Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian agenda on track, but danger signs

The Obama administration has done surprisingly well thus far in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His team has aced the virtually inevitable early test of intentions and credibility over the settlements issue.  As my colleague Laura Rozen has reported, the Israeli team has been shocked to discover that Obama actually meant what he ...

The Obama administration has done surprisingly well thus far in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His team has aced the virtually inevitable early test of intentions and credibility over the settlements issue.  As my colleague Laura Rozen has reported, the Israeli team has been shocked to discover that Obama actually meant what he said about the need to stop settlements and has seemingly consolidated broad support in Congress for the position. Not so weak, naive, easily rolled, or exactly like Bush after all, evidently. 

The Obama administration has done surprisingly well thus far in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His team has aced the virtually inevitable early test of intentions and credibility over the settlements issue.  As my colleague Laura Rozen has reported, the Israeli team has been shocked to discover that Obama actually meant what he said about the need to stop settlements and has seemingly consolidated broad support in Congress for the position. Not so weak, naive, easily rolled, or exactly like Bush after all, evidently. 

Secretary of State Clinton, Middle East envoy Mitchell and others in the administration have reportedly been pounding home the importance of the settlements issue at every opportunity — both in private and in what I would consider a well-coordinated strategic communications campaign.  General David Petraeus added his voice to the mix in a front page interview in the influential Saudi paper al-Hayat, saying that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would improve American security and weaken its adversaries. (Perhaps the imprimatur of Gen. Petraeus will sway some American skeptics as well?) 

As Obama leaves for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, he will thus benefit from the headlines and op-eds in the Arab press featuring his strong stand on the settlements.  His team has done an outstanding job setting the stage, establishing its credibility both with Israeli and Arab audiences and generating real momentum. It should help him get a receptive audience for the much-anticipated address, and allow him to point to deeds matching words (the most frequent Arab criticism of his outreach thus far).  

But the fundamental problems facing any actual progress remain as intense as ever. After all, while it’s a crucial test of credibility and a vital first step, on the ground a settlement freeze at this point is like closing the barn door after the horses have already left, hitched a ride across the country, set up an independent urban rodeo business, gone bust and appealed for a government bailout package. It’s hard to see this Israeli government making the necessary moves, so the more realistic goal for now may be to prepare the groundwork for rapid progress after the Netanyahu government falls.  And despite the appointment of a new Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian side remains deeply and intensely divided, with few signs that the Hamas-PA stalemate or Gaza-West Bank divide will be broken anytime soon. 

But what worries me the most right now is a sudden, sharp escalation against Hamas which has created a crisis atmosphere and which seems likely to trigger some kind of violent retaliation.  Israeli air strikes against Gaza have escalated over the last week and a half.  On Thursday, the Israeli military killed a Hamas leader, Abd al-Majid Dawdin, at his West Bank home. Then yesterday, PA security forces pursued two alleged Hamas fighters in the West Bank, killing six in one of the bloodiest such incidents in years, and sparking a retaliatory crackdown and sharp words from Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas has refused to accept the legitimacy of Salam Fayyad’s new government or any agreement with Israel signed by Mahmoud Abbas, and the Cairo talks on a Palestinian unity government appear to be close to dead. 

There are two ways to read this. First, it might be seen as an attempt to trigger a bloody Hamas retaliation either in Israel or the West Bank which would radicalize the political environment and divert the pressure to move on the peace front. The latter would be a deeply cynical, provocative move and I certainly hope that it isn’t the case — and that if it is, Hamas does not take the bait.

Or second, it might be seen as a coordinated attempt to demonstrate the capabilities and intentions of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in order to reassure the Americans and Israelis, with an eye towards demonstrating to Hamas the need to somehow adapt to the coming moves towards a peace settlement. That would also be misguided, but in some ways the logical outgrowth of the "West Bank First/PA Only" approach which has thus far (in my view mistakenly) characterized the administration’s Palestinian policy. More on all this later, but for now I’ll just point out that Palestinian commentators across the spectrum are worried about this, and so am I. The growing intra-Palestinian turbulence as a dangerously rising trend which could undermine the President’s efforts while his attention is focused elsewhere.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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