Stephen M. Walt

Rewarding failure: A new low in Middle East diplomacy (UPDATED)

Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following: One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel’s conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks ...

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:

One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel’s conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)

They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.

Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama’s team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he’s getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi’s position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?

Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements — please … please … pretty please? … and then only for a mere 60 days.  

Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it’s just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn’t even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then? 

Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn’t go anywhere, and I’ve made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there’s little danger of that, alas.

P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration’s offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?

UPDATE:  Ha’aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way.   If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise:  where did Makovsky get these ideas?  Was it a trial balloon?  An attempt to make policy via leaks?  An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn?  I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky’s part (and that’s hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.

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