Wooing the Gods of the Peace Process
Obama is poised to become increasingly entangled in the Arab-Israeli conflict during the next year. Here's how he can avoid his predecessors' mistakes.
If the peace process gods have a sense of humor (and history), sometime around next summer — the 11th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s failed Camp David summit — another Democratic president’s peace initiative will be tested.
Right now, the arc of President Barack Obama’s peace process efforts (and the other Clinton’s, too) is leading inexorably to American "bridging" proposals — ideas on the core issues meant to literally bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions — if not a U.S. plan to reach a framework accord on all the big issues, which would constitute an extraordinary breakthrough. Currently, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are able to bridge the gaps on Jerusalem, borders, security, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But with the Obama administration’s inability to resist engaging, the president might end up in another make or break summit.
But Obama shouldn’t rush toward another disaster so quickly. A faltering, struggling peace process with some hope is far better than a failed one that leaves everyone hopeless — and without a fallback option. When the time comes for big American moves (and, sadly, it will come given the Israeli and Palestinian lack of ownership over their own process), Obama should pay careful attention to the lessons and circumstances of the last big American effort to resolve the core issues.
Much has changed in the past decade since Clinton asked Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak to come to only the second presidential summit at Camp David in 50 years of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of the changes have inspired observers to believe the time is right for a big American move: both Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, unlike Arafat, are well-intentioned, practical men with no history of involvement in terrorism and violence; Palestinian security performance is much improved; and the Arabs have put their own 2002 peace initiative on the table. Much good work has indeed been done on the core issues since Camp David in 2000. If the Untied Statesdoesn’t act on this progress soon, say some analysts, there will be no two-state solution to negotiate. And those are the optimists talking.
But there’s plenty of bad news, too. The Palestinian national movement faces its deepest crisis since its inception. It has become a kind of Noah’s ark with two of everything: two security services; two different leaderships (Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah) controlling two separated populations; two different sets of patrons and funding streams; and, above all, two different visions of Palestine’s future. Netanyahu has the power to lead Israel into a deal, but maybe not the incentive; Abbas has the incentive, but not the power. And Iran and those it supports — Hamas and Hezbollah — have the capacity to weaken and undermine the efforts of would-be peacemakers.
As Obama weighs his peace process strategy in the new year, he will be told four things by those who are pushing him to be bold and decisive. First, the parties were "this close" to an accord at the last Camp David, they will say, thumb and first finger almost touching. Second, that a tremendous amount of work has been done in the past 10 years by Israelis and Palestinians on the core issues which have brought the parties closer than they’ve ever been. Third, that everyone knows the broad outlines of an agreement. And, fourth, that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all.
Myth merges uneasily with fact here, and bad analysis and logical lapses seem to rule the day. Let’s address these four points, one at a time. First, on no issue were the two sides "this close" or even nearly so at Camp David in 2000. Second, yes, a great deal of fine work has been done on the core issues — but by negotiators who risked very little either because they knew the hour was late and there was no real chance of success, or because they were unempowered to negotiate. Third, the fact that we have a better idea of what a solution might be in no way makes it easier to get there. And, fourth, as for the old college try, that’s no substitute for the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power. Failure costs, and sometimes, it makes matters worse.
As Obama weighs his approach to Arab-Israeli negotiations in the new year, he should certainly know that on some issues — territory and security — the two sides have moved closer, at least on paper. No doubt he is aware that, even on issues such as Jerusalem, the Israeli and Palestinian publics may be more conditioned to accepting an agreement. How any of this would actually play out in the cruel and unforgiving world of Israeli and Palestinian politics — where Abbas and Netanyahu actually have to make decisions — is another matter. Presumably, the goal of the next several months will be to have the quiet diplomacy of envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton test out all this.
But far more important to Obama’s calculations should be the two unasked questions of Camp David: questions that Bill Clinton and those who advised him (including myself), never asked critically or comprehensively enough. This is particularly important for Obama who, much like Bill Clinton, believes that through the force of his personality, he can act as a transformative agent in international politics.
First, are the two leaders willing, able, and ready to make the big decisions on the big territorial issues and on the identity issues of Jerusalem and refugees? And, second, is Obama himself willing, able, and ready to do what’s necessary to be tough, reassuring, and fair — using ample amounts of honey and vinegar to try to make the deal?
If the answer to the first question is yes, Obama’s in business. If both are yes, he might even — with the help of the peace process gods — get an agreement. But he must ask these questions before he commits because, if he doesn’t, he will surely fail. And in failing he will be hanging a "closed for the season" sign on American efforts in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. And far from being the architect of a negotiated two-state solution, Obama will end up being the American president whose administration presided over its demise.