Above The Fray: A dismal failure of leadership all round

With the collapse of recent peace efforts, it’s only fair to place the blame at the feet of all parties involved.

December 17, 2010 15:24
The fanfare of direct talks has ground to a halt.

Netanyahu Clinton Abbas laughing 311. (photo credit: AP)

It is hard to describe the state of affairs of the Arab-Israeli conflict at this particular juncture without using adjectives such as sad, unfortunate or even tragic. The collapse of the peace process is indicative not only of the failure of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, but of the other parties involved, in particular the Arab states and the Obama administration. It is tragic because all the parties seem to focus on political expediency, while they lose the capacity show the vision and courage needed to avert the regional disaster that is in the making.

I am not sure how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants to be remembered. As things stand, he will surely be recalled as the prime minister who twice lost an historic opportunity to forge peace with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. It is one thing to miss such an opportunity if the status quo remains frozen. It is an entirely different matter, however, when the enemies of peace are steadily gaining power and will certainly pose a far greater danger in the absence of peace.

Netanyahu has shown not only a lack of ability to lead, but has been systematically engaged in deceiving the Americans and the Palestinians, while misleading his own people. Using his right-wing government as an excuse for his inability to engage the Palestinians in earnest is nothing short of demagoguery. He knows that he could have made basic – and inevitable – concessions to lure the Palestinians to the negotiating table. He could have also changed the composition of the government by dumping Shas and Israel Beiteinu and inviting Kadima to join him.

But he opted not to, simply because he and his coalition partners are unwilling to make any meaningful concession.

Netanyahu may see a hopeful sign in the fact that the Obama administration has given up its effort to persuade Jerusalem to freeze construction in the settlements, but the judgment of time will be much harsher than he can imagine. Israel will end up paying a dear price for the tragic mistakes that he has willfully committed.

JUST AS tragically, the Palestinian leadership does not fare any better. It is understandable that for ideological and political reasons Hamas will continue to hold onto its extreme position, but the same cannot be said about Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. Surely he has internal and external constraints, but that does not explain his failure to demonstrate leadership and rise above past prejudices and skepticism. No leader can claim to want peace but then allow certain preconditions – the settlement freeze – to stop him from entering into serious negotiations.

Moreover, Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have failed to utilize the remarkable progress they made in maintaining security throughout the West Bank and their impressive economic developments to change the dynamic of the negotiations by changing the rules of engagement. Abbas remained bogged down in negotiations with Hamas, which unavoidably limited his maneuvering room in trying to negotiate with Israel. Although Abbas appears to be committed to a nonviolent solution to the conflict, he remains politically weak and isolated. Instead of taking new initiatives, he relied heavily on the Americans to deliver the Israelis and on the Arab League to provide him with the political cover to engage or disengage the Netanyahu government, missing yet again another opportunity to reach an agreement.

The Arab states too have fallen short. What ever happened to the Arab peace initiative? Why is it that the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, has done next to nothing to promote it, especially among the Israelis? Especially because of the growing Iranian threat, the Arab states have every reason to begin some serious back-channel diplomacy to assure the Israelis of their true intentions. It is not enough to present a general framework for a comprehensive peace.

The Israelis, who have and continue to be extremely skeptical about the Arab states’ ultimate intentions, want to see a concrete move in the direction of normalization.

The Arab states have become the victims of their own rhetoric, consistently maintaining the same political narrative.

For example, the rhetoric about the right of return gives Netanyahu the excuse he needs not to engage in serious negotiations.

The Arab states have a critical role to play. They have to do more to moderate Hamas’s position and take advantage of the changing regional geopolitical dynamic, especially in confronting Iran.

The WikiLeaks cables reveal the Arab states’ profound fear of Iran’s growing influence. It is time to abandon their hypocrisy and take a stand against Hamas and Hizbullah to demonstrate that they are committed to regional stability.

FINALLY, THE US should take a much harder look at its initial failure to mediate peace. Whereas the Obama administration received high marks for starting the peace process in the first days of assuming power, it must now accept the deserved blame for failing to properly assess the political and physical realities on the ground. It is time for it to realize that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will forge peace without forceful American diplomacy. The administration needs a new strategy and a new team while insisting on a much more active and direct involvement by the Arab states.

The current team led by George Mitchell is tired and perhaps out of touch with the political constraints under which the Israelis and the Palestinians live. Moreover, Mitchell has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the underlining mind-sets in both camps. I maintain that it is time for the administration to come up with its own plan based on prior agreements and on negotiating borders first.

President Barack Obama has barely a year to achieve a breakthrough. He must make it abundantly clear to all parties that American interests are being systematically undermined by the continuing conflict.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can seek continued American support and security guarantees but ignore vital American interests. The US has every right to demand that both sides come to grips with what is required to move toward a political solution. The administration should not hesitate to bring pressure to bear on both sides to make the necessary concessions. If this precipitates the collapse of either government or both, so be it.

No single entity can achieve a comprehensive peace unless all parties are prepared to make critically necessary concessions or take a new initiative. While the conflict continues, the only country benefiting from the impasse is Iran. It virtually controls all of Iraq, exerts enormous influence in Syria and holds tremendous sway in Lebanon. It is bent on developing nuclear weapons and is poised to become the region’s hegemon. Neither Israel, the Arab states nor the US can allow that to happen.

But it will happen as long as the Arab- Israeli conflict continues to simmer and the leadership on all sides fails to rise to the occasion.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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