Above the Fray: It’s time for a presidential visit

Obama needs a new strategy on peace talks and it must begin with a trip to Israel after the midterm election.

Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
With the peace process at a standstill, President Barack Obama must shake up the current efforts, and his Mideast peace team, to get it back on track. He has invested an enormous amount of political capital to advance Middle East peace since taking office, yet has little to show for it. Even so, the US cannot abandon its efforts and leave Israel and the Palestinians to their own devices. It is therefore time to recognize that the current US strategy is not working and significant changes are needed if there is to maintain any hope for reaching a breakthrough in the coming year.
The new strategy must begin with Obama’s visit to Israel after the midterm election. Rightly or wrongly, his decision not to visit following his June 2009 Cairo speech and other trips to the region was interpreted as a slight. The Israeli public remains deeply skeptical of the administration. Although a majority support a two-state solution, the public remains passive and acutely cynical. This relatively silent majority will awaken if they understand what is at stake, and why it is in Israel’s and the US’s best interest to achieve peace now.
The Israeli public needs to hear it directly from Obama.
A personal appearance before the Knesset would have a decisive impact on public opinion and on his own personal standing and credibility. What the president needs is a game changer, and only when the Israeli public subscribes to the peace process with confidence and a belief that peace with security can be achieved will they raise their voices in support. During Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US in July he told Obama: “You know, I’ve been coming here a lot, it’s about time you and the first lady come to Israel, sir.” “I’m ready,” was Obama’s response. “We look forward to it. Thank you.”
Whether or not Netanyahu wishes for Obama to visit at this juncture, he has been invited. He should, as soon as possible, announce his readiness to visit because there may not be a better time than following the midterm elections.
FOR OBAMA to execute a new strategy, he requires a new team. Special envoy George Mitchell is overrated as a negotiator, and although he has a clear understanding of the conflict, he has failed to advance more compelling scenarios that deal with its psychological and emotional perspectives – the settlement debacle offers a case in point. In an effort to deflect criticism of the failing peace efforts, Mitchell has noted on several occasions that in his experience in Northern Ireland, he had “700 days of failure, and only one day of success.”
He will soon reach that 700-day mark, and there is still no sign of progress on the horizon.
Meanwhile, although Dennis Ross has reportedly been playing a more assertive role, he is old hat and does not have the trust of the Palestinians. Ross has little to show for his years of intimate involvement in the negotiations.
The recent US offer to provide security guarantees for a 60-day extension of the settlement moratorium exemplifies how the president’s team has failed. The US commitment to Israel’s security should not be a bargaining chip. Even though Netanyahu is reportedly still entertaining the offer, to make such an offer touches on the most sensitive issue for Israelis and suggests that security is negotiable or could be enhanced by additional guarantees and military hardware. This is exactly the wrong message to send, and it is high time to get the message right.
Both Mitchell and Ross should be replaced by an envoy who will stay in the region and work daily with both sides. One of the keys to recently retired Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton’s success as the US security coordinator charged with training the PA security services was that he lived in the region and spent each day earning the trust of Israelis and Palestinians.
With a new team in place, the Obama administration must not enable settlements to remain the foremost obstacle impeding progress. It made the mistake of making a settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations without taking into consideration that Netanyahu might reject this, and without a Plan B. The Palestinians latched onto the US position and now the process is stuck over the issue. To move forward, the US must change the dynamic completely and focus on a border agreement.
Netanyahu continues to say he is willing to discuss all issues. The Palestinians, with the support of the US and the Arab League, should take him up on the offer. The issue of borders should be the new launching point, with a goal to resolve it within six months. In addition, if any incremental agreement is reached, the US should institute new rules of engagement: Any agreements should be deposited with the US. Too much time has been wasted determining the point of departure for the negotiations. Depositing agreements would ensure that should talks break down, future negotiations could start where this effort left off.
The US stakes in the Middle East are extremely high, and Washington cannot play a meaningful leadership role and lose what is left of its credibility in the region without some kind of solution. For this reason, should nothing move forward, the US must prepare a peace plan of its own. Although the Netanyahu government is on record opposing any plan imposed from the outside, indicating that it is preparing to go that route will send a clear message about the seriousness and the urgency the US attaches to solving the conflict.
FURTHERMORE, THE knowledge that such a plan is in the making will put the Netanyahu government on notice that it must sooner rather than later change course. That said, in preparing the plan, the administration needs also to communicate that although peace serves America’s strategic interest, any plan will be consistent with Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The contours of an agreement are already largely known. Any plan would naturally take into consideration the numerous negotiation efforts of the past, and include areas of general agreement.
The Palestinians are already exploring the possibility of gaining international recognition for the unilateral declaration of a state along the 1967 borders. As stated by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, “One cannot rule out in principle the Security Council option.”
Based on current international sentiments, the Palestinians are likely to gain broad support in the UN General Assembly. Even though a resolution there is not binding, it would have a tremendous psychological effect.
Should this UN campaign materialize, the US will be forced into a no-win situation – if it vetoes such a resolution in the Security Council, it would enrage the Arab world; if it doesn’t, it would infuriate Israel. The US also cannot abstain and absolve itself from influence over the peace process. To avoid such a scenario, the US needs to get negotiations back on track – and soon.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.