Washington Watch: The next president and the peace process

The next president will have to work harder to enlist the support of America’s Arab allies to give the Palestinians the backing they need to revive the peace process.

Saeb Erekat 311 (photo credit: Mati Milstein)
Saeb Erekat 311
(photo credit: Mati Milstein)
Two days after taking office, Barack Obama announced a major Middle East initiative, complete with a high-level special envoy, to restart Israeli- Palestinian peace talks. It was a major blunder. It was poorly prepared, asked more of the Israelis than the Palestinians, raised Palestinian expectations beyond Obama’s ability to deliver and he failed to take his case directly to the Israeli people. And he had no Plan B.
Don’t look for a repeat next January no matter who is in the Oval Office.
Mitt Romney has shown little interest in foreign policy beyond tossing barbs at President Obama and has refused to discuss any details of what he would do as president. He leaves the impression that he would outsource Middle East policy to the Israeli prime minister.
At one of the GOP debates he said, “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do?’” Romney has signaled that his approach to the peace process would be “Bush lite.” George W. Bush may have been the first president to make Palestinian statehood a stated US goal, but he did little to bring it about. His secretary of state made a weak effort to start talks late in the second term, but it was too little, too late.
But even that may be too much for Romney, who knows that every president who has ventured into the peace quagmire has failed.
Last year he told an Israeli newspaper, “I don’t think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process; instead we should stand by our ally [Israel].”
Some have said that Netanyahu might be more willing to resume peace talks with Romney in the White House because he would have confidence that a pliable Republican with his neocon advisers and an army of right-of-center Jewish financial backers would back him all the way.
Don’t look for Obama to take the plunge, either. Not because he tried, got burned and lost interest, but because he can’t want it more than the Israeli and Palestinian leaders themselves, and so far neither one has shown any real interest, just empty rhetoric and finger-pointing.
Netanyahu insists any peace process must take a back seat until the Iranian nuclear standoff is settled.
That sounds more like an excuse than a reason.
“There are no prospects for reviving serious Israeli- Palestinian negotiations,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran peace envoy, in an essay on CNN.com. “Neither the Israeli prime minister nor the president of the Palestinian Authority are prepared to pay the price for a deal, let alone reach common ground on Jerusalem, the peace process’ most explosive issue.”
The status quo may appear inviting – the Israeli economy is doing well, buses are not blowing up on Israeli streets, Palestinian security forces are maintaining order in the West Bank – but the calm is deceptive.
The Arab awakening has shown that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not the cause of instability in the region, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.
Doing nothing will be risky, and the next president won’t be able to neglect the conflict. He can’t go in with a peace plan unless invited, nor can he afford to appear indifferent.
Washington needs to show it is interested and involved, even it is means motion without movement.
Otherwise it leaves a power vacuum both allies and enemies will seek to fill, and that will degrade American leadership not just in the region but globally.
It is against Israel’s interest for the United States to disengage because no one else will look out for Israel’s interests, and an Israeli government that contributes to weakening the perception of American power damages Israel’s interests as well.
Neglecting the peace process, even in its present semi-comatose stage, is dangerous.
With growing power of the Islamists in the region, Palestinians are likely to face greater pressure to confront rather than compromise with Israel.
That pressure will come from the extremists who have been preaching that the only way to get international attention and end the occupation, as they believe they did in Gaza and southern Lebanon, is by armed resistance.
The next president will have to work harder to enlist the support of America’s Arab allies to give the Palestinians the backing they need to revive the peace process.
Obama went to Cairo in June 2009 to give a major speech reaching out to the Arab world. He made an inexplicable blunder on the way home by failing to stop by next door and say shalom to the Israelis. More was at stake than symbolism.
Faced with reluctant Israeli government, he missed an opportunity to go directly to the Israeli people to speak of his commitment to their security and his vision for peace.
By flying past Israel, he left it to Netanyahu and his critics to define him as unsympathetic, an image that persists despite tributes by no less than Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres that his administration has given Israel unprecedented support.
Romney, who visited Jerusalem this summer where he snubbed the Labor opposition and insulted the Palestinians, has said Israel will be the destination of his first foreign trip as president. If he gets the chance, he will have a lot of fence mending to take care of.
The first thing Obama should do to improve bilateral relations and reassure Israelis of his commitment to peace and to blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions is to recite the words from the Passover Seder, even if next week is Rosh Hashana, “L’shana Haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” “Next year in Jerusalem.” And mean it.
©2012 Douglas M. Bloomfield. bloomfieldcolumn@ gmail.com