Deal broker or deal breaker?

The main problem with the current US strategy is a fundamental failure to accurately identify spoilers

obama points 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama points 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In just over a year, President Barack Obama has achieved some remarkable failures in peacemaking attempts in the Middle East. His strategy has consisted of drawing out concessions from the Israeli side mirrored by concessions from the 22 Arab League members. However, he has neglected to neutralize the role of the Arab states as spoilers of the process and has not developed an effective confidence-building strategy.
Obama kicked off his efforts by appointing a Middle East envoy who had a proven track record for success in resolving religious and civil strife in Northern Ireland. Senator George Mitchell’s history, both in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, makes him fairly predictable. He is sensitive to the settlement issue, as well as leaving national narratives and moral judgments at the door. His strategy consisted of a delicate balance of inclusive negotiations to keep extremists from becoming spoilers, and punishment of spoilers through exclusion and delegitimization. In contrast, Obama has been known to be overly ambitious, self-righteous and ideologically driven.
The concessions the US sought from moderate Arab states, rumored to consist of overflight rights and reopening of trade offices, were poorly conceived and ineffective at building confidence and neutralizing spoilers. Confidence-building measures need to foster a debate and a revaluation of Arab attitudes toward Israel. They must enable the populations of Arab states to begin the mental journey toward reconciliation. Moves like reining in incitement and educating for peace are far more effective at building confidence than allowing overflight rights.
FROM THE Israeli side, the US sought a broad, temporary freeze in all construction over the Green Line. The inflexibility of these American demands, paired with the understanding and compassion displayed by Obama in Cairo toward the Arab world, resulted in a clash of values and expectations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Obama. The deadlock led Obama to employ Mitchell’s punishment strategy against the Israeli government.
Obama’s public statements diminished Israeli public support for American leadership in the peace process, while depleting the value of the eventual settlement freeze in the West Bank as a confidence building measure. In doing so, Obama raised expectations of the Arab states, enabling them in their role as spoilers and painting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into a corner.
The American administration continues to use a punishment strategy primarily against its ally, Israel. On May 9, the State Department issued an announcement that “if either takes significant actions during the proximity talks that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will respond to hold them accountable.”
This is a thinly veiled threat from an administration that has shown itself to be a poor judge and a biased broker.
The main problem with the US strategy is a fundamental failure to accurately identify spoilers. The application of punishment against the Israeli government was wrong; it is not a spoiler and the punishment has had far-reaching effects. The traditional spoilers in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been the Arab states. If Obama and Mitchell want to neutralize them as spoilers, any confidence-building measures must be informed with that goal in mind.
The writer is a former member of the Israel National Security Council where he served for three years as a Senior Foreign Policy Coordinator at the Prime Minister’s Office. The ideas expressed are his alone.