Commentary Magazine

An Obama Peace Process?

Barack Obama said yesterday his administration will be "immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole."  He is "determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now," and believes "if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach."

The common experience of the two prior administrations actually teaches a different lesson.  In both cases, an American president — one Democratic, the other Republican — engaged in an extraordinary multi-year effort to create a Palestinian state as a solution to the Middle East situation, and each president left office with a new Middle East war on his hands.

Everyone knows the extended efforts of the Clinton administration — it took Dennis Ross 800 pages to describe them.  Less appreciated is the magnitude of the Bush administration efforts.  Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s "How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East" in the January 15 issue of The New York Review of Books, discredits the urban myth (spread by peace processors such as Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller) that the Bush administration was "disengaged" for too long.  Agha & Malley write the charge of disengagement "could hardly be further from the historical truth":

Almost from the outset, the administration . . . intervened in Palestinian politics, helped rewrite the Palestinian Basic Law, proclaimed Arafat a pariah, anointed its own favorite substitute leaders, insisted on Palestinian internal reform as a precondition for peace, took positions on a final agreement in a 2004 letter from Bush to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon . . . encouraged confrontation between the nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas, imposed sanctions on Syria, and discouraged the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks.

They think the intervention in Palestinian politics was "clumsy" and the 2004 letter "tilted the playing field," but the key point is the Bush administration was engaged from the beginning, and its efforts actually exceeded those of the Clinton administration.

In 2002, Bush became the first president to formally endorse a Palestinian state, got a roadmap adopted in 2003 by the UN, EU, Russia, Palestinian Authority and Israel, entered into a deal in 2004 for Israel to turn over Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, and thereafter transformed the American Secretary of State into the virtual desk officer of the peace process.  Far from "tilting the playing field," the 2004 Bush letter reassured Israel of support for the minimum requirements of any Israeli government:  no return to the 1967 borders (but rather the "defensible borders" the Clinton administration promised) and no "right of return" to Israel.  And still the process failed, as neither of those requirements was recognized either by the Arabs in general or Israel’s "peace partner" in particular.

The back-to-back, bipartisan American failures have not been the result of insufficient effort, nor of "waiting too long."  The problem is more fundamental.  Henry Kissinger described it last October, noting his skepticism about the "argument [that] is always made that achieving Arab-Israeli peace will turn around the situation in the region and will remove the principal cause of disaffection of the radical Arabs":

I have my doubts for this reason:  whatever the final settlement is, those who oppose it do so because they reject the existence of Israel and not the borders of Israel.  So the people who will be placated by this and who might be willing to accept it are going to come under immediate attack from the radicals for having given up that much.  And I also believe that among the moderates, those who are willing to make the agreement are probably divided between those who genuinely want peace and those who look at peace as a tactical device, ultimately to destroy Israel.

Agha & Malley conclude that rather than jumping into a new peace process, the new administration should review "the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of U.S. mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests":

Among the flurry of recommendations the next administration will receive, Obama could do worse than consider some simple advice.  Don’t rush.  Take time, take a deep breath, and take stock.

Obama seems poised to rush right back in.  He would be better advised to make sure the Gaza war ends in a strategic defeat for Hamas and its sponsor, and then to take care of the strategic threat presented by the sponsor itself.  Only after that, and Arab recognition of Israel’s minimum existential needs, might a new peace process succeed.

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