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Obama’s Middle East Listening Tour

During a press appearance yesterday with the Jordanian foreign minister, a reporter told Secretary of State Kerry that “many people in the Arab world were disappointed” that President Obama made no mention of the “peace process” in his State of the Union address. The reporter asked if Kerry could “assure us that this Administration have this peace process as a priority.” Kerry responded that he’s an optimist, believes “there are possibilities,” but noted that:

“[T]he President is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to go to Israel. It affords him an opportunity to listen. And I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices.”

It’s a better approach than the one Obama adopted in his first term, when he ignored experts who urged him to study the failures of President Clinton and President Bush before rushing right back into the process (as if all that was necessary was a new president). But even a “listening tour” ignores the lesson of the preceding peace processes, which was that the absence of peace was not the result of Israel’s failure to offer the Palestinians a state, or accept an American bridging proposal, or withdraw from territory, or dismantle settlements, or agree to a year-long final status negotiation with intensive American involvement, which resulted in yet another offer of a state. Israel did all those things and got no peace. The reason for the repeated failures of the “peace process” was something else.

In The Missing Peace, Dennis Ross concluded that one of the main reasons for the Clinton failure was the devotion to the “process.” It was so important to keep the “process” going that the underlying realities of the situation were ignored, lest they disrupt it. Palestinian rhetoric was treated as “merely” for domestic consumption and was thus disregarded; Palestinian terror incidents were treated as reasons to redouble negotiating efforts, rather than to stop the “process.” The process took on a life of its own, detached from reality.

In Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, his extremely valuable account of the Bush peace process, Elliott Abrams concludes that one of the reasons for the failure of the “Annapolis process” was the concentration on negotiations, rather than on progress on the ground. He quotes Tony Blair’s observation that the “reality on the ground will shape an agreement, not vice versa.” In Abrams’ view:

The “peace process” can in this sense become the enemy of progress or even of peace. I tried to eliminate the term from every White House document …. To me it meant the endless series of sessions that overlooked or even obscured realities on the ground: the inability of the PA to defeat terror, its financial crises, the growing popularity of Hamas, the endemic corruption of Fatah, and the party’s inability to win public support. We needed a process that overcame those obstacles to statehood, and the “peace process” often led us to discuss instead where the next conference would be held.

Here is the current reality on the ground: half the putative Palestinian state is held by a terrorist organization allied with Iran and dedicated to Israel’s destruction; the other half is held by a “president” who is nearly 78 years old, in uncertain health, with no known successor, about to begin the 100th month of his 48-month term, presiding over an entity with no functioning legislature, no independent judiciary, no free press, and a society steeped in anti-Semitism. He is not a real president; he just plays one at the UN. Both halves lack the institutions necessary for peace: one half is stockpiling rockets for the next war; the other half refuses even to endorse “two states for two peoples” as a goal, and simply wants to “end the occupation” without an end-of-claims agreement.

At yesterday’s press conference, the Jordanian foreign minister noted that some people say the definition of a pessimist is a well-informed optimist, but he said he remains optimistic: “I have to be optimistic, because we live in the region.” But peace does not depend on whether one is an optimist or a pessimist, or on what the people in the region may say to an American president on a listening tour. It depends on the realities on the ground. The last thing the region needs is another failed “peace process.”



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