Earlier this month, George Mitchell held a press briefing about his efforts to achieve a “comprehensive peace” in the Middle East, noting he had made four trips to meet with Israel and over a dozen Arab countries, and saying he intended “to bring these discussions to a very early conclusion.”
Asked if EU diplomat Javier Solana was correct about the U.S. “announc[ing] its vision for peace in the Middle East before the end of July,” Mitchell responded as follows:
As I said earlier, we’re going to move as promptly as possible. And in my opening remarks, I said that we hope to conclude the discussions in which we’re now engaged very soon. To me, it’s a matter of weeks, not many months, so he may well be right. But we’re going to see how well we can proceed. . . . [S]o I’ll call him when we’re ready and he can announce that, and then you can have the results then. (Laughter.)
The noteworthy part of the response is Mitchell did not deny that an American peace plan is coming — soon.
Obama appears to be following the five-year old advice of Rob Malley (his erstwhile foreign policy adviser), who in 2004 dismissed reliance on a step-by-step process and argued for a plan defining upfront “the shape of a permanent peace” to be pushed on the parties. Malley proposed that:
[T]he process ought to be turned on its head, with the U.S. seeking to describe the endgame at the outset and with the parties agreeing on the means of getting there afterward. . . .
[The U.S. should] spell out the components of an acceptable deal, rather than press for incremental steps.
A lot has happened in the last five years, and Malley himself no longer thinks this is the right way to proceed. In the June 11, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books, Malley and co-author Hussein Agha concluded it is not time for the U.S. to “unfurl a grand diplomatic initiative,” and they proposed instead “another way”:
[It] would not be to polish up answers to questions of borders, security, Jerusalem, or how to compensate refugees. That approach increasingly is becoming a sideshow, chiefly of interest to official negotiators. . . . When Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for dropping timeworn slogans — land for peace, two-state solution — he has a political purpose. He also has a point.
. . . The US should reach out to skeptical constituencies that would make a difference but are left indifferent by current talk of a two-state agreement. One example is the settlers, an active and dynamic Israeli group yet one that the outside world typically treats as modern-day lepers. A more inclusive political process could recognize their views and concerns, consider their interests, and invite them to take part in discussions.
The current dispute over settlements is a prime example of a “sideshow.” It is a manufactured crisis, designed to impress the Arab world with Obama’s toughness on Israel, or force upfront Israeli concessions on a previously agreed issue. The Gaza experience demonstrated that dismantlement of entire settlements had no positive effect on the peace process — quite the contrary.
In his brief period in office, Obama has refused to answer whether the U.S. is bound by the April 14, 2004 letter given to induce Israel to turn over Gaza to the Palestinians, and has reneged on five years of understandings about “natural growth” of existing settlements. His response to Israeli objections has effectively been “sue me” — the understandings are not “enforceable.” It is not an approach inspiring confidence in him as a reliable or principled ally.
Netanyahu has announced five fundamental principles for any plan: (1) explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish national state; (2) demilitarization of any Palestinian state to reflect Israel’s security needs; (3) explicit international guarantees of those security arrangements; (4) resettling refugees outside Israel; and (5) no further Palestinian claims after a peace agreement. These principles reflect not simply Netanyahu’s position but an Israeli national consensus; they would seem the minimum conditions of peace.
A serious U.S. plan would adopt those principles and — to use a State Department peace process standard — recognize prior U.S. agreements with Israel, particularly the one in the 2004 letter. Permitting a militarized Judenrein state unwilling to recognize a Jewish one, and insisting on indefensible borders for the latter, is a prescription for war, not peace. The U.S. should have no interest in such a state, much less proposing a plan to affect the creation of one.