Obama is promoting, not proposing, peace
By DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD
WASHINGTON WATCH: Even if he wanted to, President Obama knows another US peace push wouldn’t work.
President Barack Obama plans to go to the Middle East in two weeks, and the Israeli Left and the Palestinians are praying he’ll be bringing an American peace initiative. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Right are praying he won’t.
Even if he wanted to, President Obama knows another US peace push wouldn’t work. All the rhetoric aside – and it really is little more than rhetoric – neither side is interested in, much less ready for, serious peace talks.
At best, they may be ready to talk about talking about peace. A diplomat who spent many frustrating years trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace now says they are so far apart that “neither side believes the other is committed to a two-state outcome.”
Ambassador Dennis Ross, in a weekend New York Times op-ed, as if to demonstrate how remote the chances of progress are, proposed 14 confidence-building measures just so the two sides can get to the point where they’re willing to begin talking about the core issues.
There will be no American peace plan simply because neither side is ready or willing to move toward real reconciliation, preferring instead to pursue short-term domestic interests while fully engaged in playing the blame game.
For the foreseeable future, neither side has a government in place. Netanyahu has been buffeted by the far Right, the Center and the ultra-religious for weeks as he struggles to cobble together a new coalition that probably won’t be in place by the time President Obama arrives.
That shouldn’t make any difference to Obama since his most urgent task is to speak directly to the Israeli people, whose confidence and backing he will sorely need if he is to eventually prod their government to the peace table.
In Ramallah, Obama will have to disabuse Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of any notion he can be pushed into shoving a peace plan down Israel’s throat on their behalf.
The Palestinians will hold elections later, and any Hamas victory will be a defeat for any hope of a peace agreement for years to come.
There are other good reasons Obama won’t bring a peace plan, starting with domestic politics here; Congress would run interference if Israel complained it was being strongarmed by Washington. Historically, such efforts – by Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations – have always failed.
The United States has been most successful when it was not the proposer but the closer.
It was key to completing Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians – all of which were initiated by the parties themselves. So it will have to be on the Palestinian track.
When the two sides are ready they will need our help sealing the deal.
For starters, neither side will be willing to make major concessions to the other, but only to Washington, which will then be expected to make sure the other side delivers and Uncle Sam foots the bills.
Netanyahu has been long on the peace rhetoric but short on the delivery. Obama needs to tell him he can’t keep expanding settlements and expect anyone to believe he really supports a two-state solution. Settlement expansion under Netanyahu has only added to Israel’s growing isolation and makes Washington’s job of standing up for Israel more difficult.
Obama also has to say these things publicly to Netanyahu or the prime minister will feel free to ignore them or even deny the words were ever spoken.
After his reelection, Netanyahu told Secretary of State John Kerry, “The next government that I will form will be committed to peace.” That reflects more of a change in local politics than a change of heart.
Netanyahu agreed to make Tzipi Livni his justice minister and his lead negotiator with the Palestinians, a role she served as foreign minister in the Olmert government in 2008.
She made considerable progress at the time, and Abbas has said he would like to resume negotiations at the point where they broke off with Livni in 2008. Netanyahu rejected that throughout his recent term, and it is unclear how much real authority he will give Livni. Abbas also has other conditions for resuming talks: a freeze on all construction beyond the 1967 lines and a prisoner release.
Kerry, in his confirmation hearings and other statements, seems intent on getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.
Obama, who started out on that track four years ago, failed badly and may not be anxious to invest the political capital and personal time that both sides will demand. And even if he is, the chances for success appear mighty slim for the foreseeable future.
Ehud Barak, the outgoing defense minister who as prime minister had gotten close to deals with both the Palestinians and the Syrians, said in Washington on Sunday that the next Israeli government should launch a “daring peace initiative” to lead toward a “reasonable, fair, interim agreement.” And if that fails, it should “consider unilateral steps” as a placeholder until a two-state solution becomes possible.
Barack Obama came to office four years ago believing that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a key to restoring stability in the Middle East and dealing with other regional problems. That widely held theory of linkage was blown out of the water by the rise of Islamist regimes and the fall of pro-western secular national Arab leaders, the growing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and the Syrian civil war that threatens to explode beyond that country’s borders.
None of that would be any different even if Israel and the Palestinians had made peace years ago.
When Air Force One lands at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 20, Obama’s job will be to convince Israelis that when both sides are ready to make peace, they can count on the United States to give them its full backing, ready to help close the deal that they themselves will make.
But anyone predicting major new US peace moves in the near future just isn’t paying attention to a changing region and two parties to the conflict paralyzed by domestic politics.