Does Obama Have a Plan B for the Middle East?

  • Share
  • Read Later
From left: Gali Tibbon / Reuters; Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty; Ammar Awad / Reuters

From left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

It's hardly surprising that President Barack Obama chose to schedule a White House visit by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the dead of night on Monday, because right now Obama has little to show for his 10-month effort to revive a Middle East peace process. The Israeli leader's refusal to abide by Washington's demand for a complete freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and the Palestinians' refusal to enter talks without one — has left the Obama Administration's plans in tatters, with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to resign and pull the plug on the PA and the peace process of which it forms a part.

Netanyahu insists that Israel is ready for unconditional talks; he blames the stalemate on the Palestinians for making the settlement freeze a precondition. But Netanyahu also refuses to accept that such talks be directed toward establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital — and that's the minimum the Palestinians are prepared to accept. Abbas, meanwhile, feels betrayed that the Obama Administration has backed down from its own insistence that Israel halt construction in occupied territory. That, say the Palestinians, is clear evidence that Washington won't pressure Israel to do things it's not willing to do, and that it's therefore pointless to go through the motions of yet another series of negotiations with an Israeli government more hawkish than its predecessors.

Obama had prioritized resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his demands — of a complete settlement freeze by Israel and reciprocal gestures toward normalizing ties with Israel by Arab governments — has been rejected on both sides. And while no recent Administration has had much success in this realm, veterans of the peace process concur that the President's initial approach was flawed. It may have even done more harm than good, they argue, by raising expectations that could not be met, leaving both sides mistrustful of Washington's intentions and creating a situation where either Netanyahu or Abbas would be painted into a corner. (That turned out to be Abbas, after Netanyahu rejected Obama's demands.)

"By raising expectations, the Administration has unfortunately weakened President Abbas," says Elliott Abrams, who coordinated Middle East policy at the National Security Council for President George W. Bush. "They drew him out onto a limb by demanding that Israel observe a 100% settlement freeze, and then retreated from that limb themselves, leaving him out there."

Abrams and other Middle East hands believe that no Israeli leader could have accepted the settlement-freeze demand, which Obama also made a centerpiece of his outreach to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech last April. Accepting Washington's demand would have brought down Netanyahu's government, says Abrams. Nor were the Arabs ready to reach out to Israel. "[The Administration] made it worse by not having a very good learning curve," says Abrams. "It was already clear last spring that Netanyahu was not going to accept the settlement freeze, and in June, when Obama visited Saudi Arabia, it became clear that the Arabs were not going to do any outreach to Israel. It's now November. Why has it taken them so long to figure this out?"

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator now at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, agrees that the Administration's initial demands of Israel and the Arab states were misguided, created unrealistic expectations, and "have allowed both the Israelis and the Palestinians to say no to the United States without suffering any consequences." Still, he says, first-year errors in foreign policy are common in new U.S. Administrations and the Obama team will have time to rectify matters.

But if that's the case, what is, or should be, the Administration's Plan B?

"Baby steps" was how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently in Jerusalem, the idea being to get the two sides talking at a lower level in the hope of generating some momentum. Abrams welcomes that approach, as long as it's tied to expanded efforts to improve Palestinian economic life and freedom of movement on the West Bank, and helping the emergence of the infrastructure of statehood. "I don't think a Palestinian state is going to be created at a conference table; it will be created on the ground in the West Bank, and some day, a peace conference will ratify that which has been built on the ground," the former Bush Administration official says.

Others see the stalemate as requiring a more forceful U.S. intervention — an international effort led by the U.S. to provide more detailed terms for a two-state solution, and press the two sides to accept it. Daniel Levy, an Israeli peace negotiator at Camp David now based at Washington's New America Foundation, says the reason the Obama Administration fared badly is that the underlying assumptions of the peace process are no longer valid. "The political factors that make it impossible for Netanyahu to accept the settlement freeze also make it highly unlikely that he could conclude a deal acceptable to the Palestinians," says Levy. "And the reasons for Abbas not being able to negotiate without conditions underscore just how limited his own room for maneuver and compromise has become. The Oslo Accords expired 10 years ago, and we're still trying to use their formula — getting Israelis and Palestinians to make 'confidence-building' gestures and sit across a table to agree on a formula for sharing the territory. But leaving it up to the two sides to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution is unlikely ever to produce a peace agreement."

But that approach may be just as unrealistic as the others, at least for now. "We can't impose a solution, because we have no capacity to enforce one," says Aaron David Miller. "The President won't put out U.S. ideas on a solution without a reasonable expectation of success."

Bold U.S. proposals are unlikely to be welcomed by the Israelis, but "baby steps" won't work for the Palestinians — in fact, Abbas is sending Obama a now-or-never ultimatum, warning him to crack the whip on Israel or lose his Palestinian partner. Levy agrees that putting a U.S. peace plan on the table now would be a bad idea — but that's because the timing is bad. That's why he recommends a familiar course of action to an Administration becoming accustomed to foreign policy setbacks: For now, says Levy, the Administration would be well advised to subject its Middle East peace policy to a review.