The Region: Quick, look busy!

The Obama administration has signaled that it will go through the motions of Mideast involvement while awaiting some future opportunity for renewed talks.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a nominally routine communiqué last week after her meeting with Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain and now messenger of the Quartet on Israeli-Palestinian matters. This two-paragraph document, dated February 11, 2010, indicates the new direction of US policy on Israel-Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict issues.
It, somewhat disingenuously, defines the Obama administration policy as seeking a two-state solution right from the start through three tactics: “(1) To help build the economy and capacity to govern a Palestinian state; (2) to renew political negotiations to enable the earliest possible establishment of that state; and (3) to achieve these in a manner that ensures the security of Israel and of the Palestinians.”  
Wait a minute! Up until now, item two has been in the top position. Last September, the president announced that intensive talks to reach a comprehensive peace agreement would start in early November! Three months later, not even the most minor direct talks are in sight. So now the administration has shifted gears and the main priority is a process of state-building and community organizing among Palestinians to get them ready for statehood.
Notice it doesn’t even say the “earliest possible” renewal of political negotiations but implies that economic and infrastructure change will achieve the “earliest possible establishment” of a Palestinian state. To further this goal, while Blair and Senator George Mitchell, the US envoy, will act as partners to support political negotiations, Blair’s task is: “(1) to build support for the institutional capacity and governance of a future Palestinian state, including on the rule of law; (2) to improve freedom of movement and access for Palestinians; (3) to encourage further private sector investment; and (4) to bring change in the living conditions of the people in Gaza.”
This mission is defined as being “consistent with Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan for a future Palestinian state.” That means the Palestinian Authority prime minister’s two-year plan to build the Palestinian state economically and institutionally can be launched in 2012.
But in the Fayyad approach, negotiations with Israel come only at the end of the process, when everything is already prepared. This gives the administration the rationale to get nothing done in the meantime on the diplomatic level. It is thus a complete reversal in practice of previous administration policy. The US government can “look busy” while doing precisely what its predecessor did: realize nothing much is possible at the present while awaiting some future opportunity.
The emphasis is on helping the Palestinians and not pressing them to give Israel anything. At the same time, however, there is not going to be a big effort to pressure Israel except on two points: One is the “freedom of movement” issue, asking Israel to dismantle more roadblocks, which will depend, of course, on the security situation; the other is the phrase, “To bring change in the living conditions of the people in Gaza.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean overthrowing Hamas and freeing Gazans from that dictatorship of genocidal-minded terrorists. Rather, it implies more pressure on Israel to reduce embargos on the Gaza Strip without removing Hamas, blocking arms-smuggling, or forcing any change in Hamas’s plan for future attacks on Israel. In other words, still another Israeli concession, though Israel will keep it to a minimum.
MEANWHILE, THE United States won’t push the PA to come to the negotiating table, or reduce incitement, or really convey to its people the need to give up hope of wiping out Israel and taking all the land, or punish terrorists. Such activities would make the PA unhappy; stir up Arab and Muslim complaints, and not work anyway. Of course, failing to do these things will also make any real progress on peace impossible as well.
The truth is, of course, that Fayyad’s two-year plan will fail completely. He is too weak to strengthen Palestinian institutions; the regime is too corrupt, incompetent, and ready to toy with violence to attract foreign investment. Even the welcome Palestinian economic boom is merely based on spending aid money and real estate speculation, not any solid foundation.
In this context, the administration has made a choice it would never admit: maximum popularity, minimum friction, no real change. That is a reasonable choice under the circumstances. It is also in real terms the same policy the Bush administration had and the Obama administration has ridiculed.
All this greater recognition of reality – whatever the rhetoric employed – should be accompanied with a corresponding shift in wider public understanding. Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the key to the Middle East. There isn’t going to be a peace deal. The reason is internal Palestinian politics. The leadership is still radical, more eager to reconcile with Hamas than to make peace with Israel. The world view is extremist and geared toward total victory. PA media and clerics encourage violence and teach that Israel is temporary and illegitimate.
Nevertheless, the new US policy is not bad, especially given wherethe administration could have gone. It does seem as if the White Househas realized the PA is not ready for peace and is thus reluctant tocommit much effort to the issue.
Meanwhile, it will just go onsaying how much it loves the Palestinians and look active while tryingto keep things quiet as it deals with other issues.