Obama 22: Conditions for an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 05.03.13

Obama 22: Conditions for an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 05.03.13


Howard Adelman

Two weeks before his inauguration, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza. Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, was inaugurated into office on 20 January 2009 two days after each side in the Gaza War declared unilateral ceasefires and a day before Israel withdrew its ground troops from Gaza. In the United States, Obama inherited a disintegrating economy, the implosion of America’s financial institutions, rapidly rising unemployment, the collapse of the housing market all alongside a dysfunctional health system with by far the highest costs in the Western hemisphere, decaying infrastructure and an educational system that was of middling rank. Obama had two long wars to wind down and a war against al Qaeda to win. Iran was going nuclear and North Korea already was and continued to flex its meagre muscles in threatening ways. China was becoming a rising military and economic power. Pakistan, a nuclear power, always seemed to be on a razor’s edge of imploding. And these were just the problems that were in the headlines. Who would expect Obama to take on the challenge of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Obama ignored the signs and the warnings. He surprised many with initiatives on other fronts where there had been few expectations. He had campaigned on a shift to Asia, but a wide assault on various problems in Latin America and the Caribbean had not been anticipated. As President-elect, the only foreign leader he met was Felipe Calderón of Mexico. The first foreign visitor he invited to Camp David was the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He then welcomed President Michele Bachelet of Chile and President Ălvaro Uribe of Columbia. Key cabinet members travelled to various Latin American and Caribbean capitals. Obama loosened travel restrictions to Cuba and entered into negotiations for postal telecommunications and migration agreements with the Castro regime. (Cf. Abraham F. Lowenthal (2012) The Obama Administration and the Americas, 2)

With initiatives of all kinds on various fronts across the globe in the face of the most horrendous problems on the domestic front, Barack Obama made peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority. He appointed Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Israel in March, she immediately got the backs of the government up when she denounced the settlements in East Jerusalem and demolition of Palestinian houses as "unhelpful". Netanyahu responded by saying that resumption of negotiations and freezing of settlement activity would be conditional upon the Palestinian Authority recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. On 12 April, Mahmoud Abbas phoned Benjamin Netanyahu to officially restart the peace negotiations.

Obama then antagonized the Israeli government further in his speech in Cairo on 4 June addressed to the Muslim world where he called for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two state solution and declared that settlements were illegitimate and undercut the possibility of peace. Finally, Obama got a positive result. Netanyahu in a speech at Bar Ilan only ten days after Obama’s Cairo speech endorsed the two state solution based on a demilitarized Palestinian state, but insisted that Jerusalem had to remain as the undivided capital of Israel. The Likud Party, that historically had opposed the two state solution, had officially and publicly reversed its longstanding position.

The parties seemed very far apart and discussions did not proceed from where Olmert and Abbas left off. Netanyahu refused to cede the major settlements, insisted on a united Greater Jerusalem, rejected any right of refugee repatriation and demanded a demilitarized Palestine. Abbas insisted on the green line being the borders and that not one centimetre of the West Bank would be ceded to Israel, demanded territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank under Palestine sovereignty, insisted that the right of return be recognized and rejected any settlement building even for organic growth within the existing settlements. Nevertheless, on 23 August 2009, President Netanyahu announced the resumption of negotiations in September. After Barack Obama arranged a three way meeting with himself, Netanyahu and Abbas on 22 September, all sides announced that the negotiations would be re-launched. Abbas had conceded without a formal settlement freeze. Netanyahu had agreed to a two-state solution. They were still far apart but at least they were talking and a goal was in sight.

However, in Shakespearean terms, events in nature seemed ominous. Climate change threatened the future and increasingly violent storms seemed to adumbrate an ominous end as well as raise emergency costs and infrastructure challenges of its own in the interim. The world seemed cursed by fire, earth, air and water. The worst bushfires in Australian history took place in February killing well over a hundred people. Devastating earthquakes struck in Italy (6 April), New Zealand (15 July) and Samoa (29 September) the latter resulting in a tsunami. While Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations on 24 September 2009, introducing himself as the Prime Minister of a Jewish state just a day after the President of Iran’s anti-Semitic rant and denial of the Holocaust, and while he boasted of his state being at "the forefront of many of these advances, in science and technology, in medicine and biology, in agriculture and water, in energy and the environment" standing for a future of hope against nostalgic and often fanatical efforts to resurrect a dormant past, after challenging the international community to "stop the terrorist regime of Iran from developing atomic weapons, thereby endangering the peace of the entire world," and confronting the seeming unteachability of mankind and the United Nations as it hypocritically prepared to condemn Israel for attacking Gaza in self-defence against Iran-sponsored missile attacks, as the United Nations prepared to condemn Israel for violations of human rights based on an error-filled and unjust report, Ondoy Typhoon began to strike the Philippines killing almost 500 over the next few days. On 25 November in Saudi Arabia of all places the 2009 Jeddah floods swept hundreds of cars and people to their death right in the midst of the Haj. Talk about auspicious signs!

Except for East Jerusalem and construction already underway, on that same day, 25 November 2009, Netanyahu finally imposed a settlement freeze for ten months. In fact, an informal de facto freeze was even put in place in east Jerusalem. Obama thus far seemed to have succeeded beyond almost all expectations.

All this took place against a domestic economic collapse in the United States in which both Chrysler (30 April) and General Motors (1 June) had filed for bankruptcy protection, North Korea had tested its second nuclear device, the protests against the rigged Iranian elections were being quashed, Pakistan was beset with one firebomb after another beginning with the horrific attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on 3 March to the 28 October Peshawar bombing that killed 117 and wounded twice that number. Recall the year ended with the 28 December suicide bombing of Shias in Karachi while observing the Day of Ashura.

Events were not going well in Iraq either from bombing throughout April to the 19 August bombings in Baghdad that killed over hundred and injured over 500, to the 25 October bombings that upped those casualty rates by 50%. At least the 8 December bombing casualty rate from bombings in Baghdad had receded to the ordinary horrors of 19 August.

However, on the Israel-Palestine peace process, 2010 would prove that everything put in place in 2009 was for naught. There were American outbursts over constructions projects even though they were in the heart of existing settlements that would eventually be involved in land swaps. On 31 May 2010, the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla with a loss of nine lives was denounced as a massacre by both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Abbas met with the Arab League in July and said that Palestinians would once again revert to violence if the Arab states would agree to invade Israel. The situation seemed to be getting worse. The period of the freeze was being squandered and the two sides seemed to be getting further apart. Yet Hilary Clinton in August 2010 still opined that a peace agreement could be in place in a year. Finally, in September 2010 direct talks were initiated.

Hamas tried to sabotage the talks by resuming attacks on Israel. But the talks were imploding on their own as Netanyahu would only extend the freeze if Palestine formally recognized Israel as a Jewish state and Abbas replied that not only would he not recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of resuming peace talks but would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. kept offering further incentives such as security offers and military aid to get the talks back on track but all efforts failed and the Palestinians went the UN route to seek recognition of a Palestine state.

Both sides were embittered by the experience and more distrustful of the other side. The United States which had staked so much political capital on the effort was thrown under the bus by both sides. So why would the U.S. once again commit its political capital, in increasingly less supply, to resurrect the peace process in 2013?

The situation since 2009 had radically changed. Netanyahu, though emerging from the elections with the largest number of seats, his combined total with Lieberman’s party only came to 31. Netanyahu had been severely weakened. Israelis were disinterested in the peace process and only Tsipi Livni campaigned to make it a priority but won only seven seats. Israeli society in the meanwhile was growing richer and more prosperous. As the Israeli government continued to fill in settlements for strategic reasons, Israel was on the verge of self-sufficiency in energy because of tremendous reserves of fossil fuels discovered in the past few years.

If the domestic economic situation, other than the growing disparities between the rich and the poor, made Israel feel more secure, the immediate neighbourhood had deteriorated considerably. An increasingly unstable Egypt has shifted from a cold ally to a frozen foe headed by a leader of an Islamic party with a relationship with Hamas and a record of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist assertions. In a protracted two year civil war, the president of Syria, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, certainly no friend of Israel, seemed on his way to eventual defeat as Syrian rebels captured the northern city of Raqqa and, in imitation of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad almost ten years earlier, toppled Hafez al-Assad’s Bashar’s father’s statue in the provincial capital of the north. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist rebels in Syria allied with al Qaeda captured the long-range Scud missiles in a military complex in Deir al-Zour and also swept the Syrian army from their posts on the Golan Heights. Except for the West Bank and Jordan, Israel was surrounded by implacable enemies – Hezbollah on the north, now Jabhat al-Nasra on the north-east, Hamas in Gaza on the south-west and an increasingly Islamic Egypt in the Sinai.

As Israel was weaker in political security, and stronger in economic security, its military security had become precarious. Iran was closer than ever in operating its centrifuges to produce weapons grade nuclear energy. Turkey had slipped from a friend ten years earlier to an implacable foe unwilling to reconcile over the Gaza flotilla incident. Israel seemed more vulnerable than ever and more dependent on American goodwill as Europe became increasingly shrill in opposition to Israel. Since Obama could do little on the domestic front in dealing with the recalcitrant Republicans, he was freer to turn his attention to international affairs and the Israel-Palestine issue itself. Obama hated being a loser and had a record of picking himself up and trying even harder a second time. But this time it was unlikely he would lead with his chin.

President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, as I have shown, have not enjoyed the best relationship as leaders of two states that are ostensibly allies. To rehearse Bibi’s resentments, in his first year of his first term, Obama visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt but had no time for Israel in his first itinerary to the Middle East. The two leaders have differed over settlement policy. Bibi demanded that Obama draw a red line in the sand with respect to Iran’s nuclear program; Obama demurred. Bibi visited the White House in March 2010 and was left stewing in his seat when Barack Obama went off to have dinner with his family. Further, Obama refuse to have his picture taken with Bibi. Bibi tried to audition as Mitt Romney’s campaign manager by holding a tremendous welcoming reception for Romney during the presidential campaign.

In the recent Israeli elections, Bibi’s joint party with Lieberman managed to only muster 31 seats. Moderate Likudniks like Benny Begin and Meridor had been driven off the electoral lists and Bibi had an even more extreme right wing party to his right led by Naftali Bennett with 12 seats. Bibi is considerably weaker while Obama, with no election facing him, is much stronger. If Obama is going to face that group down, he will have to come with strong words and a very big stick.

Bibi announced that as a priority he wants to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians and his first announcement of an agreement with another party was with Livni who ran on giving the peace talks first priority. Though Obama virtually ignored Israel during his re-election campaign, he did appoint Senator John Kerry as his Secretary of State and Kerry has unequivocally said that he is determined to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The first trip he announced about going abroad was to Israel. After speaking to Benjamin Netanyahu on January 28th, Barack Obama then announced that he too would be going to Israel on March 20th. Obama would also be visiting Jordan and the Palestine Authority.

However, most Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t believe that peace is possible. Israelis do not want to repeat the mistake of Gaza. Palestinians do not want to see years and years of further negotiations as Israeli settlements expand and strengthen. Israelis do not want to risk an existential threat from the Judean Hills. While both sides believe the other is now genuinely committed to a two-state solution, the two state visions of the two sides are not congruent. Abbas sees Netanyahu as committed to a Palestine state made up of three truncated Bantustans, one north of Jerusalem, one south of Jerusalem and one in Gaza with wiry links between them. Netanyahu sees Abbas as committed, not to a Palestinian and a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace, but to a Palestinian and a bi-national state living side-by-side until the Arab birth rate and Jewish emigration allow a re-amalgamation.

Obama will keep his word and will not be coming to Israel and Palestine to impose a solution or even to offer a bridging formula. What will he bring? Lots of negatives! To Netanyahu, he can reaffirm that America is drawing down and shrinking its military but Obama is prepared to offer a security agreement with Israel that will include American boots on the ground. He will also be able to offer firmer guarantees that America will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Obama will want to know what he will get in return. Netanyahu will have to bargain with Obama.

Obama will tell Abbas that the American economic belt is shrinking and the American public is no longer willing to make personal and collective economic sacrifices for the Palestinians unless they firmly and formally are committed to peace with a Jewish state. "Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed over $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid." (Jim Zanotti, "U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians," Congressional Research Service, 18 January 2013) That aid was contingent upon Palestine fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank in peaceful coexistence with Israel and committed to a genuine “two-state solution”. The United States has already held back allocated funds when Abbas, against American wishes, went and asked UN endorsement and recognition of Palestine as a state and admitted Palestine as a non-voting state member to the UN, holdbacks that have weakened the economy significantly.

"Annual regular-year U.S. bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $500 million, including annual averages of approximately $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in non-lethal security assistance for the PA in the West Bank. Additionally, the United States is the largest single-state donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)." As the USA moves towards fossil fuel independence in the next few years and is less susceptible to pressures from the Gulf States, Obama may ask what Abbas is willing to offer in return for continuing US economic life support since lack of progress toward a

politically legitimate and peaceful two-state solution could undermine the utility of and American public support for U.S. aid.

After all, in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace and because of Palestinian pursuit of

international support for statehood contrary to American clearly expressed wishes, and given Hamas’s heightened role in Palestinian politics, Obama could signal that lasting aid has become fragile over and on top of existing Congressional holds.

Tomorrow: Tactics as a Strategy

[Tags Obama, Israel, Palestine, peace process}

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