It does seem rather comical now in retrospect, doesn’t it? Barely a month after his inauguration, Barack Obama’s name was put forward in nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. And not only was he given serious consideration despite the complete lack of anything on his resume except being elected president, he actually won! More than anything else, it was proof positive of the unanimity of feeling among the elites and the opinion-makers of the world that just by being who he was Obama was ushering a new age of hope for the global community.
But now Obama has the chance of actually making a dramatic breakthrough in the quest for peace, with the launch of a new round of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is a serious effort, it has some things going for it, and Obama is to be commended for once more pushing Sisyphus’ rock up the hill. I only wish it held good prospects for success.
The first good thing is the Obama Administration got past their own crazy condition that there had to be an absolute freeze on building in Jerusalem and elsewhere as a prerequisite for negotiations. This was a condition beyond anything any administration or either party in the Middle East had required for decades, and made it a complete non-starter. Fortunately, the White House has apparently seen how stupid that idea was and quietly put it to death. And, they persuaded Mahmoud Abbas to drop that as a precondition as well, which displays some diplomatic finesse.
They also got past the hissing spat they had with Binyamin Netanyahu last year. It may have been Obama thinking that if he kept the US’ key ally in the region at arm’s length it would help us maintain the “honest broker” role, who knows, but the world noted how we were treating one of the few countries in the world most critical to our security. That that quarrel has been soothed is also good. It brought Bibi to the table, and as a skeptical conservative Israeli leader, he could be able to deliver the way Nixon could credibly deliver a new relationship with China.
I also think their long-term schedule is a plus – not the high-pressure 10-day negotiating marathon, but neither the open-ended talk-for-talk’s-sake. If the interested parties can keep the pressure and momentum going for the year that the negotiations envision (a gargantuan “if” – see below), it might be enough to get results. They appear to have been more actively engaging neighboring Arab states in the process – Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have all been part of the launch, and that’s to the good. Finally, I think it is right to put a final treaty front and center as the objective – no “confidence-building” half-measures, but resolution of all the issues, Jerusalem, the right of return, security, the whole ball of wax. That way, if they come to an agreement it will finally be the final word.
But I had to ask myself, why now? What has changed in the Mideast dynamic that makes this an auspicious moment to take up once again the chimerical goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace? There are some elements that point to a quiet maturation of forces coming together. The Administration has apparently been working on the diplomacy on this for eighteen months, so despite the surface ructions perhaps there has been a steady movement toward this moment. Netanyahu must know it is in Israel’s interest to put this long-standing crisis to rest. Demographically, Israel is threatened from within, as its Arab citizenry is growing more rapidly than the Jewish part. Perhaps with Iran rapidly approaching the point where it poses a threat to Israel’s existence, they feel the urgent need to secure the home flank, as it were. Similarly, the Arab states in the neighborhood may feel equally ill at ease with the rise of Tehran’s influence, and have decided that enmity with Israel is an indulgence they can no longer afford. And as to the Palestinian side, there’s no question that Abbas would be helped immeasurably by success on the negotiating front. Moreover, one of the least-noted developments of the last ten years is the gradual establishment of the kind of institutions on the West Bank that would support a viable nation-state, including a professional police force, a vibrant business sector, and the beginnings of an independent judiciary.
So amid all these reasons for cautious optimism, is it possible that Obama can succeed where every single one of his predecessors has failed? The smart money says, sadly, no.
Begin with the timing issue. Coming as it does a mere two months before the interim elections at which Democrats are expected to get trounced, the launch of an effort like this that is long on atmospherics and short on immediate breakthroughs smacks at least as much of electioneering as it does of statecraft. Even if the timing is coincidental, one must question the staying power of this President on an issue that, critical though it is, is not glowing white-hot like so many others on the official to-do list. It got no mention in his recent Oval Office speech about Iraq, Afghanistan, and, bizarrely, economic recovery. And as he said in that speech (instead of laying out his vision for how to keep the nation secure in the era of what-passes-for-the-War-on-Terror-that-we-won’t-name-as-such), revitalizing the economy is going to be the focus of his Presidency going forward. Clearly, after that, he needs to worry about the hot war in Afghanistan and the lingering involvement in Iraq, the growing menace of Iran, a highly unstable Pakistan that might fall to the Taliban, and so forth. With all that, does anyone think he can sustain the effort of a long, frustrating negotiation that will inevitably require his personal engagement along the way?
But the real problem for this chance at peace is the same one faced by every well-meaning administration for the last sixty years: the Palestinians don’t want peace; they want extirpation. Perhaps not Abbas, perhaps not, officially, the Palestinian Authority that runs the West Bank. But this is the same group of people who within the last year renamed town squares in commemoration of terrorists – Omar Muhammad Ziyada, who blew himself up in a “heroic operation” in Herzliya that killed a 15-year-old girl, and Dahlal Maghrabi, who led a bus hijacking in 1978 that killed 37 innocents. And this is the moderate bunch of Palestinians! How can you negotiate security with people who commemorate those who slaughter your citizens?
And Hamas is worse, of course. On the eve of these talks, they launched another of their “heroic operations” in which two Israeli couples, including a woman 9 months pregnant, were stopped in their car as they were on their way home and gunned down – in a stroke rendering seven children orphans. In Gaza, they came out by the thousands to celebrate the heroism of their brave fighters, who had the courage to blast away on their AK-47’s as the enemy held up their bare hands, as if that could somehow help stop the bullets.
These people do not inhabit the same moral universe as the rest of us.
So even if Mahmoud Abbas is sufficiently domesticated to serve as a genuine participant in peace talks – he did, after all, condemn this last outrage – how can he possibly deliver on his promises? First of all, his position is so shaky that he has postponed elections for fear of handing the West Bank over to Hamas. So we end up with another version of the petty despot lording it over the West Bank, steadily losing legitimacy among his own people. At some point some new leadership will come to power, and given the dysfunctional nature of what passes for politics in the Palestinian Territories, there is no assurance that new leadership will be at all benign toward Israel.
Secondly, any final agreement on a Palestinian state must include Gaza, and that means including Hamas. They have stated unequivocally that they will not abide by any treaty negotiated with Israel. Nor is it likely that a pro-accommodation leadership, Palestinian Authority or otherwise, will take the reins in Gaza to make the deal with Israel possible. Because Hamas has also done away with the idea of elections, so there will be no referendum on the choice that brought them to power in 2006. (It’s a pattern with lots of these make-believe democratic movements, that once they win an election the voters are given no chance to change their minds – it’s one and done; that makes the political process unfolding in Iraq all the more remarkable.)
So you have an infantile political structure between the West Bank and Gaza, in which both contenders for leadership have literally made war on the other, each rules its fiefdom through force and/or fiat rather than legitimacy, and where the language of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and annihilation is daily fare in the streets and in the schools. Who is Israel supposed to negotiate with?
Finally, lurking over the whole proceedings like a malevolent puppet master, you have Iran. Imagine how the peace process will fare if – rather, make it when – Jerusalem decides it has to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Hamas will send its orcs over the border in waves, as will Hezbollah to the north, who have been steadily violating the truce and re-arming under the watchful eyes of the UN ever since the armistice of four years ago. What will Abbas have to say then? Or will the existence of this negotiation and the need to perpetuate it stay Israel’s hand? (Will the Obama Administration withhold its support of an Israeli operation and thereby force it to stay at the table?) And if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, and Israel’s negotiating position is immediately rendered inferior, how will that help the cause of peace?
I expect that Obama believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will undermine Tehran’s influence in the region, and deprive both the mullahs and al Qaeda of a potent issue around which to recruit and mobilize their fighters. Is that objective worth the sacrifice of Israel itself?