- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
If Mideast special envoy George Mitchell wants to end his career with his reputation intact, it is time for him to resign. He had a distinguished tenure in the U.S. Senate — including a stint as majority leader — and his post-Senate career has been equally accomplished. He was an effective mediator of the conflict in Northern Ireland, helped shepherd the Disney Corporation through a turbulent period, and led an effective investigation of the steroids scandal afflicting major league baseball. Nobody can expect to be universally admired in the United States, but Mitchell may have come as close as any politician in recent memory.
Why should Mitchell step down now? Because he is wasting his time. The administration’s early commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace was either a naïve bit of bravado or a cynical charade, and if Mitchell continues to pile up frequent-flyer miles in a fruitless effort, he will be remembered as one of a long series of U.S. "mediators" who ended up complicit in Israel’s self-destructive land grab on the West Bank. Mitchell will turn 77 in August, he has already undergone treatment for prostate cancer, and he’s gotten exactly nowhere (or worse) since his mission began. However noble the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace might be, surely he’s got better things to do.
In an interview earlier this week with Time’s Joe Klein, President Obama acknowledged that his early commitment to achieving "two states for two peoples" had failed. In his words, "this is as intractable a problem as you get … Both sides-the Israelis and the Palestinians-have found that the political environments, 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 we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that" (my emphasis).
This admission raises an obvious question: who was responsible for this gross miscalculation? It’s not as if the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and Palestinian internal politics was a dark mystery when Obama took office, or when Netanyahu formed the most hard-line government in Israeli history. Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected? And if Obama now realizes how badly they screwed up, why do the people who recommended this approach still have their jobs?
As for Mitchell himself, he should resign because it should be clear to him that he was hired under false pretenses. He undoubtedly believed Obama when the president said he was genuinely committed to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace in his first term. Obama probably promised to back him up, and his actions up to the Cairo speech made it look like he meant it. But his performance ever since has exposed him as another U.S. president who is unwilling to do what everyone knows it will take to achieve a just peace. Mitchell has been reduced to the same hapless role that Condoleezza Rice played in the latter stages of the Bush administration — engaged in endless "talks" and inconclusive haggling over trivialities-and he ought to be furious at having been hung out to dry in this fashion.
The point is not that Obama’s initial peace effort in the Middle East has failed; the real lesson is that he didn’t really try. The objective was admirably clear from the start — "two states for two peoples" — what was missing was a clear strategy for getting there and the political will to push it through. And notwithstanding the various difficulties on the Palestinian side, the main obstacle has been the Netanyahu government’s all-too obvious rejection of anything that might look like a viable Palestinian state, combined with its relentless effort to gobble up more land. Unless the U.S. president is willing and able to push Israel as hard as it is pushing the Palestinians (and probably harder), peace will simply not happen. Pressure on Israel is also the best way to defang Hamas, because genuine progress towards a Palestinian state in the one thing that could strengthen Abbas and other Palestinian moderates and force Hamas to move beyond its talk about a long-term hudna (truce) and accept the idea of permanent peace.
It’s not as if Obama and Co. don’t realize that this is important. National Security Advisor James Jones has made it clear that he sees the Israel-Palestinian issue as absolutely central; it’s not our only problem in the Middle East, but it tends to affect most of the others and resolving it would be an enormous boon. And there’s every sign that the president is aware of the need to do more than just talk.
Yet U.S. diplomacy in this area remains all talk and no action. When a great power identifies a key interest and is strongly committed to achieving it, it uses all the tools at its disposal to try to bring that outcome about. Needless to say, the use of U.S. leverage has been conspicuously absent over the past year, which means that Mitchell has been operating with both hands tied firmly behind his back. Thus far, the only instrument of influence that Obama has used has been presidential rhetoric, and even that weapon has been used rather sparingly.
And please don’t blame this on Congress. Yes, Congress will pander to the lobby, oppose a tougher U.S. stance, and continue to supply Israel with generous economic and military handouts, but a determined president still has many ways of bringing pressure to bear on recalcitrant clients. The problem is that Obama refused to use any of them.
When Netanyahu dug in his heels and refused a complete settlement freeze — itself a rather innocuous demand if Israel preferred peace to land — did Obama describe the settlements as "illegal" and contrary to international law? Of course not. Did he fire a warning shot by instructing the Department of Justice to crack down on tax-deductible contributions to settler organizations? Nope. Did he tell Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to signal his irritation by curtailing U.S. purchases of Israeli arms, downgrading various forms of "strategic cooperation," or canceling a military exchange or two? Not a chance. When Israel continued to evict Palestinians from their homes and announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in August, did Obama remind Netanyahu of his dependence on U.S. support by telling U.S. officials to say a few positive things about the Goldstone Report and to use its release as an opportunity to underscore the need for a genuine peace? Hardly; instead, the administration rewarded Netanyau’s intransigence by condemning Goldstone and praising Netanyahu for "unprecedented" concessions. (The "concessions," by the way, was an announcement that Israel would freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank "temporarily" while continuing it in East Jerusalem. In other words, they’ll just take the land a bit more slowly).
Like the Clinton and Bush administrations, in short, the idea that the United States ought to use its leverage and exert genuine pressure on Israel remains anathema to Obama, to Mitchell and his advisors, and to all those pundits who are trapped in the Washington consensus on this issue. The main organizations in the Israel lobby are of course dead-set against it — and that goes for J Street as well — even though there is no reason to expect Israel to change course in the absence of countervailing pressure.
Obama blinked — leaving Mitchell with nothing to do-because he needed to keep sixty senators on board with his health care initiative (that worked out well, didn’t it?), because he didn’t want to jeopardize the campaign coffers of the Democratic Party, and because he knew he’d be excoriated by Israel’s false friends in the U.S. media if he did the right thing. I suppose I ought to be grateful to have my thesis vindicated in such striking fashion, but there’s too much human misery involved on both sides to take any consolation in that.
So what will happen now? 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.
Looking ahead, one can see two radically different possibilities. The first option is that Israel retains control of the West Bank and Gaza and continues to deny the Palestinians full political rights or economic opportunities. (Netanyahu likes to talk about a long-term "economic peace," but his vision of Palestinian bantustans under complete Israeli control is both a denial of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations and a severe obstacle to their ability to fully develop their own society. Over time, there may be another intifada, which the IDF will crush as ruthlessly as it did the last one. Perhaps the millions of remaining Palestinians will gradually leave — as hardline Israelis hope and as former House speaker Dick Armey once proposed. If so, then a country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust — one of history’s greatest crimes-will have completed a dispossession begun in 1948 — a great crime of its own.
Alternatively, the Palestinians may remain where they are, and begin to demand equal rights in the state under whose authority they have been forced to dwell. If Israel denies them these rights, its claim to being the "only democracy in the Middle East" will be exposed as hollow. If it grants them, it will eventually cease to be a Jewish-majority state (though its culture would undoubtedly retain a heavily Jewish/Israeli character). As a long-time supporter of Israel’s existence, I would take no joy in that outcome. Moreover, transforming Israel into a post-Zionist and multinational society would be a wrenching and quite possibly violent experience for all concerned. For both reasons, I’ve continued to favor "two states for two peoples" instead.
But with the two-state solution looking less and less likely, these other possibilities begin to loom large. Through fear and fecklessness, the United States has been an active enabler of an emerging tragedy. Israelis have no one to blame but themselves for the occupation, but Americans — who like to think of themselves as a country whose foreign policy reflects deep moral commitments-will be judged harshly for our own role in this endeavor.
The United States will suffer certain consequences as a result-decreased international influence, a somewhat greater risk of anti-American terrorism, tarnished moral reputation, etc.-but it will survive. But Israel may be in the process of drafting its own suicide pact, and its false friends here in the United States have been supplying the paper and ink. By offering his resignation-and insisting that Obama accept it-George Mitchell can escape the onus of complicity in this latest sad chapter of an all-too-familiar story. Small comfort, perhaps, but better than nothing.