Friday, December 17, 2010

Two States, No Solutions

Barack Obama says the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is a threat to the United States' national security. But is he acting like it is?

DECEMBER 17, 2010

Last weekend I was in Abu Dhabi, where I teach a class on U.S. foreign policy, and I was asked to do a Q&A on the Barack Obama administration's Middle East policy. Preparing myself, I knew what I wanted to say about Iran, and Iraq, and elections in Egypt. But I was flummoxed on the "peace process." The process had just ground to a halt with the administration's decision to abandon the mortifying effort to bribe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into adopting the very modest gesture of a 90-day freeze on settlements. I always try to challenge my audience's assumptions. But if my Emirati listeners felt that Israeli intransigence had driven the Palestinians to despair of the possibility of a two-state solution, I had nothing to say in response -- except that internal Palestinian divisions had made the problem worse.

It was a friendly audience -- this was Abu Dhabi, not Cairo. But afterward I was asked, "How can President Obama permit this? Can't he put pressure on the Israelis?" I thought: What's the right answer to this question? Is it: "He tried, but not hard enough, and then he gave up"? Or is it: "No, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, he's found that he has less leverage than he thought"?

You can make a reasonable argument that Obama has done about as well as he could with the hand he was dealt in Iran, in Iraq, and even in Afghanistan (though this last case has become harder and harder to make). You can't make this argument in regard to the peace process, where the administration has in effect admitted defeat, giving up hope for promoting direct talks between the two sides in favor of "parallel" talks, with an American mediator shuttling back and forth between capitals. Although this will remove the impediment of a settlement freeze Israel declined to accept, it will require compromises on underlying issues which neither side seems prepared to make, and offers accordingly little prospect of success. At the same time, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gen. David Petraeus have stated publicly that the ongoing failure of the peace process constitutes a threat to American national security. The despair the Palestinians now feel, and the anger among broader Arab publics, is very dangerous for the United States. Not only al Qaeda, but Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the anger in the Islamic world over the plight of the Palestinians.

The White House has a number of potential alternatives, which I'll come to in a moment; the problem is that the Palestinians don't. I asked Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-American intellectual who directs a public policy institute at the American University in Beirut, what he felt Palestinians could or should do at this point. "There's zero leverage on our side," he said. "If this completely fails, I think the likelihood is you're going to get intense pressure within Palestinian society for a reconfigured politics -- maybe a national unity government, maybe a reactivation of the PLO, maybe resistance through peaceful means or military means."

As yet, there are no signs of a return to violence in the West Bank, only scattered talk of civil disobedience. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas fears that violence would discredit his own government and strengthen Hamas. As for the proposed "national unity" government, Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Social Science Research in Ramallah, told me that Abbas views reconciling with Hamas as tantamount to cohabitating with a wolf. "Fatah and Hamas perceive as each other as the most significant threat they confront," says Shakiki. But how long can Abbas and his government survive rising public anger and disillusionment? This, in fact, is the problem with Thomas Friedman's recent suggestion that the best way for the United States to advance the cause of peace at this moment of stalemate is to "just get out of the picture" and force both sides to contemplate the nightmare scenarios before them. For the Netanyahu administration, any nightmare scenario appears to lie in a future beyond the prime minister's own political horizon; the status quo is fine. But it is precisely this prospect which will increase the pressure for resistance inside the Palestinian territories.

Abbas doesn't want to be "reconfigured" out of power. He will probably continue to build the institutions of Palestinian statehood, which Washington has encouraged and Israel has tolerated. Perhaps the Obama administration can press Tel Aviv to advance that project with more cooperation on security issues: fewer checkpoints and greater ease of movement. But Abbas's goal is to execute an end-run on the failed peace process by gaining unilateral recognition for Palestine's statehood. Brazil and Argentina have recently granted such recognition, though the European Union has said that it would do so only when "appropriate." This does, indeed, sound like a real form of leverage, though the state for which Abbas will be seeking recognition will remain strictly hypothetical until Palestine and Israel can agree on its borders. The real goal would be to gradually "delegitimize" what the Palestinians view as Israel's illegal occupation of its territories.

Indeed, international delegitimation may be the most powerful weapon the Palestinians have. The West Bank leadership will keep raising accusations that Israel is violating international law, whether through its blockade of Gaza or its commando raid last May on the flotilla seeking to break the blockade, in the hopes of shifting global public opinion and thus raising the pressure on Israel. Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University and a pronounced skeptic of the peace process, suggests that the "South Africanization of Israel, if coupled with a domestic nonviolent campaign," might make the status quo far less acceptable to Israelis.

Israel, of course, has been living with delegitimation for a long time, and is prepared to keep doing so. But is the Obama administration prepared to continue acting as Israel's sole bulwark against the world? Officials have steadfastly defended Israel from criticism and backed off the demand for a settlement freeze, even as their own frustration has mounted. Netanyahu has now killed Plan A. Plan B, the parallel talks, will finally allow the administration to put its own proposals for borders and perhaps the other "final-status" issues on the table. Maybe something will come of that; but it's unlikely. The two sides are becoming less, not more, prepared to make painful sacrifices.

The Netanyahu government has gotten very deft at stringing Washington along without explicitly saying no. What if that happens again with the parallel talks? Is the Obama administration prepared to do something that would put real pressure on Tel Aviv? The answer is almost certainly no. There are no signs that Clinton or others are leaning in this direction, and with an incoming Congress even more primal in its support for Israel than the current one, the White House is unlikely to risk the political costs of tightening the screws on Israel. And yet Israel's intransigence ensures that the "new beginning" with the Middle East that Obama famously promised in his Cairo speech of June 2009 will not happen, with all the attendant consequences for America's standing in the region. Is that really acceptable?

If the White House fears the consequences of Palestinian efforts at applying leverage, whether through violence or civil disobedience or "South Africanization," then it must find leverage of its own. Certainly, it has a lot more sticks and carrots than the Palestinians do. Should the administration begin to apply conditions to U.S. aid, as the blogger M. J. Rosenberg recently proposed? Should it open up channels with Hamas, as others suggest? Should it stop automatically rushing to Israel's side every time its ally is accused of violating international law? Far less controversially, what about going public with a proposed map of the two states, either directly or through the medium of the United Nations? Both the Netanyahu government and Hamas would be likely to reject the proposal, but it might galvanize publics on both sides, thus strengthening Abbas's hand and weakening Netanyahu's.

If the Obama administration really believes that the impasse in the Middle East is a national security threat for the United States, than Obama will have to mobilize American public opinion behind whatever action he chooses to take. He will have to explain that this is not a question of pitting American interests against Israeli ones, but of acting in a way that ensures the long-time security of both states. In the Cairo speech, he eloquently addressed the hopes of the Middle East. Now he must face the equally difficult, and equally crucial, task of addressing the public at home.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. "Terms of Engagement," his column for, runs weekly.


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