Stephen M. Walt

Settling for more settlements

Settling for more settlements

I’m sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn’t a real freeze (i.e., it didn’t stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.

At this point, Obama’s Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they’ve bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.

Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.

First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can’t want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it’s just plain silly. There’s no reason why the United States can’t want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn’t just about them; it’s also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much — and maybe even more — than they do.

The reason is simple: given the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a significant national security problem for the United States. The combination of unconditional support for Israel and the continued expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements undermines America’s image in many countries and is contrary to basic U.S. values. It is also one of the things that inspired terrorist groups like al Qaeda and facilitates jihadi recruitment. And as Gen. David Petraeus noted a few months ago, it makes our tasks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan more difficult. This situation, in short, is not good for the United States.

As long as that special relationship continues, therefore, it is a national security priority for the United States to get the conflict settled. End the occupation and settle the conflict, and the special relationship would not be nearly so problematic. If U.S. negotiators ignored domestic politics and put U.S. interests first, therefore, they’d be using all the carrots and sticks at their disposal to push both sides to the basic deal whose outlines have been understood for a decade or more. And if it were Israel that refused to end the occupation and make a fair deal, then U.S. leaders would begin to move away from the current "special relationship" and towards something more consistent with U.S. interests. After all, let’s not forget who the superpower is around here.

Second, some critics of Obama’s policy probably think the problem is that he and his team are too "pro-Israel." That’s not really true. By forcing Abbas to make repeated concessions with nothing to show for them, they are undermining his already fragile legitimacy to the point where he won’t be able to sell whatever deal they might eventually coerce him into signing. And by letting Netanyahu thumb his nose at repeated U.S. requests without paying any penalty, they’ve encouraged Israelis to think there is essentially no cost to a hardline position. But this approach isn’t "pro-Israel," because Obama and his advisors are helping make a two-state solution impossible and thereby making a "one-state" outcome nearly inevitable. Thoughtful Israelis understand that this is a perilous course, and President Obama said as much during his speech to the United Nations last week. But the administration’s handling of this issue has made the one-state outcome more likely, which threatens Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic state.

So if I were President Obama (and you can all be glad I’m not), I’d call my entire Middle East team into the Oval office for a little chat. Here’s what I’d say:

"I made a promise to the American people, and to the world, that we would achieve ‘two states for two peoples’ during my first term. When I was in Cairo more than a year ago, I said this goal was in "America’s interest, Israel’s interest, the Palestinians’ interest, and the world’s interest." And I meant it. I trusted each of you to help me bring that goal about, and I’ve taken your advice for over twenty months. Let me be clear: it isn’t working, and I’m not one who is satisfied with failure. Nor am I going to reward it. So I am telling each of you now: If you can’t help me get this deal done within one year, I’m going to fire every one of you and get some new faces in here."

Fanciful? Of course it is, because the same political forces that make it nearly impossible for Obama to do the right thing would make it equally difficult for him to appoint a better team. But it’s hardly more fanciful than thinking the United States can keep repeating the same mistakes and get a different result.