Stephen M. Walt

The good, the bad, and the unknown

For some reason, AIPAC didn’t invite me to speak at its policy conference this year. I did check out the Web site and I read a lot of the press coverage, and my initial thoughts fall into three categories: The Good The Obama administration continues to signal that it wants real progress on the two-state ...


For some reason, AIPAC didn’t invite me to speak at its policy conference this year. I did check out the Web site and I read a lot of the press coverage, and my initial thoughts fall into three categories:

The Good

The Obama administration continues to signal that it wants real progress on the two-state solution and that it’s not interested in foot-dragging by the Netanyahu government.

Senator John Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden offered the usual paeans to the “special relationship” in their speeches at the conference, but both also spoke out against the settlements and in support of a two-state solution. If not quite as blunt as Jim Baker’s infamous 1989 speech telling AIPAC that it was time for Israel to “lay aside once and for all the unrealistic dream of a Greater Israel,” Biden was still quite candid, saying “Israel has to work toward a two state solution and — you are not going to like my saying this — but [do] not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement . . . This is a show-me deal. Not based on faith. Show me.” According to Philip Weiss (who was in the room), Biden’s call for an end to settlement building and a two-state solution actually got some applause. Moreover, top Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel reportedly told a private meeting with 350 major AIPAC donors that “two states for two peoples” is the only solution the United States will support, and that it was “the moment of truth for Israel and the Palestinians.” Emanuel also emphasized that efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions would require genuine progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  

Meanwhile, Ha’aretz also reports that Obama national security advisor James Jones told an unnamed European foreign minister that the administration “will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question. . . We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful toward Israel than we have been under Bush.” Ever mindful of shifting political winds, AIPAC seems to be lining up behind a two-state solution as well, albeit with lots of conditions attached.  

And is it a coincidence that Hamas leader Khalid Meshal offered a somewhat more forthcoming message last week too? While still refusing to recognize Israel (a concession Hamas isn’t likely to cash in early), he did say that Hamas had stopped firing missiles at Israel (essentially correct) and that it was seeking a state only in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967. Hamas still has some way to go, but even Peter Beinart now thinks we ought to be talking with them. 

These are all encouraging signs, especially when one considers the implications of new Israeli government figures showing that Israeli Jews are now a minority in the land under their de facto control. Two states for two peoples is not a perfect outcome, just the best of the available alternatives. Obama gets that, and if AIPAC comes around too, then we just might see. . . No, I think I’ll stop there before I start sounding optimistic.

The Bad

In my view, it is a mistake to link the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the question of Iran’s nuclear program as directly as Emanuel did. This sort of linkage has been tried before, and the results are instructive. According to both Kenneth Pollock and Trita Parsi, the 1990s strategy of “dual containment” — which committed the United States to containing both Iran and Iraq simultaneously — was intended to reassure Israel about the Iranian threat and make it more willing to make concessions in the Oslo peace process. The gambit failed, however, in part because Israel didn’t become substantially more forthcoming but also because Iran retaliated by doing everything it could to undermine Oslo, mostly by increasing its support for Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

The two issues are connected, in the sense that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does give Iran an easy way to make trouble for the United States and to portray itself as a more effective defender of Palestinian rights than its various Arab rivals. But linking them explicitly is a bad idea, especially if we let Israel condition progress on a two-state solution on Iran’s giving up all nuclear enrichment. As I’ve noted before, this sort of conditionality would give Tehran a de facto veto over the whole peace process (i.e. by stonewalling on the nuclear issue).

The point to keep clearly in mind is that a two-state solution is good for the United States, good for Israel, and good for the Palestinians, no matter what the state of play is with Iran. Remember: ending the I-P conflict would remove one of Iran’s most useful avenues of influence, and make it easier to elicit effective regional cooperation should Iran’s power or ambitions grow.  Similarly, reaching a modus vivendi with Iran would be desirable even if there were no progress on Israel-Palestine, provided that the terms of the deal were consistent with US interests. Making progress on either front dependent on the other is a good way to fail at both.

The Unknown

Obama’s team is making all the right noises, but what we don’t know is whether they will ultimately be willing to use U.S. leverage to push the parties to a solution. Will Obama and special envoy George Mitchell go beyond the “two-state” mantra and actually lay out their blueprint for a solution, as Bill Clinton did in December 2000 and as the recent bipartisan statement recommended? Will they begin to curtail the current “special relationship” if Netanyahu and Lieberman drag their feet and turn Obama’s efforts into a replay of earlier charades? (For my own thoughts on how to do that, see here.) Will Obama invest his own political capital on this issue and explain to the American people why pressure on both sides is both necessary and in everyone’s interest? Given the number of items that are already on Obama’s plate, it’s hard to be optimistic. But it sure would be nice to get a pleasant surprise on this issue for a change.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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