Having spent 20 months chasing an elusive Israeli settlement freeze, the Obama administration has now launched a new effort on borders and security whose chances of success are almost as dubious.
Giving up is not an option, but neither is giving in to the illusion that America holds the key to Mideast peace. It doesn’t. Only the Israelis and Palestinians do, and right now neither is invested enough in these talks to allow the effort to succeed. Until they are, there’s likely to be more wheel-spinning than real progress.
The good news is that the administration has finally focused on the right issue: how to get Israelis and Palestinians to the end game. But that’s also the bad news. The gaps on the core issues are wide, and even on the two least hopeless ones — borders and security — there are fundamental divisions.
On paper, the arguments in favor of fast-tracking how to define the borders of a Palestinian state and accompanying security arrangements seem quite compelling. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a trade-off between land and security. And by defining the borders of a future Palestine, the argument goes, you can get at settlements through the back door, identifying how much West Bank land Israel needs to keep for settlement blocks and the extent of territorial swaps to compensate Palestinians.
In the cruel and unforgiving world of Middle Eastern politics, however, these assumptions don’t neatly stand up. First, while borders and security may be the easiest of the final status issues, they are hugely complex. Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert, whose offers of up to 96% of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, still weren’t completely acceptable to the Palestinians. And it’s certain that this Israeli government, or even another, won’t improve on that offer.
Then there is the security component, which, over the last 10 years of Palestinian terror, violence and high-trajectory weapons, has become more, not less, complex. It’s true that security in the West Bank has improved markedly, but no Israeli government will agree to surrender the vast majority of it to a Palestinian president who doesn’t control all of the Palestinian guns and rockets. In short, until the Hamas problem is resolved (and nobody has a clue how to do that), it’s hard to imagine how a binding agreement on borders could be reached and approved by Israel’s parliament, let alone implemented.
Nor will Israelis and Palestinians give up their leverage by negotiating sequentially. Israel will not part with land it controls without first seeing where Palestinians are on issues like Jerusalem and refugees. And Palestinians will not give up their refugee card or make concessions on security arrangements without seeing first what they can get from the Israelis on Jerusalem and borders.
Netanyahu has also demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, something Abbas will not do easily. If he does agree, it would most likely be at the end of the process and not until the Israelis made some concessions on refugees.
To this list of headaches add the capacity of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah to undermine the process, the reality that Jerusalem is both an identity and territorial issue, and the pesky problem of continuing Israeli construction in West Bank settlements and in Jerusalem. And given the administration’s track record of vacillation, it is not entirely clear that President Obama is prepared to defend his own bridging proposals. Even if he is, what does he do when one or both sides says no?
A breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians requires them to own and invest in their negotiations in a way they currently don’t. Real ownership is usually driven by local factors involving prospects of pain or gain, not by Washington’s pleadings or desires.
Today, we have neither enough pain nor enough gain. The status quo, while harsh, particularly for Palestinians, is manageable. Paradoxically, Palestinian state-building efforts, security performance and the absence of terrorism inside Israel have created a tolerable situation for most Israelis. Israel’s focus on the Iranian threat has further distracted its attention. And Palestinians seem to be gearing up for their own grand diversion: gaining international recognition for a Palestinian state they don’t control.
The status quo could change, of course. But to make the tough decisions required now, leaders are needed who are not only masters of their own politics but who are also prepared to be bold and visionary with one eye on the future.
Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu is that risk-ready. And Obama can’t create in Washington the leadership, urgency and partnership needed among Israelis and Palestinians.
What should the administration do? Abandon the field, as some have suggested? Withdrawal isn’t in our interest, and in any event, our «If it’s broke, we can fix it» mentality makes that all but impossible.
Instead, the administration must walk the fine line between doing too much and not enough. The current approach — supporting state-building from the bottom up and engaging Israelis and Palestinians quietly on all the core issues from the top is worth a try as long as the president doesn’t get overly ambitious, as he did on the settlements issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian endgame isn’t ready for prime time. The U.S. could make the situation a great deal worse by assuming it is. I saw this movie with another risk-ready president in the run-up to Camp David in July 2000. The Israeli and Palestinians weren’t ready to make conflict-ending decisions then, and neither were we. And the results were predictable and disastrous.
This time we need to refrain from putting U.S. positions on the table or looking for a moment of truth unless there is a reasonable chance that the gaps can be bridged. And we need to approach this phase without deadlines, big rhetoric or bigger peace plans doomed to fail, and above all, without making promises we can’t keep.
It’s not pretty or dramatic, but if we’re smart and lucky, patient, determined and measured in our approach, we just might help the Israelis and Palestinians get hooked on a process that could work instead of hooking ourselves again on one that won’t.
Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.