Diplomacy: 'Leading from behind'

Is Obama using same approach he employed in Libya by letting Quartet do the hard work in peace process? Can that be a positive thing for Israel?

US President Barack Obama 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Quietly, without fanfare, almost imperceptibly, the US is sharing the Israeli-Palestinian mediation baton with others. Call it the new Libyan model for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, or the Middle East peace version of “leading from behind.”
“Leading from behind” is the phrase a US administration official used in an interview with New Yorker magazine’s Ryan Lizza in April to describe Washington’s approach to Libya. After President Barack Obama’s critics seized on that phrase to ridicule the president, Lizza posted a blog entry saying that “at the heart of the idea of leading from behind is the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding or, as in the case of Libya, to be used as cover for a policy that would be suspect in the eyes of other nations if it’s branded as a purely American operation.”
It worked in Libya. NATO did the bombing, and as Obama proudly said this week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Gaddafi regime was overthrown without the loss of any US lives. “Not a single US troop was on the ground,” he said. “Not a single US troop was killed or injured, and that, I think, is a recipe for success in the future.”
The recipe seems simple – get the Europeans and some Arab states to do the heavy lifting and implement the policy the US supports. Why go it alone and pay the price? Let others carry the burden and even take the lead.
And if that worked in Libya, might it not work here as well?
SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT took place Wednesday in Jerusalem when Quartet envoy Tony Blair and representatives from the Quartet – David Hale from the US, Helga Schmid form the EU, Sergei Vershinin from Russia and Robert Serry from the UN – met separately with the parties in Jerusalem in an effort to break the diplomatic logjam and get the sides to direct talks. And that significant something had nothing to do with the meetings themselves, because – as expected – those meetings did not lead to a breakthrough.
What was significant was that this was a return to the past, with one big difference: It was the Quartet, not the US, in the middle trying to get the sides to the table.
Back in the early part of 2010, George Mitchell, who was then Obama’s hand-picked Middle East envoy, was doing the same thing that the Quartet representatives tried to do on Wednesday: meeting with the sides to urge, nudge, cajole, pressure them back to direct negotiations. There was even a name given to this whole exercise: proximity talks.
Tellingly, more than a year later, we are pretty much at the same spot: trying to get the two sides once again to agree to direct talks, with the Palestinians saying they will only do so if Israel freezes settlement construction, and various types of pressure being exerted on Israel to stop the building.
The Quartet, in its plan for renewing negotiations that was unveiled at the UN on September 23, called for a direct meeting between the sides within a month. Instead, what it got was a reincarnation of “proximity talks,” and even that three days late.
What distinguishes late 2011 from early 2010 is that now the man in the middle is no longer the US represented by Mitchell, nor even Hale, his low-profile replacement (Mitchell handed in his resignation in May). The man in the middle is actually a grouping of men and women – the Quartet representatives.
Is this another example of the US leading from behind? Blair, in an interview this week with the Los Angeles Times, said the Quartet’s more active role in the peace process was not due to the US stepping back, because, as he said, “the US is still very much there.”
But, he said, the US is “also saying to the international community, ‘You’ve go to step up with us here.’” THE FIRST signs of this new approach appeared in February, when the Quartet – meeting in Munich – issued a statement saying it would “seek via its envoys to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels.”
Up until that point, it had been Mitchell and the US meeting the negotiators of both sides, and this was the first time that the Quartet – obviously with Washington’s agreement – made it clear that it was not content merely with discussing and then approving what the Americans were cooking up; it had its eyes on a bigger role. And now it seems the US, which hasn’t exactly had resounding success solving the Israeli-Arab conflict, is willing to give it one.
Also consider the following: After Obama’s empathetic and sympathetic address toward Israel at the UN in September, and in light of Washington’s strong opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid there, various Palestinian officials said that the US – even with what is arguably the most sympathetic administration they have ever had – could no longer serve as an honest broker; they demanded greater involvement of the Quartet.
In addition, with Obama facing reelection in just over a year’s time, the last thing he needs right now is to get in the middle of Israel and the Palestinians again.
The US president needs to cut his loses right now, not take on new risks that could blow up in his face. Intense involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, and the likelihood of another confrontational relationship with Jerusalem that would most likely ensue, would only be bad for Obama. It would serve the Republicans, who are going to blast him anyway on his record on Israel, and it could cost him dearly with Jewish campaign donations, and some Jewish votes in key battleground states.
Which doesn’t mean the US administration doesn’t want to be involved and impact the developments. The US can’t afford not to be involved, but Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who have been uncharacteristically quiet about the situation here over the last few months – are showing a willingness to direct action from the shotgun seat, and not exclusively from behind the wheel.
IS THIS good for Jerusalem? No, and maybe.
No, in the sense that Israel has a degree of trust in the US that it obviously doesn’t have in any of the other three components of the Quartet: the EU, Russia or the UN.
Nobody in Jerusalem really thinks it’s better for Brussels to be directing the diplomatic traffic than Washington.
But maybe, in the sense that the Palestinians and the Arab world might favorably consider proposals coming from the Quartet, that they would reject out of hand were they to be served up by Israel or even the US. For instance, the PA has once again stated – as it did during Mitchell’s efforts in 2010 – that it will not reenter direct talks without a total settlement freeze, including in neighborhoods beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem.
While Netanyahu has dismissed the idea – saying in his Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post that he “gave at the office,” meaning he tried a 10-month settlement freeze and it didn’t work – various ideas are being floated about a partial freeze. Among those ideas are a freeze along the lines of the informal understandings that existed during the Bush administration – that Israel could build inside the large settlement blocs, but not in isolated settlements elsewhere.
While it is clear that were Netanyahu to broach these types of ideas publicly, or even were they to come from Obama – who called for a complete settlement freeze upon taking office – the Palestinians would reject them. But what if they came from the Quartet, which includes the anti-settlement EU, the pro-Palestinian UN, and Russia, which in July stood firmly inside the Quartet against trying to get the PA to say it would recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
Coming from a “neutral interlocutor,” might the Palestinians then accept the idea as a way to get down from the high tree of no talks until there is no settlement construction at all? And might this not be a US attempt at leading from behind, or – as Lizza put it – “the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding”?