiations.
It is not surprising that America's stature in the Middle East continues to deteriorate. Iran is advancing toward nuclear capabilities and scorning Obama as it destabilizes the region. Meanwhile, a Shiite prime minister has been elected in Iraq with the help of Iran's ally Syria and may very well open Iraq to greater influence from Iran, especially in the Shiite south. Indeed, the Shiite Sunni conflict is becoming ever more extreme. Turkey has become more radicalized and seems to have joined the Iranian-Syrian axis. Hezbollah now threatens to destabilize the government in Lebanon and, along with Hamas, has gained significant political and military strength from their alliance with an expansionist Iran. America is sinking deeper and deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire of an unwinnable war. Worst of all, the United States has not succeeded, nor even truly tried, to build an effective strategic alliance of moderate Arab states.
There is still a little time for this administration to bring fresh thinking to its team managing the Middle East peace process. Otherwise, the period will be marked down as four more years of failure.