Aaron David Miller: A Herculean Task

As the clock ticks down on the first year of the Obama Presidency, the balance sheet on Arab-Israeli peacemaking is in the red. The President inherited a difficult set of circumstances on this issue to be sure; but his Administration made some significant tactical mistakes which made the situation worse. Nothing fatal here; but 2010 starts with a sizeable dent in America’s credibility.

I wouldn’t count the President out by any means. For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Barack Obama cares deeply about an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But his own priorities and the dysfunction and division in the Palestinian and Israeli houses will make it hard (though not impossible) for him to get closer to one.

Barack Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter in terms of his commitment—almost obsession—with the Arab-Israeli issue. But he did come out faster and louder on this issue than any of his immediate predecessors.

Within days of his inauguration, he’d appointed the talented and tenacious George Mitchell as special envoy, come out strongly behind a two state solution, and started beating the drums hard against Israeli settlement activity. His speech in Cairo raised hopes and expectations that here was an American who finally understood the Arabs and Muslims on the Palestinian issue.

But words without deeds to back them up can prove to be pretty hollow. The Administration’s strategy seemed to be eerily reminiscent of the failed Oslo approach: get confidence building steps from all sides. So you ask Israel for a settlements freeze; the Arab states for partial normalization with Israel; and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Somehow all of this was to result in re-launching negotiations and progress on the toughest issues.

Unfortunately there was very little strategy here, let alone leverage to accomplish any of this. Nor was there much of an understanding of the politics on any side. This was particularly evident in the way the Administration dealt with Israel. To ask an Israeli Prime Minister, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, loudly in public for a comprehensive settlements freeze, including natural growth and to expect him to accept it revealed a profound misreading of the man and his times.

By year’s end, the President had managed to get three nos: one from Israel on a comprehensive freeze; a second from the key Arabs states like Saudi Arabia on partial normalization; and a third from Mahmoud Abbas on returning to negotiations. And when small powers say no to the big ones without costs or consequence, this is very bad for the great power’s reputation on which its leverage really depends. The fact is when America succeeds in Arab-Israeli negotiations, it does so because the regional players are responsive in part for their own reasons, but also because they don’t want to say no to America.

As 2010 dawns, certain realities about Washington and the region need to be confronted openly and honestly. First, the prospect of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to a conflict-ending solution which resolves conclusively borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security seems remote – even fanciful. Profound divisions exist between Hamas and Fatah which even a tactical reconciliation won’t address. And Israel has no stake in making major concessions in order to make peace with 60% – even 80% of the Palestinian people if the remaining part has access to guns and rockets and a demonstrated capacity to use them.

On the Israeli side, it’s by no means clear that there is consensus about what price Israel is prepared to pay on the core issues; it’s easier to see the current coalition dealing with the border issue than it is to imagine the current Prime Minister dividing Jerusalem. And it may well be that 2010 will emerge as the year of Iran where Israeli fears of Iran’s getting closer to a nuclear weapon dominate its decision-making process.

Second, it’s not as if Barack Obama has nothing else to do at home and abroad. A serious breakthrough either between Israel and Syria or Israel and the Palestinians takes time, resources, and expenditure of political currency he may not have right now. Fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, managing a jobless recovery, all against the backdrop of midterm elections later this year which don’t look terribly positive (for the moment) for the Democrats may not be the most auspicious environment for a major American push on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Still, the Administration will try. And I suspect they will be successful in getting negotiations resumed. Then the real work and challenge will begin. There’s always the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian breakthrough (far easier on paper); but this will require big decisions by Bashar Assad and Netanyahu. In any event, the Israeli–Palestinian negotiations will be a Herculean task and it won’t be a labor of love. The parties will have to make tough, excruciatingly choices they really don’t want to make; and America will need to be deeply involved.


 Aaron David Miller – former advisor to the Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, he’s writing a new book “Can America Have Another Great President?”

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