The Middle East Channel

Obama’s Middle East straddle–time to get off the fence

Has President Barack Obama really committed himself to Arab-Israeli peacemaking?  Some seem to think so. On April 13, 2010, the President said that Middle East peace was …in the interest of the United States. It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Has President Barack Obama really committed himself to Arab-Israeli peacemaking?  Some seem to think so. On April 13, 2010, the President said that Middle East peace was

…in the interest of the United States. It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure. So I’m going to keep on at it. 

Coming just shortly after General David Petraeus had told a Senate committee that his missions in Iraq and Afghanistan would be well served if Arab-Israeli peace could be achieved, the President’s comment led to a spate of excited commentary that the administration was about to launch its own peace plan. Some would welcome such an idea, believing that the parties on their own are incapable of reaching peace, while others express fears of an "imposed settlement". 

My own reading of this administration is that it really has not yet made up its mind what to do about Israel, the Palestinians and Syria–and this far into a new administration, that is reason for concern. On the one hand, there are frequent references to a major national interest in Arab-Israeli peace. That helps to explain Obama’s early focus on this issue, his selection of Senator George Mitchell to be his special envoy, his speech in Cairo last year, his tough stance on Israeli settlement activity, his frostiness toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the recent leaks about a peace plan.

But look more carefully at Obama’s April 13 comments and the other side of the picture comes into focus:

It [peace between Israelis and Palestinians] is a very hard thing to do. And I know that even if we are applying all of our political capital to that issue, the Israeli people through their government, and the Palestinian people through the Palestinian Authority…may say to themselves, we are not prepared to resolve this–these issues–no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear. And the truth is, in some of these conflicts the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism. I think it was former Secretary of State Jim Baker who said, in the context of Middle East peace, we can’t want it more than they do.

This last sentence–part of a mantra that many observers of the "peace process" unthinkingly utter–always catches my attention because it is such a pointless and misleading comment.  (And I honestly do not believe that Secretary Baker was the author of this phrase, or at least he did not act on it in 1991. It was Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross and George W. Bush and his team that repeated this phrase ad nauseum during the past 15 years.)

If Arab-Israeli peace is truly in the U.S. national interest, of course we can want it as much, or even more, than the conflicted and divided protagonists. That doesn’t mean that we can force peace down their throats, but it certainly is possible for us to be clear minded about why peace would be in our interest. In any event, it is foolish to believe that Israelis or Palestinians either do or do not want peace in some binary sense. We have plenty of evidence that both communities–and the Syrian regime as well–are of at least two minds about peace.  On the right terms, they would be prepared for it, and have shown that by engaging in serious diplomacy in times past. But they remain skeptical about the intentions of their adversaries, they fear that the price of peace will be too high, they look over their shoulders at anxious domestic constituents, and they feel vulnerable to the actions of spoilers and intensely committed ideological minorities in their midst. Can anyone honestly say that they know in the abstract which party does or does not want peace? The only way we will ever know is when the whole package of tradeoffs and mutual concessions has somehow been put together and then leaders and publics will have to decide if the gains outweigh the losses. 

If we really adhere to the "we can’t want it more than they do" slogan, we are giving the most intransigent party a veto over any progress. We may as well throw in the towel right now, as some former U.S. officials seem to be recommending. But if President Obama really believes that Arab-Israeli peace is in the U.S. national interest, he should calmly and forcefully move ahead, spelling out what those interests are to the American public, seeking to mobilize international consensus on the broad principles for peace, engaging all the parties in a sophisticated diplomatic dialogue, and helping each of the major players in the Middle East see what is in it for them if they decide to take the plunge, and what the costs will be of holding back.

Arab-Israeli peacemaking is not for the faint of heart. The U.S. has done best in this difficult business when it was led by presidents and secretaries of state who had a clear notion of what was at stake, and who did not give up when they encountered resistance from the reticent and quarrelsome parties to the conflict. If the Obama Administration does decide to follow in the footsteps of Team A–Nixon-Kissinger, Carter-Vance and Bush I-Baker instead of Team B–Reagan, Clinton and Bush II–they will have to anticipate sharp criticism, complaints from the parties that we are being unfair or one-sided, and, in today’s political environment, probably strong partisan criticism. So why do it, since there is no guarantee of success? 

The answer lies in the first quote from Obama’s April 13 comments–it is in the U.S. national interest, and therefore we should get on with it, despite the difficulty. Time is not making it any easier, and it may already be late in the day for the much-vaunted "two-state solution".  But in all honesty, we have never really put the parties to the test by helping to fashion the outlines of a balanced agreement. If we do go down this road of energetically trying to broker peace, the administration should ban the phrase "we can’t want it more than they do". It is a silly and misleading way to talk about the serious diplomatic challenge of working toward a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

William B. Quandt is Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and served in the Middle East office of the NSC staff during the Nixon and Carter Administrations