Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you

John C
9 November 2008

To: The President of the United States

From:  John C Hulsman

Re: The Middle East Peace Process

Mr President,

I can only imagine how many long-winded memos you will have to wade through between election night and your inauguration. They will all have basically the same message: You must do what they say, and quickly, to save the republic from further disaster. It reminds me of the comments of Georges Clemenceau, the premier of France, regarding the "fourteen points" agenda of that most vainglorious of presidents, Woodrow Wilson. The wily old premier replied: "Fourteen points: that's a bit much. The good lord has only ten."

John C Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim scholar-in-residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. His books include (with Anatol Lieven) Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006)

John C Hulsman's website is here:

Also by John C Hulsman in openDemocracy:

"Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future" (20 September 2006)I will keep to Clemenceau's critique and come in under the strictures of the almighty; I am genuinely sorry to take up your time at such a dramatic moment of economic crisis for the country. But American policy in the middle east desperately requires a radical rethink. You, in the words of my grandmother, will have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, to grapple with a profound global economic meltdown that will colour all things, while still engaging America in an outward-looking foreign policy. We are all realists now; the days of the neo-conservative pipe-dreams of American empire are at an end. But while we are in relative decline, the United States will remain for a long time, much as the British did, primus inter pares, first among equals in the global system. We must devise a new strategy to cope with the middle-east tinderbox, one that above all calls for genuinely new thinking about the middle-east peace process.

The strategy has eight points:

1. While much must change, the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal remains the same: land for peace

The key point for the Palestinians is a viable, contiguous West Bank, with secure links to Gaza. The essential matter for the Israelis is genuine peace, with the Arab states in the region all diplomatically recognising Israel, while actively assisting in disarming Arab terrorists. Without both these very difficult elements satisfied, no deal can possibly hope to work.

2. It is time to recognise that the confidence-building measures (including President Bush's roadmap) that arose in the wake of the Oslo accords amount to a noble failure

A comprehensive approach, arrived at in secret, is the only way forward. Unfortunately for the world, the architects of recent efforts at middle-east peace all went to the same graduate schools, which preach the same soothing platitudes. Conventional wisdom holds that in intractable complex negotiations like the middle-east peace process, small, limited steps forward will instill confidence in diplomatic interlocutors from both sides, enabling them later on to grasp the nettle of dealing with the large and controversial issues, like refugee right of return and the status of Jerusalem. To put it mildly, this seemingly sensible approach has worked better at the Kennedy School and Georgetown than on the ground.

For what it leaves out of the equation is the primal fact that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been deeply traumatized by the past sixty years. Both electorates are strongly against concessions being made by their leaders that are not immediately reciprocated. Both the Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert leaderships were very weak, with Abbas proving to be deeply unpopular, while he has lost total control of Gaza to the more radical Hamas. Further, Tzipi Livni's failure to form a government means that an election is in prospect which may result in the formation of yet another fractious Israeli coalition, headed either by Livni herself or by the more intransigent Binyamin Netanyahu-led Likud. The terminal political feebleness of both Israeli and Palestinian political leaderships means that it is wholly utopian to assume that either has the political capital to move ahead with concessions first, hoping that they will be rewarded down the road.

Yet that is what both the roadmap and the virtual peace deals floating around the internet in fact call for. The roadmap calls for the disarming of Palestinian radicals to proceed ahead of a final territorial solution: peace first, then land. The virtual plans call for Israeli territorial concessions to proceed ahead of final discussions about Israeli security: land first, then peace. Both sides are far too traumatised for either approach to ever happen, as neither of these options corresponds to practical political realities on the ground. Neither side can go first, and deliver. 

Also in openDemocracy on international diplomacy and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond" (6 March 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (5 June 2007)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (28 March 2007)

Khaled Hroub, "Annapolis, or the absurdity of postmodern politics" (22 November 2007)

El Hassan bin Talal, "Annapolis: a view from Amman" (26 November 2007)

Yossi Alpher, "Kosovo and Palestine" (5 March 2008)

Tony Klug, "Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion?" (21 July 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)3. Rather, all outstanding issues must be settled at once in a complete package, with both sides making concessions and receiving incentives at exactly the same time

That is the only way they can weather the predictable political storm that will surely follow from radicals on both sides. The membership of such a negotiating team must be limited to the highest-level, allowing the fewest number of people to know of its existence, in an effort to avoid leaks until the entire deal is finalised. Such a process must not drag on indefinitely; a rough six-to-nine-month timetable ought to be sufficient to see if such a process can lead to a sustainable breakthrough. Every time the very public negotiating process has been attempted, it alerts the radical enemies of any form of peace deal, giving them time to destroy both the emerging plan and the political actors supporting it. We must rediscover the joys of secret diplomacy.

The political trick to the whole exercise is that if both sides receive just enough political benefits from the deal they will be able to make the concessions necessary to the other side to push through an agreement. Neither can nor will be wholly happy. What instead we are shooting for is a sober cost-benefit analysis by both Palestinians and Israelis that both gain just more than they lose by such an agreement - such as happened during the negotiations between Lloyd George and Michael Collins in 1921 to establish a settlement in Ireland. That is the best that men can do. Do not hold out for a perfect settlement that simply does not exist; embrace a moderately good one that makes political stakeholders of the majority of the peoples and leaders of both sides.

4. We all know roughly what a final peace agreement looks like in policy terms; the devilishly tricky part is to game out how to politically get there. A rough place to start is as follows

The Palestinians will get to fly a flag over East Jerusalem, while the real administrative capital will remain in Ramallah. There will only be a symbolic right of Palestinian return, as a genuine one would forever change the Jewish character of the Israeli state, and will never be agreed to by any Israeli leader. For this concession, the Palestinians will be significantly compensated by Japan and the European allies. The Palestinians will form a contiguous, internationally-recognised state on 95% of the West Bank, with secure rail and road links to their enclave in Gaza. In return there will be land swaps adjusting the 1967 borders, with Israel incorporating their three largest settlements in the West Bank (which account for the bulk of Jewish settlement) in return for the Palestinians not being given a series of unconnected reservations, and receiving territorial compensation, leaving them a contiguous West Bank to rule over. It amounts to a 1967-plus land agreement.

In return the new Palestinian states and the vast majority of the Arab world will recognise Israel and its government and the borders of the new settlement unconditionally, along with the deal being ratified by the United Nations, Nato, the Arab League, the European Union, and all other relevant international bodies. Further, the agreement will clearly state that all the leaderships of the middle east (including Israel) formally and in fact forsake further regional violence.  Abbas and the Palestinian leadership must commit to and in fact move against the militants threatening Israel. Such a deal will come into force only after it is submitted to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples for a referendum, with each side securing the "yes" vote to provide the political cover for their leaders to make the brave steps necessary to secure peace. Local political legitimacy must be a prerequisite for any lasting deal.

5. For the locals, not the international community, must take the lead in making peace

The rest of the world must help the Palestinians and Israelis fashion peace. For instance, the Palestinians will never accept a deal without the Europeans being in the room, just as the Israelis will never accept a concord without the Americans being in the room. But, as happened during the waning days of the Clinton administration, we must not pressure either side to get too far ahead of its own people; President Clinton's Wye River deal of October 1998 would never have been ratified in the expected Israeli referendum, because he pushed both prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat too hard to accept an American-crafted deal.

Such an approach will never work, being instead seen as a foreign diktat that will be abandoned at the first jolt of what will amount to a very bumpy road forward. Instead, local Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be encouraged to be the primary stakeholders in any settlement, as they must implement the accord through the difficult days ahead, possessing the political clout necessary implement the deal. Otherwise the accord will be seen as yet another foreign intrusion in regional politics and will be swiftly abandoned.

6. America does not get to pick and choose the interlocutors on either side. We must work with whoever the Palestinians and Israelis elect, however difficult they prove to be

At the time of this memo, this means the more moderate leadership in Hamas must be engaged, even though this makes reaching an accord far more difficult. As proved true in the Good Friday agreement, the Irish Republican Army and the majority of the Protestant paramilitaries, however difficult, could not be excluded from a final settlement, as no deal without them represented the collective will of Northern Ireland. Further, political exclusion would have led to both sides continuing down the path of violence, which given the fragile political situation would have certainly undone the accord. It is not naïve to follow the notion that the United States does not get to pick the politically legitimate interlocutors of others; rather it represents a sound grasp of reality.

7. Encourage the Israelis to accept the Yitzhak Rabin approach

Remind our allies that the cold strategic calculations that impelled the great Rabin to take the enormously difficult decision to move forward with Arafat remains even more true today. A deal in the near term means Israel negotiates from a position of strength with its neighbours. Waiting for the decades to pass will surely erode Israeli strategic advantages, given the Arab demographic advantage. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. Privately, we must make it clear to our Israeli allies that your administration thinks Rabin was correct; dragging the peace process out indefinitely is to the advantage of Israel's enemies. While they must decide what is best for their people, the United States, as Israel's greatest ally, can surely proffer some private unsolicited advice from one friend to another.

8. Start now. Presidents tend to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis late in their terms, as domestic initiatives are shut off and their power wanes

It is as if they try for the holy grail of solving the world's most intractable problem as a last desperate attempt to make their name enter the pantheon of the immortals of history. This was surely the case for both Presidents Bush and Clinton. Sadly, a president in the twilight of his term does not have the political capital to help further along such a deal. Both the Arabs and the Israelis know this, and are unlikely to take risks for a dying king. This has certainly been true of President Bush's well-meaning but ineffectual efforts in the region. Break this cycle by committing genuine political capital to this problem early in your term, when your power is at its height.

By making a genuine good faith effort early on, you will show the middle east, more than any inspiring speech ever could, that you are a different sort of president from your predecessor, committed to leading while listening, to actually trying to solve the most knotty global problems, and that America generally remains a significant force for good in the world. It will not be news to you that America as symbol, a source throughout the cold war of significant soft power, has been badly tarnished in the past years. By genuinely trying to solve some of the world's hardest problems you can begin the necessary and arduous process of making America again a symbol of hope in a world transitioning to multipolarity. I can think of no better way to enhance American power than by restoring American standing.

For what its worth, know that this Republican will help you in any way he can.


John Hulsman

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