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Thoughts on the Obama Peace Process

1. It’s pretty amazing — actually, it’s perverse — that Mahmoud Abbas seems to be getting away with his profession of passivity to the Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl: “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements.” Now imagine if the Israeli prime minister had preempted his meeting with Obama by saying flippantly that Israel will not lift a finger on behalf of the peace process until the PA vanquishes Hamas and ends its delegitimization of the Jewish state. This would have made headlines around the world and it would have provoked a stern rebuke from Obama. Abbas’s declaration did neither.

2. Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze is unreasonable for two major reasons: A) No reciprocal demand was made of the Palestinians, and no Israeli leader can make unilateral concessions — especially given Israel’s recent experience of the consequences of such concessions. B) The freeze requires a prohibition on construction inside the footprint of communities that today are de facto Israeli territory. These are the city-settlements that have long been slated for inclusion into Israel in any final-status agreement, with equivalent Israeli territory awarded to the future Palestinian state through land swaps. Ma’ale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem with 35,000 residents, is not going to be bulldozed into the Judean Desert as part of the creation of a Palestinian state. So why does it matter — other than as a cheap symbol of Obama’s willingness to push Israel around — that the residents of this city be prohibited from construction? It would have been perfectly reasonable if Obama had said to the Israelis: as part of the peace process, we expect you to dismantle outposts and not expand the footprint of West Bank settlements, some of which will have to be dismantled as part of a final deal. That would have been met with grudging acceptance. But I get the sense that Obama wants to avoid such an Israeli response.

3. Obama’s flippant dismissal of previous agreements between Israel and the United States is going to make his efforts harder, not easier. Why should Israel make new agreements with Obama immediately after he established the precedent that they might be unilaterally discarded at a moment’s notice? And having set this example, what can Obama say in reply if the Israelis decide to begin discarding agreements with the U.S. that they find inconvenient? Obama talks a lot about the imperatives of dialogue, diplomacy, and humility. His behavior, especially in this case, couldn’t be more at odds with his rhetoric.

4. Ever since Yasser Arafat died, observers of this conflict have said that the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, and especially of Mahmoud Abbas, would pose an insurmountable obstacle to the creation of a new peace process. But we were wrong: Abbas’s weakness is turning into his greatest strength. It is the perfect rationale for passivity, for throwing the entire burden of the process onto the Israelis, for avoiding anything that would reveal his fecklessness. I didn’t think this would be possible because I didn’t think it plausible that a U.S. administration would endorse a peace process that consists so far of the United States pressuring Israel to make unilateral concessions.

5. It should be clear that the point of all this isn’t necessarily to advance the peace process. The point is to put Israel on the defensive, to weaken Bibi, and to frighten Israelis into thinking that relations between the two countries could go catastrophically awry if Obama doesn’t get what he wants. It often makes sense to try to soften up your adversary before negotiations. But the problem for Obama is that the peace process — and security matters generally — are things on which there is a newfound consensus in Israel. The politics of the 1990′s don’t apply today. Israelis have seen how territorial withdrawals and fraudulent peace processes get repaid in blood. I could be wrong, but I doubt that Obama, after manufacturing strife between the two countries, will find either Israeli voters or members of the governing coalition turning on Bibi. In fact, probably the opposite will happen.

6. Which leads to the major problem that Obama’s hostile posture toward Israel will create. One of the longstanding principles of the peace process has been that Israel, given the genocidal hostility of many of its neighbors, must be made to feel secure if it is to make concessions. Obama is discarding that formula and attempting to make Israel feel insecure, not just by making unreasonable demands and discarding previous agreements, but by speculating about throwing Israel to the wolves at the UN and restricting arms sales. If Israelis feel that the United States is turning against them they will be less inclined, not more, to trust the U.S. as the steward of the peace process.

7. Which leads, as all things do today, to Iran. President Obama has stated his belief that progress on the peace process will help build momentum in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. If Obama convinces Israelis that they do not have a genuine ally in Washington, the Israeli strategic calculation will necessarily change. And it will be a change that pushes Washington further to the periphery of Israeli decision-making than Obama probably wants. Alienating allies and pressuring them to adopt untenable policies has a price, and the price is reduced influence. I’m not sure our president understands that.


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