Marc Lynch

Don’t waste the Obama peace plan card

The latest idea making the rounds to break through the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is that President Obama should publicly put an American plan on the table to serve as the framework for final status negotiations. I understand the impulse, rooted in deep frustration over the failure of other approaches and a sense that the window for ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The latest idea making the rounds to break through the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is that President Obama should publicly put an American plan on the table to serve as the framework for final status negotiations. I understand the impulse, rooted in deep frustration over the failure of other approaches and a sense that the window for a peace push is closing (if it isn’t already closed). But I don’t think it’s a very good idea at this moment. If Obama puts a plan on the table right now, Palestinians will likely say that they’ve heard big talk before and want to see action, while the Israelis will just say no and pay no price for their refusal. And then the administration will have wasted a major card which can only be played once. The President should only put his plan on the table if his team has prepared the ground for it, and has a clear sense of what the U.S. can and will do when the parties say no. 

The argument for seizing the moment to put an American plan on the table is in many ways compelling. Attempts to bring the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority leadership together to commence negotiations have failed, and nobody expects much from "proximity talks." There’s a palpable sense of spinning wheels. The endless succession of U.S.-Israeli skirmishes over settlements haven’t produced much, the Palestinian side remains as weak and divided as ever, and nobody quite seems to know where to go from here. A bold presidential initiative may seem like a way to rekindle the flames, to give some desperately needed momentum, and to set the terms for pointed, direct negotiations aimed at an agreement. 

But I doubt it would work out that way. Presidential intervention is a precious asset, to be used at a moment when it’s likely to make a difference. American credibility on the issue is low because of Obama’s failure to win a real settlement freeze from Netanyahu or to impose any significant costs for Israeli refusal. A presidential speech at this point will probably be dismissed across the region as just more words. Netanyahu will almost certainly dismiss it out of hand, and no consequences will follow. Arabs and Palestinians will embrace the high level American involvement they’ve long urged, but will not make any concessions before they see the Israelis doing so. The moment will come and go, little will be accomplished, and then a card which can only be played once will have been wasted.  

If the Obama team does decide to put its plan on the table, it had better be prepared to do what it takes to make it succeed. There will really only be one shot. They shouldn’t expect to get too much traction from the President’s involvement, no matter how good a speech or how clearly they signal American preferences. They will have to do better than they’ve done thus far at anticipating the likely obstacles and at mounting a sustained strategic communications campaign to build Israeli, Arab, Palestinian and international support for a final push for peace. That means thinking through what pressure they are really willing to bring to bear, and it means having a clear Plan B in mind for when the Israelis say "no" and the Palestinians say "wait and see."

I very much sympathize with the instincts of those who want to see the President take the reins and launch a bold, public initiative to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Without such an intervention, we may be doomed to another lost year. And it should be a major U.S. priority, linked to broader strategic interests across the region. But I’d hate to see that last card wasted  in a poorly conceived roll of the dice. An Obama speech isn’t going to be enough, so if that’s the play then it had better be set up right in advance. 

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