Marc Lynch

Setting the stage for the Israeli-Palestinian main event

 This afternoon I attended a stellar panel at the New America Foundation which focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of the coming visits to DC by Benjamin Netanyahu, Hosni Mubarak, and Mahmoud Abbas.  The panel featured Daniel Levy and Amjad Attallah of New America, Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and Rob Malley of ...

 This afternoon I attended a stellar panel at the New America Foundation which focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of the coming visits to DC by Benjamin Netanyahu, Hosni Mubarak, and Mahmoud Abbas.  The panel featured Daniel Levy and Amjad Attallah of New America, Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group.   Listening to the panel, talking to Levy and Malley afterwards, and reflecting on the way home, I came up with the following key takeaway messages for the Obama team for the next few weeks (though nobody on the panel would necessarily agree with how I’ve phrased all of them): 

  • Don’t view the Israeli-Palestinian issue through the Iranian lens.  The Israelis are going to try to argue that the U.S. can’t do Israeli-Palestinian peace until after "solving" Iran, while many Arabs and others are going to argue that the U.S. can’t solve Iran without first addressing Israeli-Palestinian issues.  Both are wrong, or at least over-stated. The two issues are only loosely related, the much-trumpeted alignment of interests between Israel and Arab leaders is wafer-thin, it’s important to move towards an Israeli-Palestinian two state solution for its own sake, and there is absolutely no logic to "sequencing" the two since both will take long, painstaking diplomacy.
  • Don’t get sidetracked into a never-ending process.  Many possible approaches to negotiations will focus on confidence-building measures, capacity building, small-step transactional progress (removing a few settlements in exchange for Arab countries opening Israeli embassies, for instance).  Arab leaders have made very clear that they have no interest in another drawn-out peace process — they want a peace settlement along the lines of a two-state solution, and soon.  The piecemeal approach is a recipe for delays, intentionally or otherwise.  Since every step, no matter how small, will likely become the subject of political warfare, better to get straight to the heart of the problem rather than wasting political capital on small stuff.  Be very wary of anything likely to waste time or divert energies into marginal affairs.  And any approach in which progress is made conditional on the performance of Palestinian security forces under occupation is likely to fail badly.   
  • Don’t think that you can succeed by doing a bad policy better.  There are deep conceptual problems with the approach of the last few years which go beyond just execution.  There’s a real risk that the Obama administration will fool itself into thinking that it can do the same basic things as Bush —  strengthen the Palestinian Authority, build the PA institutions and security forces, isolate Hamas, lay out a new version of the road map  — but succeed through better execution.  You can’t change outcomes by tinkering at the margins or through slightly more engaged diplomacy.  It would help, though, to reverse the farce of the "road map" by focusing on the credibility of commitments and enforcing agreements even-handedly — the American response to the first, almost inevitable test over Israeli settlement expansion or Jerusalem will have long-lasting effects, so be prepared. 
  • The Arab cold war is an obstacle to Arab-Israeli peace.  Watching Hosni Mubarak shadow box with Iranian phantoms, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood should drive home the point that the current inter-Arab tensions contribute to a toxic environment for any serious moves towards peace.  Their detachment from wider Arab public opinion should be a bright warning light for the Obama administration, who should take everything they are hearing from the procession of Arab leaders with a major grain of salt.  Encouraging those divisions in the name of promoting "moderates" against "extremists" is a losing game, for all the reasons I laid out the other day.  
  • Don’t ignore Gaza. The Obama administration has said and done regrettably little about Gaza, preferring to focus on the Ramallah government and the West Bank, and the Arab world has noticed.  But Gaza continues to suffer. It is the most likely site of a new confrontation, the main focus of Arab and Muslim concern and outrage, and simply can not be ignored.  The Obama team should be thinking very hard about ways to finally begin getting reconstruction aid to Gaza, and should not fall into the old trap of trying to turn Gaza into an abject lesson of the negative alternative to peace negotiations.   Lessons are being learned, all right — especially as the West Bank notably fails to bloom —  but not the ones that are intended. 
  • Find a workable formula for a Palestinian national unity government.  There doesn’t seem to be any stomach to initiate direct talks with Hamas, which probably wouldn’t amount to much anyway under the current conditions.  But it has signaled flexibility on some key issues, and might be willing to move further if there were serious incentives for doing so. Whatever the case, some formula must be found for a Palestinian national unity government which can negotiate authoritatively — which Mahmoud Abbas simply can not — and which can enforce a ceasefire arrangement.  The prospects for this don’t look good, of course. The Cairo talks look close to dead, though Fayyad may yet pull a rabbit out of his hat with the "wide" government he promises within the next day or two.  That reality may make it tempting to just ignore the problem, but without a national unity government of some form capable of negotiating an agreement which commands Palestinian support and of enforcing the agreement, talks will be meaningless.  

 The Obama administration, I think, already gets some of these points, probably feels constrained in its ability to act on others, and might not agree with yet others.  But it’s still worth getting them out there now, as events start to accelerate after several months of laying the groundwork.  Obama, George Mitchell and others have done a very good job of setting the stage over the first few months, and has the opportunity to shape the environment even further with the coming weeks of press conferences, speeches, and ultimately the Cairo address to the Muslim world.  Expectations are high, and over the next few weeks all the region’s eyes will be on Washington to see how the parade of visitors plays out.  And then the time for listening will be over, as all the actors expect to start seeing real actions.  At that point, the window of opportunity for judging those actions, during which Arabs — in particular — judge whether the Obama administration is really serious about change, will be very brief.  Let’s hope they get it right.

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