Stephen M. Walt

Direct talks déjà vu

President Obama is hosting a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, in order to kick off the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. As regular readers know, I don’t think this effort will go anywhere, because the two sides are too far ...


President Obama is hosting a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, in order to kick off the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. As regular readers know, I don’t think this effort will go anywhere, because the two sides are too far apart and because the Obama administration won’t have the political will to push them towards the necessary compromises.

Furthermore, there are now a few hints that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton administration’s own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush administration’s even more half-hearted attempts (i.e., the "Road Map" and the stillborn Annapolis summit). Last week, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth provided a summary of a conference call between Obama Middle East advisors Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and David Hale and the leaders of a number of influential American Jewish organizations. According to the article (whose accuracy I cannot vouch for), the goal of the direct talks will be a "framework agreement" between the two sides that would then be implemented over a period of up to ten years.

Excuse me, but haven’t we seen this movie before, and isn’t the last reel a bummer? This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a "framework" for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it’s another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk  and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a "shelf agreement" — a piece of paper that sits "on the shelf" until conditions are right (i.e., forever). It is this sort of charade that has led veteran observers like Henry Siegman to denounce the long-running peace process as a "scam," and Siegman is hardly alone in that view.

Here’s the basic problem: Unless the new "framework" is very detailed and specific about the core issues — borders, the status of East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, etc., — we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process. And even if it were close to a detailed final-status agreement, a ten-year implementation schedule provides those same spoilers (or malevolent third parties) with all the time they will need to try to derail the deal. I can easily imagine Netanyahu and other hardliners being happy with this arrangement, as they would be able to keep expanding settlements (either openly or covertly) while the talks drag on, which is what has happened ever since Oslo (and under both Likud and Labor governments). Ironically, some members of Hamas might secretly welcome this outcome too, because it would further discredit moderates like Abbas and Fayyad. And there is little reason to think the United States would do a better job of managing the process than it did in 1990s.

The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel’s existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn’t likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the "right of return." The obvious point is that when you’ve got next to nothing, you’ve got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.

At this point, the main concessions have to come from Israel, simply because it is the occupying power whose presence in the West Bank and whose physical control over Gaza makes a Palestinian state impossible. Some readers may think this characterization is unfair, but the issue isn’t so much one of "fairness" as one of simple practicality. How do you possibly create "two states for two peoples" if Israel doesn’t withdraw from virtually all of the West Bank? 

As a few Israeli leaders have recognized, Israel can preserve its democratic and Jewish character and avoid becoming an apartheid state only by allowing the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own. Moreover, given the inherent disparity of the basic outcome (78 percent vs. 22 percent), the rest of the deal cannot be Carthaginian. By necessity, it will mean sharing Jerusalem in some fashion and withdrawing tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank (even if some existing settlements are accommodated via mutual land swaps and border modifications).

Indeed, the more that I think about it, the more baffled I am. Why has Obama made such a high-stakes gamble with so little prospect of real success? By now he must know that he won’t be able to push Netanyahu very hard without facing pressure from AIPAC and Co. and squawks from influential Democratic Party insiders. By now he must realize that Netanyahu doesn’t see himself as the Israeli De Gaulle (who got France out of Algeria), or the Israeli De Klerk (who ended white rule in South Africa). By now Obama should also have a realistic sense of the likelihood that Egypt or Saudi Arabia will help him impose a one-sided deal (they won’t), and he may even suspect that excluding Hamas completely isn’t likely to work either. Well, if any or all of this is true, then why is he committing his own prestige and getting everyone’s hopes up again? Isn’t the climb-down he had to pull after the Cairo speech enough damage for one term?

My guess — and that’s all it is — is that Obama is doing this because he said repeatedly that he’d do something, and because he also knows that the conflict continues to damage America’s strategic interests and it isn’t going to get better if the United States does nothing. Plus, his natural political instinct is to play the long game. Like Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, he is hoping that "something will turn up." I hope he’s right and I am wrong, but when something "turns up" in that part of the world, it’s usually an unpleasant surprise.  In any case, it’s hard for me to see this as wise statecraft at this moment in history.

But you don’t have to believe me. Instead, here’s a selection of things you can read if you’d like to get some other views.

You might start with Martin Indyk’s more optimistic take in the New York Times last week.  Indyk certainly knows a lot about how not to make peace (having been a key player in the Clinto
n administration’s ill-fated stewardship of the Oslo process), but he now believes "the negotiating environment is better suited to peacemaking today than it has been at any point in the last decade. The prospects for peace depend now on the willpower of the leaders." 

Well, maybe, but the "willpower of the leaders" is a pretty thin reed upon which to rest one’s hopes, especially when you consider the domestic obstacles that all three leaders face (and that Indyk downplays or ignores). Indyk also assumes that Netanyahu genuinely wants a fair deal, as opposed to either a set of dismembered Palestinian "statelets" (which is as far as he’s gone in the past) or maybe just the illusion of a peace process. One can’t rule that possibility out completely, of course, but there’s no hard evidence that Netanyahu has changed his views. Nor does Indyk suggest that the United States use its considerable leverage to force a deal; all we get is a call for Obama to exercise skillful "statesmanship." And as Rabbi Brant Rosen notes here, there are some pretty profound omissions in Indyk’s account.

For some practical suggestions on how to make progress, see Brian Katulis and David Avital’s "Learning from Past Middle East Mistakes," at Politico. I wouldn’t say they are wildly optimistic, but they do see certain positive features in the present situation and they outline how Obama & Co. could use them to avoid failure. So if you’re looking for a more upbeat assessment than mine, the Indyk and Katulis & Avital pieces are a good place to start.

For a gloomier view, check out Josh Ruebner "Top Ten reasons for skepticism" on the Mondoweiss website. And if you still retain shreds of hope, follow that up with David Gardner’s even darker reflections from the Financial Times, where he refers to the entire peace process as "poisoned."  

For a neoconservative take, you can read Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard, who says that the people who really need to be protected from the peace process are the Israeli settlers who have been occupying the West Bank for decades. As Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress pointed out in a telling riposte: one of the main motivations behind the whole settlement enterprise was to "create facts" on the ground, so that it would be difficult-to-impossible to remove them later. Ironically, Barnes’s paean of sympathy for the settlers merely highlights the domestic constraints that may make it even harder to craft a deal than Ruebner and Gardner and I think.

Next, be sure to look at Ali Abunimah’s Sunday New York Times op-ed on the dangers of excluding Hamas from the peace process, where he makes an interesting comparison between the U.S. approach to the peace process in Northern Ireland and the very different approach that it has adopted in the Middle East. (And while you’re at it, check out FP colleague Jim Traub’s rather different but no less pessimistic discussion of the Northern Ireland analogy here.) I think engaging Hamas is a trickier business than Abunimah does, and I’ve long thought that it would be easier to do this if a serious peace process were in motion and Hamas was afraid of missing the boat (a point that Indyk also makes). But his broader argument is probably correct, and kudos to the Times editors for running it. Alas, because reaching out to Hamas is the last thing Obama will do at this point, there’s even less reason to think that the new talks will get us anywhere.

Finally, I’d like to second FP colleague Marc Lynch’s tweeted endorsement of Robert Malley and Peter Harling’s "Beyond Moderates and Militants: How Obama Can Chart a New Course in the Middle East" in the latest Foreign Affairs. It’s a fascinating article, and I’ll need to read it again before I grasp all of its implications. But their main message strikes me as on-the-money at first reading: U.S. Middle East policy reflects an outdated conception of the region as divided between two camps: hardline, anti-American radicals and pro-American moderates. Instead, the policy choices of most actors in the region reflect more complicated calculations of interest rather than rigid religious or ideological categories. (Needless to say, I’d argue that means they are acting more-or-less the way a realist would expect). Malley and Harling recommend more flexible and pragmatic U.S. policies that take these new complexities into account, while retaining certain long-standing commitments: Money quotation:

The alternative is for the United States to play the role of conductor, coordinating the efforts of different nations even as it preserves its privileged ties to Israel and others. For example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and Turkey, could spearhead efforts to bring about Palestinian national reconciliation consistent with a continued U.S.-led peace process. Turkey, assuming that it mends its ties with Israel and maintains its newfound credibility in Arab countries, could serve as a channel to Hamas and Syria on peace talks or to Iran on the nuclear issue. Under the auspices of the United States, Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Iran could reach a minimal consensus on Iraq’s future aimed at maintaining Iraq’s territorial unity, preserving its Arab identity, protecting Kurdish rights, and ensuring healthy, balanced relations between Baghdad and Tehran. Washington should intensify its efforts to resume and conclude peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would do far more to affect Tehran’s calculations than several more rounds of UN sanctions. Syria also could be useful in reaching out to residual pockets of Sunni militants in Iraq."

Sounds right to me, and it would be a clear departure from our current approach.  Don’t forget that Malley was an advisor to Obama during the 2008 campaign, until he got dumped when his contacts with Hamas (undertaken as part of his non-governmental job at the International Crisis Group) were thought to be a electoral liability for Obama. Which tells you all you need to know about the prospects for a genuine breakthrough. Unfortunately.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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