President Obama was officially re-elected by the electoral college yesterday, but as he turns toward a new term, he is still haunted by one of the biggest failures of the first four years of his presidency: Israeli-Palestinian peace relations. At Via Meadia, we think that the President needs a better approach to get better results.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been losing steam since 2000, and the president’s efforts did little to revive them. It’s mostly forgotten now, but fixing this was a top priority of the Obama administration in its halcyon early days. The President came on the scene strong in 2009, determined to make resolving this dispute a centerpiece of his agenda and starting what he hoped would be a transformative presidency by demanding an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for talks. This decision would quickly blow up in his face and put the administration in a trap from which it has yet to escape.
Palestinians, who hadn’t actually made this a pre-condition, were forced to endorse it in order to appear as hawkish on Israel as the Americans. Israel refused the freeze, as most seasoned observers of this hoary problem predicted, and in so doing bolstered the Palestinian cause—sending the message to the world that Israeli intransigence was preventing the path to peace. But the Israeli government also benefited, albeit less than the Palestinians. Most of the Israeli population disapproved of Obama’s ultimatum, so Netanyahu faced no pressure in rejecting it and to this day he continues to milk political advantage from negative Israeli perceptions about President Obama. (American Jews, on the other hand, supported the President in 2009 and support him now. Those who perceive American and Israeli Jews as marching in lockstep are either not paying attention or are blinded by prejudice.)
Since then the peace talks have all but sputtered to a halt, as both sides rest in the mess the White House made. The PA’s decision to seek enhanced status at the United Nations was one of many consequences of this failure, and the President’s prestige and credibility in the Middle East has never recovered from his early failure to achieve his self-proclaimed goals in the peace process.
But it’s a new term, and if the President was wrong in his strategy for resolving this dispute he was entirely correct that getting Israeli-Palestinian relations on track would be a major achievement and would materially assist American foreign policy around the world. He was also correct that Israeli and American interests are not identical on this point; where he failed was in developing a workable strategy to advance American interests on a critical issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute doesn’t seem as central today as it did in 2009. The war in Syria, the revolutions in the Arab world and above all the rise of a bitter Sunni-Shiite transnational religious war have pushed the Israel issue into the background for many Middle Eastern governments. When the Gulf monarchies are focused on what they see as a stark threat from Iran, Israel looks more like a strategic asset than like a hideous threat. When and if Iran’s power is controlled, the Israeli issue could well surge back to the forefront of regional politics, although even then the situation is likely to be surprisingly complex.
Even so, it is prudent and proper for the White House to look for ways in a new term that some kind of peace process can once more build up momentum. The smoother Israeli-Palestinian relations become, the easier will the administration’s path become at home and abroad.
As the President looks ahead, the signs are not all dark. A new Israel Hayom poll reflects that Israelis are still quite sympathetic to the idea of a two-state solution. A majority supports it, although most think that it won’t happen and that Abbas won’t be able to get the Palestinians to agree to it.
Yet there is still a major hindrance to productive talks, and contrary to popular belief it is not the settlements. Or rather, while the settlements are part of the problem, they are not the root cause. Many people want to embrace the happy fantasy that the Palestinians are ready today to make peace if those nasty Israelis would just stop provoking them by building new settlements, and that if we in the West press Israel enough on the settlement question, peace will quickly come.
At Via Meadia we don’t think the settlements are helpful and we do think that new ones will make it tougher to get an agreement, but we don’t think that pressuring Israel on settlements is the way to get to peace. But that doesn’t mean being reduced to the status that some have called “Israel’s lawyer” in peace discussions. In our view, the real reason the peace process hasn’t succeeded in producing real peace is not that Israeli settlements keep Palestinians away from the table.
The real problem is exactly what it has been for sixty years: deeply rooted Palestinian opposition to a two-state solution. While many Palestinians are ready to accept that solution, many of those see it as only a temporary step on the road to a single, Palestinian state, and a very large group of Palestinians stands with the Hamas leadership in rejecting the legitimacy of Israel on any terms.
This is not because Palestinian opponents of the two state solution are bad people or stupid. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs three years ago, the Palestinians who oppose the two-state solution have rational grounds for their views, and the opposition is strong enough with a big enough base to stoke Israeli fears that the ‘land for peace’ trade (giving up the settlements as well as most of the land captured in the 1967 war) at the heart of the two state idea will not work. Israelis, they fear, will give up land but not get peace. And as long as that is the case, and most Israelis believe that territorial concessions will not bring secure peace, the right will dominate Israel on the territorial question, and the settlements will continue.
President Obama and other aspiring peace makers need to understand is that it is Palestinian opinion rather than Israeli policy that is the key variable in the peace equation. If Palestinian opinion shifts decisively and seriously toward serious support of a two state solution and permanent territorial compromise, Israeli policy and public opinion will change. But before that can happen, Israelis need to see more than a handful of Palestinian leaders profess their support for the two state solution on TV (while waffling about issues like the right of refugees to return to Israeli territory off camera), and they also need to see sturdier and more amenable Palestinian leadership. Hamas objects to recognizing Israel as a state even within the 1967 frontiers (still sticking to its ‘one state, no Jews’ plan, it seems).
The question that haunts Israelis isn’t so much whether a Palestinian leader would sign a peace treaty as whether the peace treaty would stick. Do the pro-peace Palestinians have the will and the ability to crush any anti-peace Palestinians who want, like the IRA did in Ireland, to continue the armed struggle?
Many Israelis don’t think the pro-peace Palestinians are there yet, and looking at the political strength of Hamas and of forces like Islamic Jihad that are even farther to the extreme, it is hard to disagree. The Obama administration needs to look hard at the Palestinian situation, understand why so many Palestinians don’t think a two-state solution will meet their needs, and then think about ways to build Palestinian support for this arrangement—without demanding more territory from Israel and while giving up the right of return.
The administration also must consider the future of Gaza, which is economically and even environmentally unsustainable, and think about the future of the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria. (If Malthus is right about anywhere in the world, it is in Gaza with its growing population and limited resources that his theories could have predictive value.) Will they get passports in the countries where they now live? Will a nominal ‘right of return’ to an overcrowded West Bank and Gaza really provide a solution to the problems that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in these countries (and in Jordan) actually face? Will Palestinians continue to receive aid from the UN after a peace treaty? What will happen to their living standards if refugee assistance disappears?
A real and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians has to offer enough Palestinians enough of an answer to their real needs that a solid of majority of Palestinians will not only accept the treaty but be prepared to enforce it against the minority of dissenters. For peace to work, Palestinian police will have to conduct constant surveillance and undercover operations against Palestinian would-be bombers and rocketeers, prosecute them for crimes against Israel and public opinion will have to support a long term policy of repressing movements that seek to wrap themselves in the mantle of the liberation struggle, have deep roots among refugee families, and can count on significant funding from sympathizers abroad.
We seem very far from that now; real peace looks like a long term process rather than a quick negotiation followed by a signing ceremony on the south lawn of the White House.
Past efforts to make peace have tried to do it over the heads of Palestinian opponents of the two state and have largely ignored their concerns—and past peace negotiations have ended in failure largely because the Palestinian leadership felt that the best terms it could get in negotiations were not enough to win the support of the people. Palestinian opponents of the two state solution have a real point. It’s an ugly and inconvenient truth but a real one: The West Bank and Gaza together are not enough to support the Palestinian people as it now exists.
If the world wants this conflict to end it has to think much harder about what options exist that could deliver a solid and durable majority of Palestinians not only to accept a two-state solution, but who will also crack down on the inevitable minority that will reject that solution and want to continue an armed struggle against Israel. We have to think about deal sweetening for the Palestinians if we are serious about peace.
There is no guarantee that this approach will work, and it will almost certainly not work quickly. There are substantive religious and theological objections among many Palestinians about ceding territory to non-Muslims. At a time when Islamic identification and militancy is rising across the region, it may not be possible for Palestinian moderates to deliver a lasting peace even though they sincerely want it. Secular, nationalist Palestinian opposition is also strong and deeply rooted in emotional and ideological concepts not easily compromised or forgotten.
It may be that for these reasons, real peace is out of reach for now. In that case, the rational course might be to go for a lasting truce in which neither side gives up ultimate claims but accepts a pragmatic, medium term ‘cease fire in place.’ If carefully designed, that kind of practical arrangement could buy time while the search for a conclusive peace treaty continued. Such an arrangement would not be unique. Russia and Japan, for example, have not yet signed a treaty ending World War Two, and while their territorial dispute is a real one, the two countries manage to cooperate and they aren’t shooting at one another. In the dispute between Taiwan and mainland China, the United States has promoted pragmatic arrangements while postponing the final status talks. A long term truce of this kind would enable Palestinians and Israelis to go about their lives in security and reduce tensions in a region that has plenty of other issues to worry about.
A long term truce would also allow the United States to work with other friends and allies on building an attractive vision for the Palestinian people that could come with a final peace with Israel. Instead of being seen as a power that constantly blocks and thwarts Palestinian aspirations, the United States could be actively working to put together a comprehensive approach to the future of the Palestinians that makes an end to the conflict more likely because the prospect of peace would be fleshed out in ways that made Palestinians more willing to embrace the final agreement.
Settlements are not irrelevant. Every time the Israelis expand an existing settlement or start a new one (and from a Palestinian point of view, though not an Israeli one, new housing in East Jerusalem counts as a new settlement), the natural and understandable political reaction among Palestinians weakens the hands of moderates who want a two state solution and strengthens the rejectionists. Moreover, as new settlers put down roots, it becomes harder for Israel to contemplate the abandonment of settlements as part of a treaty.
But a strategy based on the erroneous belief that pressuring Israel to make concessions on settlements will revive the peace process is unlikely to work well or long. It’s more likely that the reverse is true: finding a way to revive the peace process will make it easier to get the settlement issue under control.
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