Commentary

Obama the Mideast Peace-Maker?

Since the publication of my retrospective article on Israel in the fall 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal, a few colleagues have wondered if I considered revising my somewhat “pessimistic outlook” (the way one of my correspondents put it) about the chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian with Barack Obama in office. So have I changed my tune?

First, what I was trying to do in my WPJ article was to highlight the gap between the high expectations that many of us seemed to share regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1991 (the end of the Cold War, increasing globalization, etc.) with the depressing reality of today’s Holy Land—post-9/11, post-Iraq War, and amidst the present global economic crisis. If anything, my retrospective reflected my sense of realism about the ability and willingness on the part of Israelis and Palestinians—with or without outside intervention—to settle their differences and achieve peace in the near future.

I was not encouraged after reading David Unger’s article in the same issue of WPJ that seemed to be trying to lift our spirits by forecasting that “by 2033, two states, Israel and Palestine, will be living side-by-side in uneasy peace.” Unger makes all the right arguments to support his thesis that a resolution of their conflict would serve the long-term interests of both the Israelis and Palestinians. But same arguments that focus on the horrific human and economic costs of a long and protracted conflict and the potential enormous benefits resulting from a peace agreement could apply to the national, ethnic, and religious clashes over Cyprus, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Darfur. These are just few of the regional disputes that have remained unresolved and to some extent “frozen,” neither full-blown war nor peace. The main reason for that reality is that, for most players in these conflicts, the costs of challenging the status-quo outweigh the perceived benefits of taking action to end the dispute (either through military victory and/or a peace settlement).

This kind of cost-benefit analysis explains why President George W. Bush and his aides decided after 9/11 not to invest too much time or resources in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Operating under the assumption (or self-delusion) that the promotion of the “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East, starting with Iraq, would create the conditions for resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (witness the oft-repeated neoconservative argument that the “road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad”).

Indeed, Bush’s advisors were committed to the axiom that what is good for America is good for Israel (and vice versa). They argued that a Pax Americana in the region would also tilt the balance of power in favor of Tel Aviv, forcing the Palestinians to accept an arrangement that would favor Israeli interests. Hence, it made no sense to spend Washington’s diplomatic capital by pressing Israel, a so-called “strategic ally in the war on terror” to relieve the pressure from, and to make concessions to, the Palestinian leadership. Instead, Washington decided to “park” the Palestinian issue while trying to remake the Middle East by force.

However, by moving beyond the Palestinian-Israeli issue and dealing with the threat of “Islamo-fascism,” the Bush administration has pursued policies that have only exacerbated Israel’s relations with other Arab countries. Hence, it tried dissuade Israel from pursuing Turkish-backed negotiations with Syria (a junior member of the Axis of Evil). Bush also gave Israel the green light to attack the Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, leading to a war that ended with a strategic stalemate and possibly tipped the balance of power against the American-Israeli alliance.

In any case, when Bush’s Middle East “Freedom Agenda” crashed into the reality of the Hamas’s electoral victory in Palestine and the strengthening of Iran and its satellites in the region, the administration decided to placate the members of the Saudi-led Arab-Sunni coalition by going through motions of a grand peace-process in Annapolis earlier this year. This same Saudi coalition, based on neoconservative wishful thinking, was expected to form a “strategic consensus” with Israel to contain Iran.

But even a U.S. administration committed to resolving the conflict would have found it close to impossible to move toward an agreement at a time of weak political leadership on both sides. Although there were indications that the two sides could probably agree on the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Israel-Palestine border issue, there was no sign of the narrowing of the gap between the two national communities over the core existential issues that have separated them, such as the fate of Jerusalem and of the “right of return” of the 1947 Palestinian refugees.

At the same time, it seems that many members of the Reality-Based Community who mocked Bush neocons for their grand designs of transforming Iraq and remaking the Middle East have joined with the Hope-Based Community in proclaiming their high expectations of President Obama bringing peace to the Holy Land. There are hopes among many Obama watchers that the new president will take steps to repair America’s ties with the Middle East by withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and opening a diplomatic dialogue with Iran. Thus having strengthened U.S. status in the Middle East, Obama might be in position to embrace a more activist strategy aimed at bringing about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

Of course, much of what the new president will be able to achieve on the foreign policy front will depend on the administration’s ability to contain the American and global economic downturn. The Great Depression redux would make it less likely that the U.S. would launch into any major diplomatic or military moves. But if the economic recession proves to be more manageable than expected, the Obama administration could embrace a more ambitious agenda in the Middle East—accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq through a regional framework that could include Iran.

That kind of diplomatic momentum in a more stable regional environment would be conducive to restarting Israel-Palestinian negotiations. But Obama and his aides would still have to contend with trying to broker a deal that requires concessions that neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are willing to deliver any time soon. Resolving these wildly differing core existential issues would be more difficult to achieve now than in 2000 (when Camp David II collapsed) considering the Israeli and Palestinian leadership seem more divided and radicalized after the second Intifadah and 9/11.

In any case, the Obama administration would have to recognize that, even under the best-case scenario, there are limits to their ability to bring about a Middle East peace. By creating the impression that the United States has the moral authority and power to broker peace in the region, Washington has produced unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Worse, the repeated failures end up stirring anti-American backlash, putting even greater pressure on Washington.

The United States should be more than ready, if necessary, to work with other international players towards a resolution, but only if and when both Israel and Palestine are ready to make peace, existentially and otherwise. At the end of the day, if the two sides want a fragile peace to work, they will make it work—with or without U.S. involvement. And if they fail, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Leon Hadar, a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).