As the calendar turns the page to a new year, we typically take the opportunity to look back on the previous year (resulting in inevitable ‘best of’ lists). This year we get the chance to look back on the first year of the Obama presidency and analyze it ad infinitum. Certainly Obama had a lot on his plate over the past year with reducing carbon emissions and health care, but – for the purposes of this blog – the most important aspect of 2009 for Obama was progress in the Middle East. Now that 2009 is over, we look back and see what a catastrophe the year was for Obama. The President recently spoke with Time magazine’s Joe Klein and admitted the following:
I’ll be honest with you. A) This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get. B) Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that… I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.
So with the US President acknowledging 2009 as a failure – compared to the expectations that were set – what went wrong? At the beginning of 2009, Obama named George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Then in June, Obama traveled to Cairo where he gave an important speech about the Muslim world and the peace process. Expectations for 09 were incredibly high. The complete absence of progress in negotiations – indeed the lack of negotiations – left those expectations of many unfulfilled. Some have taken the shattered expectations and interpreted them as a sign of helplessness: the Middle East will never see peace. Others highlight some small steps that might be overlooked. No one thinks that 2009 was a success, but it certainly wasn’t a complete failure. This next year will be an important one for Obama and for the peace process. For the beginnings of peace to be sewn, Obama must look at 2010 with reduced expectations – win many small victories and not aim for the knockout punch and he must attack the peace process from different angles. Most importantly, Obama must finally use the power he has to pressure Israel and Palestine to make the painful concessions that are necessary.
2009: A Time to Point Fingers
Who is to blame for the lack of progress in the peace process? Is it Obama’s fault? He admitted to not fully understanding the politics of Palestine or Israel and setting expectations too high. He demanded a full settlement freeze from Israeli PM ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, raising the minimum demands of the Palestinians, and then publicly retreated. Is it the fault of the Israelis? Bibi is a right-wing PM with a coalition dependant on those farther right than himself. Indeed, in the past, Netanyahu has ‘long opposed’ creating a Palestinian state and there are many in his coalition who do not want to see a Palestinian neighbor. Or perhaps it is the Palestinians’ fault. The divisions between Fatah and Hamas have forced the negotiations to start well behind the starting blocks.
Obama’s partners in peace are far from ideal. On the one hand, it is difficult to say if Netanyahu truly wants peace with the Palestinians. Bibi has shown in the past that he does not think that peace with Palestine will work or would be beneficial to Israel. Hussein Ibish notes, however, that there are encouraging signs that he has embraced (or that he eventually will embrace) peace as the best option for Israel’s security and his own personal political success. Regardless of his personal views, Netanyahu is severely constrained by his domestic political coalition. While Bibi is PM, the majority of his governing coalition is more conservative than he is – his party, in fact, is not even the largest in the Knesset. But it would not be terribly shocking to see Netanyahu fully embrace peace if he decides that it is the best option.
As for the Palestinians, all the major political figures have bet their political survival on peace with Israel. Fatah has rejected Hamas and its unwillingness to acknowledge Israel. If peace with Israel fails or if a two-state solution becomes untenable (possible, considering the size and number of Israeli settlements) Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad are finished as politicians. T be sure, Palestinian politicians are banking on a change in the untenable status quo. To the discomfort of the PA, if there is not a positive change in the current situation, Hamas and many other Islamist groups are ready to seize power. This is a double-edged sword; it demonstrates the Palestinian commitment to the peace process, but it also highlights the danger of further failure. If Israeli leadership is strong, but unpredictable, Palestinian leaders are predictable, but weak.
Last week, Israeli MK Danny Danon blamed Obama, saying that the American president would receive an ‘F’ for his work. For Danon, Obama did too much while knowing too little. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, thinks that Obama has done ‘nothing’ for peace. Danon thinks that the US needs to put less pressure on Israel. Abbas thinks that the President needs to put more pressure on Israel. The lack of progress might be partly Obama’s fault, but the Palestinians and the Israelis are on completely different playing fields while trying to play the same game. It should be the job of the Americans to get both sides looking at the same picture and in the same way, but it is up to Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Bibi to agree on what they are looking at. While the more conservative politicians in Israel may be celebrating Obama’s frustration, most in Israel see that the absence of peace can be blamed on Obama, Bibi and Abu Mazen:
“In his American way, Obama is reproaching the parties for being unable to overcome petty political considerations for the better good of their peoples,” observes Ma’ariv’s Eyal. “This is a serious accusation, and one may admit upfront: it is correct.” Eyal continues: “what exactly has Obama done, what has his administration done, in order to realize the blissful vision presented only a year ago? The answer, put simply, is not enough… . Did we witness the imposing of a unambiguous American peace initiative? Was a clear timetable laid out, with sticks and carrots? And how exactly has the White House gone about cracking Israeli public opinion, the center of gravity for any peace process? Does one recall Obama’s dramatic appearance before the Knesset, in which he detailed his policy for the Middle East? Were there any extensive interviews granted to the Israeli media outlets in an effort to speak directly to the distrustful Israeli public? Apparently not, because such thing never occurred.”
There is clearly no one person to blame for what didn’t happen last year; Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama must all perform better next year if there are going to be meaningful talks for peace. However, Obama absolutely must learn how to use America’s massive economic and diplomatic sway to force results. A weak Obama incapable of pushing is only prolonging violence and injustice.
2010: A Time to Move Forward
Of course, one could just give up. Obama’s commitment to peace created expectations that were bound to fail. Seemingly anything short of a lasting peace by the end of the year would have been viewed with disappointment. Yet Mid-East observers see more than just the failure of peace with Israel. Michael Totten writes:
Iraq all but dismembered itself after its successful election. Hezbollah blew up the Levant and put Lebanon’s “March 14” revolution on ice. Palestinians elected Hamas and transformed Gaza into a suppurating jihad state. It could be a while before I allow myself to feel upbeat and sunny again. The Middle East makes suckers of everyone who feels upbeat and sunny.
He continues to say (my emphasis):
I’ve been critical of some of the president’s Middle East policies, but it isn’t his fault the Arab-Israeli conflict has now lasted 62 years instead of winding down in the 61st. It may not be as intractable as the one between Sunnis and Shias — that one has lasted for more than 1,000 years — but nobody can fix this right now. The Middle East doesn’t need a diplomatic process; it needs a revolutionary transformation of its political culture, like what we saw in Western Europe after World War II and in Eastern Europe after the real Berlin Wall fell. Something similar may very well occur in the Middle East at some point, but it’s not going to happen all of a sudden because Barack Obama or any other American president tweaks our foreign policy.
If the “peace process” is sure to fail right now — and it is — announcing it as a foreign-policy priority only sets Obama up as a weak leader who can’t deliver the goods. His credibility suffers, and so does America’s leverage. He ought to focus on conflict management and damage control, and try not to make anything worse.
It is tempting to agree and say that the peace process has no chance, but that – like Totten – is far to defeatist. Totten looks at the last 365 days and sees only that the Middle East is a violent place that will tear itself apart. Obama should stay out to save face.
Last year failed to meet expectations by about as far as it could, but, as David Halperin points out, there were small advances made. Firstly, Bibi consented to the idea of a two-state solution. The Obama administration has been pushing so hard for this option that a final two-state solution has become more of an assumption that a hypothetical. But, to be sure, a conservative Likud PM accepting a two-state solution when a good part of his governing coalition disagrees is no small accomplishment – it just seems like it is.
Secondly, the West Bank has developed significantly over the past year. At the beginning of 2008, the West Bank was nowhere close to having the infrastructure to become an independent state. Now, well, it still doesn’t, but it is closer. Haperin reminds us that Palestinian movement in the territory has improved (although, I would add, the Palestinian ability to build in most of the West Bank is still far too constrained by Israel), the economy grew by 7% and PM Salam Fayyad announced a detailed plan for the development of more infrastructure. Indeed, a new planned city is already being built.
Thirdly, although the settlement freeze is more like a thaw and although it doesn’t include East Jerusalem and despite some very unhelpful comments, the moratorium on settlement construction is a step forward. Israel would like it to seem like a bigger step than it actually is, but, in the view of many pro-settlement Israeli politicians, it was a sacrifice made by Israel. Per Roberta Fahn Schoffman (via Halperin):
Like Netanyahu’s endorsement of two states at Bar Ilan University last June, this move is one more irrevocable step toward a two-state solution. Yes, in ten months, should there be no progress, or should the Palestinians continue to boycott negotiations, the moratorium can be revoked. But the larger gesture is irreversible, because Bibi Netanyahu has once again crossed the ideological divide. He has poked one more hole in the Greater Land of Israel balloon, and has given momentum to the growing Israeli mindset that accepts the inevitable division of the land. For those holding firm to the belief that a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict is still possible, this is a very good thing.
Finally, with the exception of the Gaza war at the beginning of 2009, there has been a general decrease in violence compared to 2008. While fragile, the relative calm is necessary for peace talks to start.
These four reasons are why Halperin thinks that 2010 could be a big year for the peace process. They are small steps that are typically overlooked, but they are indeed steps. Any progress made in 2010 is not going to be easy, though. For Obama, it will be important to learn from the past year. He is playing with a weak, constrained Palestinian partner and a strong, unpredictable Israeli partner. If there is another year like 2009 – that is to say one with high expectations and a high-profile peace effort that falls on its face – it would not be surprising to see even more serious setbacks in the region. Palestinian leaders cannot afford more failures in peace and Israel cannot pretend to be cooperative while concurrently taking steps that make peace more difficult.
2010: A Time for Change
In 2010, Obama must take a stand. He must use him influence and power to get the two sides to see more eye-to-eye. There are plenty of problems to discuss when negotiations begin, but Obama must not shy away from using the diplomatic power he can wield to force the two sides to comply. The US president must demand true and meaningful concessions – actions that might require social anesthetic – from both the Palestinians and the Israelis. If Abu Mazen and Bibi refuse to budge, Obama can always threaten to withdraw from the peace process (accompanied by an appropriate change in the US view to both Israel and Palestine) – something that only the most conservative Israelis want.
Furthermore, Obama cannot let the peace process rely on the leaders of Palestine and Israel. The differences between Abu Mazen and Bibi are too great to rely completely on them. As Ibish recommends, Obama must continue pushing for a top-down approach while creating a popular demand for peace through a bottom-up approach:
Now is the time for the United States and the rest of the international community to take advantage of this crucial component of Middle East peace-building. The state and institution building agenda has been almost universally praised, but has also been far too often ignored or treated casually, and has not enjoyed the attention or support it deserves from governments, multilateral institutions, corporations, NGOs or the media. While it is essential that the Obama administration continue to pursue the top-down diplomatic agenda with as much vigor, wisdom and caution possible, it is just as important for all actors to embrace and engage with the bottom-up state and institution building plan that will complement, reinforce and protect the diplomatic track, and lay the essential components on the ground for a Palestinian state, when it is established, to be successful.
Although 2009 was hardly a ringing success, it was not the failure that some are making it out to be. Of course, it is easy to look at the state of the Middle East and see the impossible, but it is far too soon to give up. If Obama remains devoted to peace, 2010 will be an eventful year with many small steps. In order for these steps to be positive, Obama must finally use the moral, economic and diplomatic pressure that he has to push the two sides together. Without a stronger and more dedicated US president who is unafraid to step up and use tangible and meaningful pressure to force compliance, the peace process will certainly fail and Palestinians will continue to suffer discrimination as Israel slowly soaks up all of Palestine, making a two-state solution impossible. The consequence of Obama not going to the gym and growing some diplomatic muscles is daunting:
So what will happen [if Obama does not pressure Israel]? Israel has made it clear that it is going to keep building settlements — including the large blocs (like Ma’ale Adumim) that were consciously designed to carve up the West Bank and make creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and other moderate forces will be increasingly discredited as collaborators or dupes. As Israel increasingly becomes an apartheid state, its international legitimacy will face a growing challenge. Iran’s ability to exploit the Palestinian cause will be strengthened, and pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere will be further weakened by their impotence and by their intimate association with the United States. It might even help give al Qaeda a new lease on life, at least in some places. Jews in other countries will continue to distance themselves from an Israel that they see as a poor embodiment of their own values, and one that can no longer portray itself convincingly as “a light unto the nations.” And the real tragedy is that all this might have been avoided, had the leaders of the world’s most powerful country been willing to use their influence on both sides more directly.