Obama is determined to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and through this secure a comprehensive solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. He earmarked this objective as one of the most important ones among his foreign policy’s priorities.
Obama estimated that the Iranian threats, the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s decline created an opportunity for a breakthrough, which both sides would be interested in. Yet to his regret, he discovered that he has no partners for taking this road: Israel and the Palestinians did not embrace his assessment and it took too long for him to realize his strategy isn’t working.
At the start of his presidency, Obama exerted heavy, unilateral pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu, while endorsing Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas. Now, the tables have turned: The president supports Netanyahu while pressing Abbas. Yet in both cases, this is a mistake. To begin with, Obama should have adopted a more moderate approach that is less aggressive and ostentatious, and more balanced.
Obama pressed Netanyahu to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state and end all construction in the territories, and the Americans prided themselves on these two aims. Yet the Palestinians, who only months earlier engaged in intense negotiations with the Olmert government without any preconditions, could not ask for less than America was now demanding.
However, the Palestinians wanted the US to do all the work for them and grant them Israeli concessions and pledges even before negotiations got underway and without them having to do a thing. The result of this was needles indirect talks that led to a complete diplomatic impasse.
Meanwhile, a problematic date hovers above the future of the talks – the end of the construction freeze in September. The Obama Administration assumes that resumption of construction would terminate any chance for progressing and securing agreements. Another important date is November, when Congress elections will be held. Obama is in a tough spot and needs every vote. Should he manage to stimulate direct talks, he would be able to claim this is a major achievement and regain the support of US Jews, who shifted away from his party as of late.
In light of the above, Obama simultaneously worked vis-à-vis Netanyahu and Abbas, while combining carrots and sticks for both sides. The president recently changed his approach to Netanyahu, and as opposed to all previous meetings between the two leaders the last visit in Washington was highlighted by great warmth and Obama’s support for Israel’s demand for direct negotiations.
At the same time, Obama upgraded the status of the PLO’s mission in Washington. However, as we were taught by Hamas and Hezbollah, in the Middle East nothing comes for free, and gestures are interpreted as weaknesses that should be exploited to elicit further concessions. Hence, it would have been better to postpone the PLO mission’s upgrade and announce it after the Palestinians declare their willingness to shift to direct talks without preconditions or concessions.
The key player – Hamas
Paradoxically, it is precisely the upcoming end of the construction freeze that granted the US a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority. It enabled the US to create an equation: A continued freeze, even if without public declarations, in exchange for Palestinian willingness to enter direct talks.
Now, Obama is making use of yet another card in his game with the Palestinians: He is threatening that should they continue to reject direct negotiations, he would blame them for hindering the peace process; that is, thwarting his policy – thereby responding by cutting his support for them. In fact, this is a dangerous card for Israel, because after direct talks resume Obama may switch sides again, and use the same means in order to press Israel should he feel that it isn’t offering adequate concessions.
The Palestinians will likely agree to shift to direct negotiations, because ongoing refusal would exact a high price from them. Yet what can we expected in the talks? The opening positions are tough, mostly because Hamas controls the process more than any other element. A few missile barrages to be followed by several retaliatory Israeli moved would put an end to the talks.
Moreover, based on the negotiations experience thus far, it is unclear whether the maximum Israel is willing to offer matches the minimum demanded by the Palestinians.
A conflict such as the Israeli-Palestinian one makes it very difficult for the sides to secure agreements without the help of a third party – however, the question is which kind of help we’re talking about. There is a fundamental problem with a third party (even if it is a superpower) that exerts heavy pressure on both sides to the conflict to enter talks.
There is an even greater problem when such third party threatens to present its own peace plan and force it upon the sides. Parties who enter forced negotiations believe that this does not serve their vital interests, and therefore have no interest in seeing the talks succeed.
Even if an agreement is reached, it needs to be implemented and all the pledges made within it must be honored in the long run. The parties to a forced agreement would tend to sabotage its implementation in every possible way.
Historic experience shows that Israeli-Arab negotiations managed to secure peace treaties, as we saw in the Egyptian-Israeli case, when the circumstances were ripe for a deal. In these cases, the initiative came from the involved parties, with the US offering its mediation assistance only in advanced stages. On the other hand, every time the US initiated its own grand plan – ranging from Nixon through Carter to Bush – the results were negative. Obama must therefore apply both the lessons of the past and of his own policy.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on US affairs and a Political Science and Communication lecturer at Bar-Ilan University
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