Marc Lynch

Talking to the Israelis

Talking to the Israelis

 The next stage of the Obama administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian front is beginning to come into somewhat sharper focus.  A key part of it can be found in today’s New York Times which reports that:

"In coming weeks, senior administration officials said, the White House will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. The campaign, which will include interviews with Mr. Obama on Israeli and Arab television, amounts to a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank." 

I’m glad to see this, because this was one of the key recommendations of the report I co-authored with Brian Katulis in mid-July:

The Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts over the settlements are not yet concluded and must be continued in order to revive U.S. credibility in Palestine and the Arab world. But the settlements themselves are only a small portion of the problem. The time has come to pivot to the next step—a broader public outreach and strategic communications effort in the Middle East that builds on the first steps of the Obama administration. This should be supplemented by a tightly focused strategic communications effort directed toward building support for a two-state solution among Palestinians and the broader Arab world. Such a campaign cannot wait for an actual negotiated agreement that can then be “sold.” It must begin now to build the foundations of public support and to prepare public opinion for the likely concessions involved in the likely deal.

It seems that this time has indeed now come.  There’s an important difference between this and the whole wave of "Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel" commentary over the last few weeks.  Those commentators basically were urging the Obama administration to stop challenging Israel’s settlement policy and battling with the Netanyahu government in public — i.e. to reassure Israelis and to ease the public pressure to stop settlement activity and (now) unconstructive moves in East Jerusalem.  

This, I suspect, is something very different: a strategic communications campaign designed to build support for a push towards a two-state solution among key Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab constituencies.  Reassurance, yes, but within the context of explaining the  American view of the urgency of the moment for a push towards peace — and of building support for, and even a demand for, such a push towards peace among those publics.  There are many tools which could be deployed in such a campaign — not just the television interviews mentioned in the article, but the whole portfolio of campaign outreach tools, including new media, which could be deployed in support of such a strategic objective.   

As I put it to a number of officials and other folks over the last few weeks, don’t they think that six months from now — when they are either trying to sell a final status deal to skeptical Israeli and Palestinian publics, or are digging through the ruins of failed negotiations —  they will wish that six months ago they had begun such a strategic communications campaign?   I’m cheered to see that they agree. That alone won’t be enough, obviously, but  it’s an important component for any strategy which has any hope of succeeding.  

 By the way, I’m not surprised by Saud al-Faisal’s cold response to American calls for confidence building measures towards Israel either.  Here’s what I predicted last month:

Having pressured Israel over settlements, the US has already begun to turn to Arabs and demand some gestures in exchange. They will most likely be unreceptive, and are unlikely to offer major new overtures to Israel in the absence of a wider push towards a final status agreement or demonstrable progress on the issue of settlements well beyond what is currently on offer. But if they respond negatively, they will have given the Netanyahu government – and its supporters in the United States – the excuse they need to refuse further concessions.

This does not mean that Arab governments need to make premature offerings on the core issues of normalisation with Israel – opening embassies, extending recognition, and so forth. Such a transformed relationship should come at the end of the peace process, not the beginning. But they should be prepared to enter into a revived round of multilateral negotiations over regional issues with Israel. They should respond to requests to offer increased financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority. And it would serve them well to do the Americans an unasked-for favour by combining increased funding with redoubled efforts to achieve a Palestinian national unity government – instead of using Hamas and Fatah as proxies for their own political battles.

 The Saudi response, as a first move, is just as expected, then.  The real question is whether they — and other Arab leaders — have mapped out their second move, and prepared for the political maneuvering to come.