The Region: A remarkable record of failure

It appears increasingly unlikely that the president’s high-profile effort to restart Israel-Palestinian talks will succeed this year, and perhaps well beyond.

December 6, 2010 01:44

BARRY RUBIN. (photo credit: courtesy)

While the outcome still isn’t clear, it seems that a new example of failure and humiliation is unfolding for the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the president’s high-profile effort to restart Israel-Palestinian talks will succeed this year, and perhaps well beyond.

This embarrassment is taking place due to faulty assumptions: • That a high-profile effort would serve US interests. By showing American engagement on the issue, the administration thought it would please Arab and Muslim- majority countries and gain their support on other issues. This didn’t work.

• That, at best, a high-profile campaign would be likely to bring rapid progress toward comprehensive peace.

That obviously isn’t working.

• That, at minimum, it could get the two sides to sit down to pretend talks – talks where nothing actually happened, but which could be portrayed as a diplomatic achievement. Even that isn’t working.

Part of the problem is the administration’s mistaken assumption that the Palestinians are eager to negotiate and get a state, plus the belief that the current PA leadership could deliver. In fact, both of these ideas are wrong.

Most of the PA leadership (and the masses, too) are still locked into the belief that a combination of armed struggle and intransigence will bring total victory some day, and wipe Israel off the map. And even though they are more moderate than this, neither President Mahmoud Abbas nor Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are strong or determined enough to change this.

HERE’S THE latest example. The Fatah Revolutionary Council has not only rejected ever recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, or land swaps as part of a peace agreement, but also refuses to establish a Palestinian state with temporary borders. Yet that last point is Abbas’s main strategy for a unilateral declaration of independence.

Despite lip service to Abbas, then, the council made it clear that Fatah is in control, not him much less Fayyad.

In other words, if there were to be such a declaration of independence, the Palestinian state would claim all the West Bank, all of east Jerusalem, and all of the Gaza Strip (which is ruled by Hamas, not Israel).

According to the council’s statement: “The council also renews its refusal for the establishment of any racist state based on religion in accordance with international law and human rights conventions.”

Naturally, they didn’t mention that the Palestinian constitution’s first sentence proclaims that Palestine is an Arab state whose official religion is Islam.

So much for not having a “racist state.”

As a further sign of the hard-line stand, Abbas himself complained that Israel wants to “close the door” to all Palestinians who once lived there, or their descendents, to come live there – the so-called right of return, another demand making peace impossible.

Abbas is known to be personally very devoted to this point.

The council also condemned US policy – a reminder that Fatah is no friend, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to court it.

Abbas said that if negotiations fail, “we want to go to the UN Security Council to ask the world to recognize the Palestinian state. President Barack Obama has said that a Palestinian state must be established within a year, and would be a member of the UN.”

While this slightly distorts what Obama said in his UN speech – that he hoped there would be full peace within a year – it shows how his soft statements fuel PA intransigence and feed false hopes that the Palestinians can have everything they want (at least for this stage) without giving up anything.

ANOTHER PART of the problem is the administration’s mistaken view that it could pressure or bribe Israel and the PA.

Yet since neither side has faith in the Obama administration, knows that it’s weak and has seen (at least Israel has) that it doesn’t keep its commitments, any incentive for cooperating is reduced. In the PA’s case (in contrast to Israel’s treatment), as far as can be seen, the US doesn’t even apply pressure or criticism.

But even that’s not all. There’s every indication that the administration has handled the negotiations incompetently. It focused on getting Israeli concessions without firming up the PA side, thus allowing the PA to demand more. The offer to Israel was presented in a confused manner, and it still isn’t clear what precisely was to be given in exchange for a three-month construction freeze.

Moreover, part of the package that led people to say Israel was being “bribed” seems to consist of things that the US has always provided, like support in the UN or maintaining Israel’s strategic advantage over its enemies.

The whole thing has turned into a mess, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened in Obama policies.

To cite just four examples: • The raising of the construction freeze idea in the first place.

• The position that promises made by the Bush administration would not be fulfilled by his successor.

• Praising Israel for a construction freeze that didn’t include Jerusalem and then screaming when Israel fulfilled the conditions.

• Announcing last year that intensive negotiations would begin in two months when no such thing had been agreed to by the PA.

Yet even that’s not all. Why did the administration seek a three-month freeze (originally a two-month freeze) at all? What was the goal? After all, even if the administration had obtained the freeze, there would have been 12 weeks of stagnant conversation – purchased at a high price – followed by the break-down of the talks.

So far the Obama administration has achieved a remarkable record of failure on this issue. Has it done much harm? To the Middle East, not so much perhaps, but to its reputation and credibility this has been disastrous.

Finally and most devastatingly, it isn’t clear that the current government has learned anything from the experience.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.

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