About three years ago, it looked like the United States might be emerging from its long neoconservative night to play a constructive role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Israeli-Arab conflicts. In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group, a congressionally commissioned panel of elder statesmen led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, issued a pointed rebuke of Bush administration policy in the region. The significance of their report, however, lay not in the minutiae of strategy and tactics discussed but rather in its endorsement of a long-denied truth: American efforts to stabilize Iraq would require support from allies in the region, which in turn would be decisively influenced by America's ability to seriously address the Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts.
The Bush administration had long resisted that equation, influenced as it was by the neoconservatives and their often Likudist-inspired Middle East worldview. The conflict and the accumulating grievances that it has generated have a deeply corrosive effect on both America's standing and ability to get anything done in the region and beyond.
At about the same time, Barack Obama, then a young senator who was just launching his presidential campaign, seemed to get it. In an interview during the campaign, he described the unresolved Israel-Palestine problem as "this constant wound ... this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy." As president, Obama not only promised to resolve the conflict but put it in the broader context of American interests in the region and in relation to the Muslim world. That logic featured prominently in his historic June speech in Cairo. Achieving peace, for this administration, became not only about helping America's Israeli or even Palestinian friends. It was redefined as being something in America's own hard-nosed self-interest.
An Israel-Palestine policy whose point of departure is American national interests had the potential to be a game-changer. For at least a decade, U.S. policy-makers have tied themselves in the straitjacket of the slogan "We cannot want this more than the parties." The United States could be a host, a convener, a superpower facilitator, but its involvement would be constrained. By emphasizing America's national self-interest, however, Obama seemed to rewrite the formula. That is how the region understood his appointment, on day two of his presidency, of former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East as well as his decision to give Israel-Palestine top billing in his September U.N. General Assembly address.
Expectations were high -- and now so is the disappointment, as peace efforts have floundered on the ground and were absent even rhetorically from January's State of the Union.
That's not to say that this was supposed to be an easy deliverable. The Obama administration can hardly be faulted for not having produced a peace deal within 12 months. The administration has other, more pressing problems both domestic and foreign. The recalcitrance of the parties should not have come as a surprise, particularly because of Israel's addiction to the settlement enterprise and entrenched presence in the Occupied Territories. Real progress also requires U.S. leaders to expend domestic political capital -- which almost certainly gives them pause.
But competing priorities, barriers to progress, and domestic politics don't tell the full story of the failure of the administration to live up to its promises. The shortcomings of the Mitchell team are better explained by its pursuit of a methodology for achieving peace that is stale, familiar, and flawed. It has attempted to return to negotiations between the parties (without setting forth guidelines for advancing toward peace) and to secure a meaningful, comprehensive settlement freeze. Neither goal has been achieved.
From the get-go this policy was of dubious value both in its strategy and its tactics. A settlement freeze and rerun of the Annapolis negotiations are most unlikely to hold the key to salvaging a workable two-state outcome. (The Bush administration relaunched negotiations between the parties in 2007 at the Annapolis conference but refused to present its own proposals or to mediate disagreements.) Annapolis-style, on-off direct negotiations between the parties have been tried and fallen short for over 15 years. The settlements enterprise has grown so expansive that over half a million Israelis live beyond the green line. Freezing that in place is of limited utility, while settlements themselves only constitute one element in the expanding infrastructure of occupation.
Despite its fresh rhetoric, the Obama administration has chosen unimaginative strategies with a proven track record of failure: gentle nudges, appeals to logic, occasional if limited use of the bully pulpit. The incentive and disincentive structures that have produced ongoing deadlock have barely been touched.
One characteristic of the Obama administration's foreign policy has been a tendency to question, review, and if necessary reshape existing approaches -- an exercise undertaken on Russia, Burma, Iran, and Sudan. Yet Israel-Palestine has not been subjected to a formal review process, one that might have predicted and avoided some of the pitfalls.
To demonstrate real American leadership and a fresh start to the process, it is not enough to push for a partial settlement slowdown or new round of negotiations. Here are three issues that, if the Obama administration is willing to tackle them, will indicate the U.S. is serious about delivering a breakthrough in the effort to secure peace in Israel-Palestine:
End Gaza's Suffering
Obama entered office just 48 hours after the Israeli Defense Forces ended its military operation Cast Lead against the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. That IDF operation had a devastating impact on the civilian and industrial infrastructure serving Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
Within weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was dispatched to a hastily convened donors' conference at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh focusing on Gaza's reconstruction and rehabilitation needs. The U.S. pledged $900 million, much of which was designated for Gaza projects (of course, no money would be disbursed to, or via, Hamas-led governing institutions). It was an encouraging signal.
Previously, the Bush administration adhered to a "West Bank first" policy -- development and assistance projects as well as U.S. pressure on Israel to ease conditions for Palestinians were focused there. The logic was that the split between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the West Bank, where the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority ruled, created a "teachable moment" to demonstrate to the Palestinians that the moderates could deliver while the hardliners in Gaza could not. That policy required the U.S. to acquiesce to the Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip, maintaining Gazan life at a subsistence level. (That policy was pursued even during the effective ceasefire that lasted for several months of the second half of 2008.)
The policy was inhumane by definition and was also an abject failure on its own terms. Hamas control was fortified, a tunnel economy proliferated and replenished Hamas' emptying coffers, and the predominantly youthful population of Gaza became angrier and more radicalized -- which has done nothing to improve the security environment.
After the destruction wrought by Cast Lead, the need to lift the Gaza blockade was even more pressing. Over 290 schools were damaged or destroyed, and 46 percent of agricultural land was lost. Today more than 20,000 Gazans remain displaced from their homes and 98 percent of Gazan industrial operations stand idle. If nothing else, the continued closure meant that U.S. and other international assistance could not be distributed.
The recent one-year anniversary of Cast Lead placed the international spotlight on Gaza once again, revealing just how little has changed under Obama's watch. The Bush boilerplate is still in place. Administration officials, including the president, have occasionally expressed concern over the Gaza situation (certainly in more direct terms than their predecessors), yet Gaza has not been a priority, and the blockade remains in full effect.
The rest of the world, particularly Arabs and Muslims, finds it hard to believe when America feigns helplessness in the face of Israel's closure of Gaza. The U.S. is also considered, with some justification, complicit in Egypt's blockade of its land border with Gaza and new plans to construct an underground steel barrier against the tunnels.
In September 2009, an investigation into the Gaza conflict, commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council and led by Richard Goldstone, found evidence of violations of international human-rights law and international humanitarian law by both Israel and Palestinian militants. The United States not only criticized the Goldstone Report and committed to blocking its consideration in U.N. forums but also pressured its Palestinian allies to do the same. This further exacerbated an already negative dynamic. The U.S. was widely blamed for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' initial support for withdrawing the report from U.N. consideration, thereby furthering public perceptions throughout the Muslim world that the West Bank Palestinian leadership has no autonomy in decision-making and that America is both indifferent to Palestinian suffering and hypocritical when it comes to Israeli misdemeanors.
It is striking to note, particularly for an administration that places such a premium on shows of public diplomacy, that in his eight visits to the region, special envoy Mitchell has yet to set foot in Gaza. It is true that Gaza is dangerous, and lower-level U.S. officials only visited sparingly in the years following a 2003 security incident and not at all since 2005. Still, U.S. officials routinely place themselves in harm's way around the world, and other leaders have visited Gaza (when Israel has permitted their entry), including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, as have several members of the U.S. Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry. All, of course, have successfully avoided potentially "embarrassing" interactions with Hamas officials.
Gaza policy is not just about relieving human suffering or showing that America cares -- it is crucial to any realistic peace effort. In neglecting Gaza, the Obama administration is playing Russian roulette with the security environment, and any explosion of violence would dramatically set back whatever peace effort may be underway. Its neglect also poisons the regional atmosphere, further complicates Palestinian negotiating capacity, and renders the very notion of a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza less realistic.
Address Israeli Security Concerns
Since the Obama administration has not wavered in its commitment to Israel's security, this might seem like a strange objective to include here. The United States remains unequivocally committed on this front, backing up its words with actions. America provides Israel with direct military assistance to the tune of $3 billion a year, ensures Israel's military maintains a qualitative edge in the region, and provides international diplomatic cover for Israel's nuclear-weapons program.
But in the context of America's stated goal of delivering a two-state solution, Israel has very specific security concerns. Israel cannot be expected to lend its hand in creating a situation whereby a security vacuum would prevail in Palestine, or territories evacuated by the IDF and designated for Palestinian sovereignty would be used for launching military aggression against Israel. This can be reconciled with any future Palestinian state's equally legitimate concerns for security and territorial integrity. Any agreement specifying limitations on the extent of Palestine's militarization (or demilitarization) would also have to be enforceable and monitored, including at Palestine's various external borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made security provisions and guarantees the central theme of his most expansive policy speech to date at Bar Ilan University in June 2009. Any credible American bid to advance a comprehensive peace plan will need to offer solutions on this front.
Again, though, the Obama administration is on autopilot from the Bush years. Its efforts have centered around active American involvement in training and building Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF), a mission today led by Gen. Keith Dayton and lauded as a rare success story. Improving the Palestinian Authority's capacity to develop security competencies and impose law and order in the scattered islands of West Bank territory under its nominal authority is a worthy endeavor. However, even the program's architects acknowledge that it is impossible to sustain that project over time without a political solution.
The key question is whether this effort is creating conditions for an Israeli withdrawal and realization of Palestinian statehood. The PASF is not the answer to all the questions about Israel's security that must be addressed in a final status agreement. At best, Israel views the PASF as a useful supplement to the IDF's pervasive presence, not a substitute for it, and it would be naive to believe that attitude will change.
The only security presence Israel's leaders and its public might be convinced to accept (and could be hard-pressed to reject) in place of the IDF would be an international force, perhaps a NATO force. American leadership would be important, but the main troop presence need not be American.
Prior to becoming national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, working on these issues for then?Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, issued a concluding report that began to outline the rationale and concept for such a multinational deployment. The European Union has publicly stated its willingness to offer security guarantees to help advance a solution. Yet, so far at least, nothing to this effect has been articulated by the Obama administration. One hopes that such work is being conducted in private.
Support Palestinian Unity, Not Division
One of the greatest paradoxes of U.S. policy since Hamas supporters won elections in January 2006 has been the contrast between the strategic need for a strong Palestinian leadership that can make and keep an agreement and the U.S. tactic of weakening most efforts to establish such a leadership. In 2010, the United States will need to encourage or at least not stand in the way of Palestinian efforts to unite in a new national movement that can speak with one voice in negotiations and act as one authority on the ground.
There have been many twists and turns in the Palestinian domestic soap opera over the last four years, but U.S. policy has been consistently opposed to any realistic recipe for producing a united Palestinian government. This contradicts U.S. goals and ignores lessons learned in similar settings. In January, at the International Conference on Afghanistan in London, Clinton argued: "I think that the starting premise is you don't make peace with your friends. You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency." The same insight applied to the Palestinians would mean bringing on board, in some manner, Palestinian militants including Hamas.
In Iraq, the United States has negotiated with Sunni insurgents responsible for some of the worst crimes committed against Americans and Iraqis alike. In Afghanistan, the United States is supporting an effort by the Afghan government to sponsor national talks that will include Taliban elements. The exception remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The irony is that, unlike the other groups, Hamas has not targeted Americans, has ceased (at least for the time being) its suicide attacks in Israel, has enthusiastically entered the electoral process, has been willing to enforce a ceasefire with Israel against Salafist jihadi groups and others in the Gaza Strip, has been willing to engage in negotiations with Israel through intermediaries, and has reached out to the United States to see if accommodation is possible.
The United States is not the only party to blame in this tragedy of errors, but it is the most powerful foreign catalyst, other than Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Its failure to engage with Hamas is a counterproductive policy that also encourages narrow patronage-based interests within Fatah, retards real Fatah reform, and paradoxically undermines the cause of pragmatism in Palestinian politics. Hamas can always blame outside interference for any governance failures in Gaza and is spared making hard choices, while Fatah stands constantly accused of doing America's and Israel's bidding. The debate within Fatah regarding Palestinian unity efforts is stymied by American opposition, and although Hamas has seen its support dip, Fatah is hardly witnessing a popular resurgence.
The U.S. need not start by directly engaging with Hamas. A new policy should, perhaps quietly, encourage U.S. allies (including the EU and not limited to Egypt) to work with Hamas to divorce the movement's legitimate concerns from those we cannot accommodate. As such, the priorities should be to open the Gaza Strip to the world and to facilitate the re-establishment of a national movement capable of leading Palestinians to statehood. Without a change in U.S. policy, however, these efforts have little chance of success.
These three recommendations -- different approaches on Gaza, Israel's security needs, and Palestinian politics -- are not distinct, stand-alone initiatives. They are small steps in a larger shift in policy and mind-set and can lay the groundwork for a potentially successful U.S. peace effort. The U.S. would still have to insistently advance its own comprehensive peace plan -- one linked to a more integrated regional policy and to a different deployment of incentives and disincentives for getting the job done.
The United States must act on the recognition that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to every other issue in the region and beyond. Palestinian dispossession remains the lens through which the Muslim world and much of the global South view the United States. Much as many Americans are rightly preoccupied with Israel's acceptance and security, more than 1 billion people throughout the world are rightly preoccupied with Palestinian freedom and security. Although other atrocities have sometimes competed with the Palestinian cause for the attention of Muslims, nothing else has had the staying power.
The best attempt to articulate the linkage between Israeli--Palestinian peace and the rest of the Middle East so far remains Obama's Cairo speech last year. In that speech, the president brilliantly lined up the Muslims of the world (Arabs and Iranians included), Israelis, and Americans on the same side of a divide that left the al-Qaeda brand of Salafist jihadism isolated. Middle East peace, he said, "is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest."
That speech needs to become U.S. policy.
This would include distancing the U.S. from the actions of both Israeli occupation forces and Arab autocrats while pursuing a new equilibrium of peace between them. It also requires a new strategic framework to be developed with Iran that makes Iran part of the solution in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel--Palestine. The success of one peace effort cannot be presented as the preparation for the next war, as some have argued in making the case for an Israeli-Palestinian peace in exchange for an American-Arab-Israeli war with Iran. The urgency of securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace and allaying concerns regarding Iran should not be considered clashing objectives; instead, they should be seen as creating a mutually reinforcing momentum toward a new Middle East security architecture.
This security architecture has to be based on decisions and actions on which the United States can demonstrate leadership. It must not be overly reliant on voluntary changes in the behavior of America's interlocutors in the Middle East, even if those parties are often allies, not adversaries. This and previous administrations have failed to enforce consequences when negotiating parties reject American entreaties, therefore it should not come as a surprise when America fails to get its way in the Arab-Israeli arena. The United States must do more to take action in defense of its own interests and to create its own facts on the ground. Is the United States opposed to settlements? Fine, then the U.S. can reassert their illegality (America has not done so for 30 years) and end all forms of U.S. support to the settlements enterprise.
The one benefit of the current impasse is that it might induce the president to review, reorient, and reclaim ownership of a policy arena he has so far delegated. Only this president's personal leadership -- intellectual and political -- can make a difference. Only Obama's involvement can determine an approach that places U.S. interests front and center in Israel-Palestine. Remember, Obama's the one who gets it.
If the U.S. stops acting like a supplicant with the parties, identifying the steps it will take and the leverage it has, then an outcome can still be salvaged that ends the occupation, guarantees security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, normalizes Israel's relations with the entire region, and, of course, serves America.