P resident Barack Obama plans to go to the Middle East in two weeks, and the
Israeli Left and the Palestinians are praying he’ll be bringing an American
peace initiative. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Right are
praying he won’t.
Even if he wanted to, President Obama knows another US
peace push wouldn’t work. All the rhetoric aside – and it really is little more
than rhetoric – neither side is interested in, much less ready for, serious
At best, they may be ready to talk about talking about
peace. A diplomat who spent many frustrating years trying to broker
Israeli-Palestinian peace now says they are so far apart that “neither side
believes the other is committed to a two-state outcome.”
Dennis Ross, in a weekend New York Times op-ed, as if to demonstrate how remote
the chances of progress are, proposed 14 confidence-building measures just so
the two sides can get to the point where they’re willing to begin talking about
the core issues.
There will be no American peace plan simply because
neither side is ready or willing to move toward real reconciliation, preferring
instead to pursue short-term domestic interests while fully engaged in playing
the blame game.
For the foreseeable future, neither side has a government
in place. Netanyahu has been buffeted by the far Right, the Center and the
ultra-religious for weeks as he struggles to cobble together a new coalition
that probably won’t be in place by the time President Obama arrives.
shouldn’t make any difference to Obama since his most urgent task is to speak
directly to the Israeli people, whose confidence and backing he will sorely need
if he is to eventually prod their government to the peace table.
Ramallah, Obama will have to disabuse Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas of any notion he can be pushed into shoving a peace plan down Israel’s
throat on their behalf.
The Palestinians will hold elections later, and
any Hamas victory will be a defeat for any hope of a peace agreement for years
There are other good reasons Obama won’t bring a peace plan,
starting with domestic politics here; Congress would run interference if Israel
complained it was being strongarmed by Washington. Historically, such efforts –
by Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations – have always
The United States has been most successful when it was not the
proposer but the closer.
It was key to completing Israel’s peace
agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians –
all of which were initiated by the parties themselves. So it will have to be on
the Palestinian track.
When the two sides are ready they will need our
help sealing the deal.
For starters, neither side will be willing to make
major concessions to the other, but only to Washington, which will then be
expected to make sure the other side delivers and Uncle Sam foots the
Netanyahu has been long on the peace rhetoric but short on the
delivery. Obama needs to tell him he can’t keep expanding settlements and expect
anyone to believe he really supports a two-state solution. Settlement expansion
under Netanyahu has only added to Israel’s growing isolation and makes
Washington’s job of standing up for Israel more difficult.
Obama also has
to say these things publicly to Netanyahu or the prime minister will feel free
to ignore them or even deny the words were ever spoken.
reelection, Netanyahu told Secretary of State John Kerry, “The next government
that I will form will be committed to peace.” That reflects more of a change in
local politics than a change of heart.
Netanyahu agreed to make Tzipi
Livni his justice minister and his lead negotiator with the Palestinians, a role
she served as foreign minister in the Olmert government in 2008.
considerable progress at the time, and Abbas has said he would like to resume
negotiations at the point where they broke off with Livni in 2008. Netanyahu
rejected that throughout his recent term, and it is unclear how much real
authority he will give Livni. Abbas also has other conditions for resuming
talks: a freeze on all construction beyond the 1967 lines and a prisoner
Kerry, in his confirmation hearings and other statements, seems
intent on getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.
who started out on that track four years ago, failed badly and may not be
anxious to invest the political capital and personal time that both sides will
demand. And even if he is, the chances for success appear mighty slim for the
Ehud Barak, the outgoing defense minister who as
prime minister had gotten close to deals with both the Palestinians and the
Syrians, said in Washington on Sunday that the next Israeli government should
launch a “daring peace initiative” to lead toward a “reasonable, fair, interim
agreement.” And if that fails, it should “consider unilateral steps” as a
placeholder until a two-state solution becomes possible.
came to office four years ago believing that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict was a key to restoring stability in the Middle East and dealing with
other regional problems. That widely held theory of linkage was blown out of the
water by the rise of Islamist regimes and the fall of pro-western secular
national Arab leaders, the growing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear
ambitions and the Syrian civil war that threatens to explode beyond that
None of that would be any different even if Israel and
the Palestinians had made peace years ago.
When Air Force One lands at
Ben-Gurion Airport on March 20, Obama’s job will be to convince Israelis that
when both sides are ready to make peace, they can count on the United States to
give them its full backing, ready to help close the deal that they themselves
But anyone predicting major new US peace moves in the near
future just isn’t paying attention to a changing region and two parties to the
conflict paralyzed by domestic politics.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield