The Middle East Channel

The tragicomedy of Obama’s peace effort

It has become a truism to state that President Obama erred when he picked a fight with Israel over settlements at the outset of his Middle East peace efforts. Like many Mideast truisms, this one too is false. Obama’s error had nothing to do with settlements. His error was picking a fight that he apparently ...

It has become a truism to state that President Obama erred when he picked a fight with Israel over settlements at the outset of his Middle East peace efforts. Like many Mideast truisms, this one too is false.

Obama’s error had nothing to do with settlements. His error was picking a fight that he apparently wasn’t committed to winning.

Because if Obama wasn’t ready to play tough and demonstrate — to both sides — that there are real consequences for not playing ball, then his Middle East peace efforts were doomed to failure from the start, regardless of what strategy or tactics he adopted along the way.

Had Obama been serious about achieving a breakthrough in the peace process — and this means being fully cognizant of what that could mean in terms of a confrontation with Israel — the settlement issue was clearly the best place to start.

Every U.S. administration since 1967 has opposed settlement construction. Add to this the fact that Israel committed itself to freezing all settlement activity under the Bush administration’s Road Map — a commitment made explicit even in Israel’s written reservations about that Roadmap, in which Israel said that the Roadmap has no bearing on a permanent agreement on the various final status issue, including "settlement in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (excluding a settlement freeze and illegal outposts)" (italics added) — and it is clear that the Obama administration was on firm ground taking up the issue.

Of course, while U.S. opposition to settlements has been clear for decades, no U.S. president has ever put his political capital where his mouth was. Yes, in the 1990s Bush the elder took on settlements more directly than anyone when he imposed settlement-linked conditions on U.S.-backed loan guarantees (requiring that the guarantees be reduced annually by an amount equal to Israel’s non-security settlement-related spending). But in practical terms his effort had no impact on the settlement enterprise. The original amount of  guarantees was so high that the deductions had zero impact on Israel’s ability to borrow money — even with the deductions, which were minimal, Israel never borrowed enough to hit the loan guarantees’ ceiling during the life of the program. Indeed, when Israel was again granted a U.S. loan guarantee program in 2003, Israel accepted without question that the same conditions would apply, recognizing that they were utterly without impact.

By dealing much more seriously and effectively with the settlement issue at the very outset of his presidency, Obama had the chance to fundamentally change the unproductive dynamics that have characterized U.S.-led peace efforts for years. Achieving a settlement freeze would have demonstrated to both Israel and the Palestinians that the era of procrastinating, excuse-making, and game-playing was over, and would have put tremendous pressure on both sides to deliver results in negotiations.

Some have argued that Obama’s focus on settlements was a mistake because Netanyahu simply cannot freeze settlements, even if he wants to. Reality proves otherwise. If it was possible for the government of Israel, by decree, to place a moratorium on new starts in settlements for 10 months, it is possible for the government to extend this moratorium for the duration of peace negotiations or even indefinitely. And the argument that a freeze would be politically explosive in Israel is belied by the fact that the imposition of the 10-month moratorium resulted neither in massive protests nor a single defection from Netanyahu’s coalition. This, despite the fact that most Israelis believed it was a real freeze — not understanding that the government had included far-reaching exceptions that allowed the settlers to keep building throughout the ten months of the moratorium — and despite the fact that most Israelis expected the moratorium would be extended past 10 months, under pressure from the U.S.

In terms of substance, the focus on settlements also made sense, because of all the permanent status issues, this is the most urgent.Why?  Because settlements — both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem — are not static. Every day, new facts on the ground are being created that render the two-state solution harder — and eventually perhaps impossible — to implement. And each new fact on the ground undermines the credibility of those Palestinians who argue that negotiations, not violence, are the path to ending the march of settlements and the occupation.

Finally, conventional wisdom increasingly holds that Obama was fated to lose the fight with Netanyahu over settlements because Congress did not support him. This is a re-writing of history. As difficult as some may find it to believe, during the nearly 10 months in 2009 that the Obama administration spent negotiating with Netanyahu over the moratorium, the U.S. Congress, with only a few exceptions, either supported the president or kept quiet. This posture reflects a simple fact: settlements aren’t popular on the Hill. They are an issue that even right-wing, pro-Israel groups can’t defend and most don’t try.

Some have suggested that the Obama administration underestimated how hard a settlement freeze would be to achieve. If true, then this peace effort is truly a tragicomedy. Because any observer of the past two decades of Middle East peace efforts, let alone the past four decades of U.S. policy on settlements, could predict with certainty that no Israeli government would or could agree to a settlement freeze without the U.S. playing hardball. Indeed, this is why some supporters of Israel reacted with near hysteria to the Obama administration’s call for a settlement freeze — assuming, not unreasonably, that such a call would ultimately mean real pressure and arm-twisting applied to Israel.

The irony is that the Obama administration allowed itself to be sucked (or suckered) into paying the political price for pressuring Israel without ever actually applying the kind of real pressure necessary to achieve the president’s declared goal. So in the end the Obama administration lost twice — it took the hit for being tough on Israel, even when it wasn’t being tough at all, and it took the even bigger hit for laying out a goal and creating an expectation that it was not prepared to meet.

This mistake of the Obama administration’s two years of Middle East peace policy must be corrected now, if there is any hope of achieving progress toward peace under this administration.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now

Lara Friedman is the President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) and a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Twitter: @LaraFriedmanDC

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola