In the grand poker game of Middle East peacemaking, everyone around the table is wondering just what cards Barack Obama is holding. That's because the President has placed a potentially ruinous bet on what can be achieved in the 90 days of the partial settlement freeze he appears to have persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept in exchange for an extra $3 billion worth of advanced F-35 fighter aircraft. That is over and above the annual $2.75 billion military subsidy Israel receives from Washington. In addition, the Obama Administration has promised to run interference for Israel against any attempt to bring international law into play to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via the U.N. But Obama is gambling with a lot more than $3 billion that the two sides can agree on borders between Israel and a Palestinian state within three months.
Netanyahu still has to convince his Cabinet to embrace the deal, and he'll get some pushback from within his party and among settlers who will be furious about a new building slowdown (although the Israeli group Peace Now, which strongly opposes settlements, noted last week that in the six weeks since the last moratorium expired, settlers have started to work on pretty much the same number of housing units as they would have built in the 10 months it covered). The Palestinians, for their part, insist that they won't return to negotiations until Israel completely halts building on occupied land, including in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu, however, is adamant that his construction freeze won't apply to settlements in East Jerusalem, which he doesn't deem to be settlements although the international community does, having never recognized Israel's annexation of those parts of the Holy City captured in the 1967 war.
But even if the deal manages to get talks restarted, Obama's real gamble is giving the two sides just 90 days to agree on where to draw the final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. The logic of demanding a onetime extension of the moratorium is that the parties will agree on borders within three months, rendering the settlement-freeze issue moot, because Israel would then continue to build only in settlements that remained within its new borders. Fine in theory, but there's little ground for optimism over the two sides' agreeing on borders within that time frame or perhaps even the foreseeable future. The Palestinians insist that the premise of peace talks is that the borders will be based on those that preceded the June 1967 war, with modifications to be negotiated on the basis of equivalent land swaps. Even though Netanyahu, a longtime opponent of the land-for-peace principle on which the peace process is based, last year finally accepted the principle of a two-state solution, he has never indicated that he accepts the 1967 borders as its basis.
The settlement-freeze issue, while concerning what all sides recognize as simply a precursor to a final-status agreement, has become an 18-month saga that highlights the depths of the mistrust between the protagonists. The Palestinians say the Israeli insistence on continuing settlement construction indicates a lack of seriousness about peace. The Israelis believe they'll keep East Jerusalem and the major West Bank settlements under any agreement, and they accuse the Palestinians of seeking excuses to avoid a moment of truth at the negotiating table. Either way, the actions of both sides suggest that neither has much faith in the peace process, and both have spent most of the Obama presidency negotiating with Washington rather than talking to each other.
The idea of starting with borders may reflect a desire to begin with what might seem the easiest of the vexed final-status issues between Israel and the Palestinians. But the reality is that even a discussion on borders can't avoid the issue of Jerusalem perhaps the most difficult and emotionally charged of the core disputes. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there's no deal unless the border between the two states runs through Jerusalem, but the Israelis insist that their claim to all of Jerusalem is nonnegotiable.
Hardly surprising, then, that among Middle East analysts it's an exceedingly rare breed who is willing to predict an agreement on borders within three months. So the real question becomes what cards Obama will put on the table if his bet is called by the failure of three months of talks to produce a deal. Will he simply walk away, declaring Middle East peace a bridge too far, or will he try to get the two sides to keep talking by convincing them that they have no alternative to keep up the appearance of a process even if it offers no hope of resolution? The Palestinians and their Arab backers are unlikely to accept either option, and they would likely respond by taking matters out of Washington's hands and seeking remedies in international law, which Israel and the U.S. want to avoid.
The other alternative, in the event of a stalemate after three months of talks, would be for Obama to put on the table a U.S. plan on where to draw borders, developed in consultation with key international stakeholders. That's a scenario the Israelis desperately want to avoid because it removes the overwhelming advantage in leverage they enjoy in direct talks with the Palestinians. For the same reason, the Palestinians would welcome an international solution, which could only give them more, rather than less, than what the Israelis would willingly offer.
Failing to force the issue in the event of a stalemate in direct talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas would deal a devastating blow to U.S. credibility among its allies in the Muslim world. But making demands that Israel's leaders are inclined to resist would carry a growing domestic political cost as the President faces a Republican congressional leadership that is more inclined to take Netanyahu's view than Obama's. And Netanyahu has always shown a willingness to appeal directly to his allies on Capitol Hill when he doesn't like what he's hearing from the White House.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is routinely described these days as a national-security priority for the U.S., particularly in light of the negative impact the conflict has on the Muslim world's perceptions of the U.S. Until now, Washington's operating assumption has been that such a peace would result from negotiations between the parties themselves. By demanding that Israel and the Palestinians put their cards on the table over the next three months, Obama is subjecting that assumption to a stress test. If it fails, he'll be called on to play some new cards of his own.