Having reached the midway point of this term, the Obama administration is now at
a logical time to evaluate where its effort in Israeli-Palestinian mediation
stand, and to look ahead at prospects for the future.
administration inherited challenging conditions in 2009. The Bush
administration’s effort to define the Israeli-Palestinian endgame up front (in
what is known as the Annapolis Conference) had come up short. Israeli prime
minister Ehud Olmert faced corruption charges and was ultimately forced to
resign. During the final months of 2008, promising back-channel efforts with
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in narrowing territorial
differences to a little over 4 percent of the West Bank. But the process was not
durable. It went up in smoke with Olmert’s resignation and the Gaza War, which
raged from late 2008 to just before Barack Obama’s inauguration.
entered office, a very different political landscape began to emerge between
Israelis and Palestinians. A new Netanyahu government was formed after the
February 2009 elections in Israel. The new administration was not keen on
picking up the Annapolis process where Olmert and Abbas left off. Abbas, for his
part, found himself cornered: He did not trust Netanyahu and he felt trapped by
Obama’s call for a complete settlement freeze in the spring of 2009. As Abbas
has stated both in public interviews and in a private conversation we had in
Ramallah this summer, he had never insisted upon a settlement freeze being a
precondition for talks during previous negotiations with Olmert. Nor had Arafat
made this a precondition in negotiations with Rabin and Barak. In several public
interviews over the last year, Abbas has blamed the United States for instilling
a settlement freeze as his own precondition (although to be fair to the
administration, it never called it a precondition). Abbas feels Obama, in his
words, got him “up a tree” without a “ladder” – he could not be outflanked by
appearing to be less pro-Palestinian than President Obama.
United States was correct in pinpointing settlements as a major irritant,
setting the bar as high as a complete construction freeze led to even opponents
of the settlement cause in Israel to be silent. There were no rallies in Israel
saying “Yes to Obama” once Netanyahu said he was already willing not to
geographically expand the settlements.
This was a position he did not
take in the past. The administration could have instead assumed the position of
non-expansion instead of a total freeze. Had the administration taken this
alternate position, this issue would have been defused and final status
negotiations would not have been prejudged.
Instead, Arab critics would
judge the settlement moratorium as falling short of a full freeze, even though
the United States has done more than any of its predecessors. Neither my
colleague Robert Malley or myself are huge fans of settlements.
agree with what Malley told the New York Times on October 6, 2010, regarding the
U.S. approach of settlements.
“The original sin,” Malley wrote, “was
putting so much emphasis, an issue we couldn’t resolve.” He added, “We’ve spent
the whole year trying to undo the damage of that step.”
odd would transpire.
With the bar set so high, the Abbas government
rejected the U.S.- endorsed settlement moratorium of November 2009 as falling
short of what was truly needed. Yet, by August 2010, what was insignificant the
previous fall had suddenly become indispensible.
Abbas insisted that the
settlement moratorium must continue. Suddenly, the inconsequential become
indispensible in a remarkable turn of events. Moreover, nine of the ten months
in which the moratorium was in place were utterly wasted by the Palestinians.
Moreover, the Arab states did not come through with their promise of early 2009
to match Israelis steps towards the Palestinians with steps of their own towards
Israel. All this, in turn, was used by the Israelis as a reason not to extend
the moratorium in September 2010. The November 2009-August 2010 period was an
opportunity utterly lost, a loss magnified by the fact that developments on the
ground were good. Economic growth in the West Bank was 9 percent last year,
according to the International Monetary Fund. (Economic growth cannot be
divorced from international economic assistance, and that may come under
budgetary pressure given changes in U.S. midterm elections.) There were problems
on the Israeli side too, as Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman
disparaged his own premier’s peacemaking efforts, saying peace will not come in
this generation or the next, either. By the way, the single month of the
moratorium in which the Palestinians agreed to direct talks, September 2010,
lacked a bold focus on territory in the negotiations that could have forced the
Palestinians to put the extension of the moratorium in a wider
SO HOW to avoid further missed opportunities and ensure that the
settlement issue no longer overshadows the issue of peace negotiations? On one
hand, Netanyahu has reached some degree of success with President Obama this
Having never paid Netanyahu any compliments in the past, Obama
came out of their July 6 meeting and said, “I think he wants peace. I think he’s
willing to take risks for peace.”
Having reversed course and endorsed the
two state solution in a policy speech in June 2009, Netanyahu apparently
confided in Obama about his specific endpoint in reaching a two-state
The fact that he wants to hold the peace talks directly with
Abbas could be a sign of seriousness that he does not want talks ensnarled by
While Netanyahu may have successfully shared an
objective with the United States and the Palestinians, he has not demonstrated a
strategy to overcome his domestic constraints and reach the ultimate objective.
Herein lays the Netanyahu paradox. On one hand, Netanyahu fears a premature
fracturing of the Israeli right whereby Lieberman will attack his preliminary
concessions, causing Netanyahu to lose his electoral base. To this end,
Netanyahu hopes to conduct negotiations in such an intimate setting with Abbas
that he will be forced to make major decisions only at the final moment,
culminating in one big decision point. Until then, he seeks to preserve his
political capital and his coalition.
This presumes that the Middle East
operate under laboratory-like conditions with hermetically sealed rooms and a
friction-free period during the entire duration of the peace talks. Yet the
Middle East does not operate under laboratory conditions, and therefore one may
never reach the point where the political capital can finally be
The paradox of N e t a n y a h u ’ s approach of making only one
massive decision at the end and avoiding all decisions along the way is that it
could invite the very outcome that he seeks to avoid, which is an Obama peace
For if the United States is convinced the parties will not be able
to reach a decision due to the political wear and tear they will experience
along the way, Obama may be prompted to put forward a plan for the peace talks
in order to prompt that very big decision.
Indeed, traditionally U.S.
plans work best as bridges over a river – not over an ocean. The Clinton
Parameters of December 2000 is an example of a bridge over a river, as the
parties were not far apart. A plan could also fit in a radically different
context, namely as a walk-away strategy for the United States, hoping to stir
public debate in each society.
Those who favor an Obama plan today want a
third path, viewing it as a potential instrument for breakthrough while not
viewing it as an imposed solution in any way. While no U.S. decision has been
taken in this direction of a U.S.
plan, given American clear preference
for direct negotiations between the parties, the probability of such a third
path needs to be weighed very carefully.
If Israel wants to avoid the
United States putting forward an approach at a time that talks have hit an utter
impasse, it seems to me as an individual analyst, there is a way out. This is to
ensure that the Netanyahu government is broadened to include the Kadima party,
which has a critical twenty-eight seats in the 120 member Knesset. With a
broadened Netanyahu-led government, there will be sturdy support for a strategy
to reach a two-state solution. Suddenly the idea of an objective and a strategy
to reach the objective seem to be in synch. Of course, its drawback is that the
United States is not positioned to advance this idea given the sensitivities of
intervention of domestic politics in any country, not only
Whether it is the policy of a U.S.-led approach or the politics
of a broadened government in Israel, these are two possible options for the
Even under the best of circumstances, it will be difficult
for both peoples to solve all of their differences. There has been little
conditioning of the societal landscape of both societies in dealing with the two
narrative issues of this conflict: Jerusalem and refugees. Both issues cut to
the self-definition of the parties given how intertwined the issues of religion
and nationalism have become. Yet it is important to remember that the
territorial differences between the parties were narrow during the Olmert-Abbas
negotiations, and these differences are indeed bridgeable. This very day marks
the fifteenth anniversary of the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, the iconic ex-general
who gave his life for peace. This month is also the sixth anniversary of the
death of Yasser Arafat, whose legacy will surely be debated, but who personified
Palestinian nationalism. The tragedy of this conflict should not be allowed to
continue for another generation. Based on twin pillars of dignity and security,
we should not allow the past to bury the future in the Middle East.David
Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, where he directs its Project on the Middle East Peace Process.