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Pining for the fjord: Obama and the Middle East peace process

Declaring defeat in his efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a viable option for President Obama, whatever the reality may be.
Bob Bowker
22 December 2010

Like John Cleese’s famously deceased parrot, denial of the passage of Middle East peace processes from the real world is easier and more rational than acknowledging their death. There is always a stronger case for insisting that somehow a meaningful process will be found, rising Lazarus-like to succeed where all else has not.

The main reason for this is simple. Few of those concerned to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wish to wear the moral and political consequences of acknowledging that progress has proven to be impossible.

No candidate for political office in the United States, or elsewhere in the western world, is likely to succeed without affirming their commitment to finding, or at least supporting, a solution to the conflict. It has always had political resonance well beyond its strategic significance. Certain politicians and political advocates aside, it takes a rare and courageous person to argue that acknowledging failure and pausing for intellectual and diplomatic breath while seeking such solutions afresh — let alone reflection about the end goals and ultimate value of this Sisyphean process — is both proper and necessary.

There are also some sound practical reasons for this insistence on remaining positive despite any realistic measure of the odds. The worst moments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, measured in terms of lives lost or destroyed on both sides as a result of terrorist attacks, intifada-related violence, and the deeply corrosive social and economic impact of sanctions and restrictions on life in Gaza have come when both sides have most despaired over the outlook for peace.

The first intifada broke out in December 1987 because a new generation of Palestinians, no longer prepared to accept Israeli occupation, felt both humiliated and abandoned by the Arab world. The Oslo process degenerated as Israelis lost interest, and Palestinians lost hope, not for want of American activity but for want of strong US leadership (including over the issue of settlements) during Oslo’s implementation phase.

The second intifada broke out in 2000 because, by that stage, the vision of Oslo had finally been trampled into the mud by a combination of terror, Israeli political insouciance, Palestinian leadership fecklessness and the abject failure of American diplomacy.

Arab governments also have substantial interests at stake in preserving the notion that a negotiated peace is possible. Some have benefitted from claiming that they have an irreplaceable part to play in securing it. The image may not match up very well to the reality of their motivations or the track record of their performance, but it serves no purpose, diplomatic or political, for their claims to be contested.

A gallery of other countries and celebrities have similarly found niche roles within the framework of diplomacy fostered by the notion that peace can be found.

Seeking to play a part in restraining US unilateralism towards the Middle East, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were instrumental in the creation of the Quartet, bringing together the United States, the EU, UN Secretary General and Russia. With the declared intention, collectively, to support the achievement of Middle East peace, it remains entirely devoid of any achievements in that regard. Its much-touted Roadmap remains to be given practical effect. Some of its more troublesome elements, such as the holding to account of those parties who fail to meet their obligations, are no longer mentioned. The Quartet  may arguably have served the national interests of its individual members reasonably well, but that is all.

This brings us to the question of whether the Obama approach, as reported, has any chance of avoiding going the way of all flesh.

Its viability as a strategy hinges upon several problematic issues and assumptions. Firstly, it is questionable whether the United States has the capacity to produce a deal on borders acceptable to both sides. But territorial issues are integral to all other issues — security arrangements, settlements and Jerusalem — and the border question cannot be solved without addressing those issues as well.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted he is willing to be flexible. But he has not been required to be more specific because the Palestinians have not come to the negotiating table while Israel continues to build in settlements and to insist that Jerusalem is not subject to any settlement moratorium. Obama reportedly urged Abbas to call Netanyahu’s bluff, but for Abbas to have commenced negotiations under those circumstances would have been tantamount to political suicide.

Secondly there is the question of whether such a deal, if created, could be credibly regarded as deliverable in practice by either side. The Palestinian Authority cannot restore control over Gaza and cannot speak for the Palestinian population at large if concessions have to be made to Israel. Abbas cannot risk trading land in the West Bank, or compromising with Israel over settlements without showing progress on other issues — on refugee right of return, and Jerusalem, in particular.

A third concern, if Netanyahu was in fact personally committed to reaching such an agreement, is whether he would be willing to sacrifice his reasonably secure hold on power through his existing coalition deal with the far Right in favour of a Centrist coalition.

The present impasse is less problematic for Netanyahu than the risks of resuming serious negotiations. He is under no domestic pressure to take risks in regard to the Palestinians. For their part, with US training assistance, the Palestinians are delivering ever-improving security for Israel despite the political impasse. The Gaza flotilla affair showed international criticism of Israel could be managed and deflected without loss of overall Israeli (and Egyptian) control of access to and egress from Gaza. His right wing coalition is easier to manage than a coalition encompassing the Kadima party led by Tzipi Livni (assuming she would wish to be part of such a coalition).

The tenure of Abbas as PA leader is questionable in the absence of a peace deal. His departure would be a loss for Israel, and for those concerned to see a negotiated solution. But most of his potential successors (including anyone who looked likely to reconcile with Hamas) would be a boon to the Israeli Right’s case for making no concessions. It would add to the problems facing the largely moribund Israeli Left.

President Obama has been shown to have almost no capacity to put pressure upon Israel. His domestic room to maneuver has been limited by the Congressional election outcomes. And concerns about Iran (and possibly Iraq as the US withdraws), and Lebanon can be used over coming months to deflect attention from the absence of progress on the Palestinian issue.

However, though patently going nowhere, no-one has an interest in declaring this episode of the peace process dead. The same was true of the original Camp David summit between Israel and Egypt, through which there was an offer also to negotiate the rights of the Palestinians. No-one has seen fit to pronounce the last rites over the Madrid process which followed the liberation of Kuwait; or the Oslo process, or the Roadmap.

The United States simply will not acknowledge failure, nor should it. President Obama has already promised continued US engagement when the 90 day period expires. Israel will insist it remains willing to re-engage with the Palestinians at any time, without preconditions (that is, while continuing settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem). Mahmoud Abbas will not wish to concede the political benefit to Hamas (and the irredentist, and increasingly restive elements within Fatah) of yet another failure to make progress through the process he helped to create.

The Quartet can be relied upon to declare its intention to support the process. Its envoy Tony Blair will continue to visit Jerusalem and take advantage of his expensively-renovated apartment. The usual suite of Arab personalities will host each other and debate next steps at summits. Shimon Peres will sonorously declare that peace is still within reach.

And the Pollyanna chorus, though perhaps diminishing in numbers, will continue to express optimism that a positive and constructive rethinking of US policy (especially one which acknowledges that settlement activity is not, after all, at the heart of the problem) will enable Israel to move forward toward a deal.

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