US President Barack Obama learned too late that if you pressure a right-wing Israeli prime minister–for example, as we saw last Monday, merely by refusing to see him until the last minute and then preventing media coverage of the meeting–he’ll arrive in a heavy sweat, then fall over himself making peace commitments. Had a few of these traditional forms of pressure been invoked by Obama half a year ago, when Netanyahu’s coalition was just forming and none of its members would have risked their perks and pensions because of a few settlements, Obama might have gotten a real settlement construction freeze that ushered in a real peace process.
Now it’s too late. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already pronounced Netanyahu’s relatively minor gestures "unprecedented" and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has embarrassed himself several times over by bending to Obama’s promises. Factor in the on-again-off-again possibility of Palestinian elections and of Abu Mazen not running in them, as well as Hamas’ cagey attitude toward a new unity framework and agreed election date, and we not only do not have an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we don’t even know when one will begin.
Obama is not the only or even the main player at fault. Blame should start with Netanyahu, Abu Mazen and the moderate Arab states, all of whom have made the freshman US president’s Middle East life pretty exasperating. Nevertheless, Obama’s original pledge to engage in depth appears still to be valid. Hence the media, along with politicians on both sides, have presented him with a broad selection of options for his next move–the kind that emerge like mushrooms after a rain when the process appears to be stuck.
One is to "pull a Jim Baker", freeze American involvement and tell Israelis and Palestinians to get in touch when they’re finally serious. As I recall, that tactic didn’t last long even with Baker in his day.
Another is to double the pressure on both sides, but particularly on Netanyahu, until Abu Mazen can "save face" and sit down together with Netanyahu. That may well have been the tenor of the Obama-Netanyahu discussion last week. The problem here is that even when they do sit down, it appears doubtful–in view of their known positions and despite Netanyahu’s well-known protestations to the contrary–that any significant peace process will get started. Here Obama might want to listen to the many friendly Israelis who have urged him to come to Israel and address the public directly–not through Netanyahu or the American Jewish community–in order to galvanize support for the concessions he is calling for.
Then there are the diverse Palestinian unilateral ideas that have emerged in the recent months of stalemate. They are problematic. But insofar as they constitute a departure from traditional Palestinian "all or nothing" demands, they are worthy of Obama’s attention.
Thus, PM Salam Fayyad has launched a two-year process of unilateral state-building that in some ways dovetails with Netanyahu’s "economic peace" and Tony Blair’s efforts on behalf of the Quartet. But there is no clearly-defined territorial framework or political deadline in sight. Most recently, Fateh leaders have been talking of a unilateral declaration of independence in the entire West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to be ratified by the United Nations. But they have no control over Gaza, East Jerusalem or most of the West Bank and they declared independence already 21 years ago.
At the global level, there are reports of a joint US-Russian initiative to convene a multilateral peace conference in Moscow and internationalize the solution. That boomeranged at Geneva in 1977, thankfully bringing Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, and launched a peace process at Madrid in 1991.
In Israel, the flavor of the week is Shaul Mofaz’s "sixty percent" plan to withdraw from additional parts of the West Bank and allow the emergence of a provisional Palestinian state there, with international guarantees regarding everything to follow. Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister who is challenging Tzipi Livni’s leadership of the Kadima party, appears to have consulted with a lot of Israelis but no Palestinians about his plan. Particularly pathetic is his offer to talk to Hamas: on condition that they first accept his plan, or alternatively that they accept the Quartet’s conditions–apparently it’s not quite clear even to Mofaz.
Once Obama has sifted through all these ideas, he might consider this synthesis of their implications. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the two sides are not ripe for a comprehensive solution to all their claims. Hence, some sort of limited or partial process is worth looking into; it could conceivably be linked to international recognition of a Palestinian state without final borders in accordance with roadmap phase II.
But this would be a gradual process. Meanwhile, the regional situation is pressing and Obama needs results. Hence an Israeli-Syrian peace process beckons. The regional payoff yielded by a successful process, in the form of a weakening of the Syrian-Iranian relationship and of Syria’s support for Hamas and Hizballah, would be immediate. It would help the US in Iraq and with Iran and would also support Palestinian-Israeli peace by weakening Hamas. Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be interested and to know the price demanded of him in terms of regional and ideological orientation. Netanyahu might find it easier politically to make territorial concessions designed to weaken Iran.
All this requires of Obama that he reverse the approach regarding Israel-Palestine that got him into this impasse, drop his preconditions regarding Syria and elevate Syria-Israel to top priority.