Obama 23: Tactics as Strategy – The Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 06.03.13

Obama 23: Tactics as Strategy – The Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 06.03.13


Howard Adelman

Vali Nasr in his forthcoming volume, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,criticizes the Obama administration’s foreign policy for substituting tactics for strategy. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.” The resort to and emphasis on tactics is correct, but they are emerging as primarily foreign policy tactics in the case of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Second, the emphasis on tactics has been the strategy deliberately adopted by the Obama administration.

Obama was offered two strategic options. One was to concur that the time was not ripe to make peace since the positions of the parties were too far apart. America should, therefore, stand by in a passive but supportive role waiting for an opportunity to help. In any case, it was up to the parties themselves to resolve their dispute and America was in no position to impose one. Investing its political capital for such a purpose would have been a waste. The second option said that the agreements discussed at Taba and then between Abbas and Olmert were so close that a deal was doable if only America intervened with bridging proposals backed up by American pressure and even a willingness to impose such a solution. This strategy was backed up by claims that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian problem jeopardized American interests in the region and undercut its credibility as a neutral broker. If something was not done quickly, the situation would blow with disastrous consequences to peace in the region and America’s future influence.

Passivity, however, seemed to benefit the Israeli right and the settler movement, leaving a running sore between America and its other allies in the region. On the other hand, charges that the situation was the key source of unrest in the region seemed not only to be totally exaggerated, but a misreading of the unstable politics in the region. There was no question, however, that leaving the situation alone courted enormous risks to stability. But what realistically could be done?

In his first term, Obama had supported an active role for the U.S. in the peace process, but without a willingness to impose solutions or even put "undue" pressure on either party. This hybrid of an activist diplomatic role without bringing in any heavy diplomatic, political and economic modes of pressure failed abysmally. Obama was unwilling to abandon dealing with a problem in urgent need of a solution. At the same time, he was unwilling to become the mediator promoting let alone imposing a particular solution. Obama wanted to resurrect a very activist role. On the other hand, he was still unwilling to adopt a strategy that put the US in the central position to propose or even impose a solution. How could America abandon the sidelines once again but not get terribly mauled as it became caught up in the centre of the fray?

The only approach is tactical rather than strategic because it accepts a number of seemingly contradictory propositions as both being true.

1a. Only the parties in dispute can come to an agreement;

1b. The parties are incapable of coming to a resolution on their own.

2a. The political position currently is relatively stable.

2b The stability is misleading for the situation could blow at a moment’s notice.

3a America cannot force the parties to agree.

3b. Only America is in a position to facilitate the parties coming to an agreement.

4a. There is an enormous gulf that separates the parties on borders, refugee return and the status of Berlin.

4b. The gap between the parties is infinitesimally small and can easily be bridged with a modicum of sustained effort.

Obama was presented with two very different strategies for dealing with the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Opting for one strategy or the other, or some variation of either, entails support for either the (a) or the (b) camp. Further, the (a) set, favours the Israeli settler position. The (b) set favours the Palestinian position. Choosing a strategy was itself inherently a problem. If America sat idly by for another four years saving its political capital in the hope that an opportunity would emerge would itself almost help insure that there would be no such opportunity on the horizon. On the other hand, opting to present U.S. parameters for a two-state outcome to kick-start negotiations, then, absent constant U.S. pressure, the president would be squandering his credibility unnecessarily for the existing asymmetrical negotiating paradigm guaranteed failure.

The irony is that America was as polarized on the domestic front as the situation in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Congress represented and was polarized between red and blue states because "Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America." (Daniel Levy "From Illusions to Solutions," The New York Times 18 May 2011) In the Middle East, on each side there is also a peace camp and a war camp. Only the war camp has the credibility to negotiate with the other side. But only the peace camp can make peace across the divide.

What are President Obama’s options? If he presents a plan to force Netanyahu and the Israeli body politic to make a choice by endorsing a border based on 1967 with equal land swaps, he corners the rejectionist Netanyahu who cannot challenge the USA in a direct confrontation. President Clinton adopted such a strategy in 1998 at the Wye River Summit in dealing with Netanyahu. It appeared to work since both Arafat and Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum on 23 October 1998, an agreement that the Israeli Knesset endorsed by a vote of 75-19. Israel withdrew from area "A" and transferred total jurisdiction to the Palestine Authority. Israel transferred civil jurisdiction to the PA in area "B". In return, the PA agreed to adopt a policy of zero tolerance with respect to terrorism and would participate with Israel in a bi-lateral effort to eliminate any incitement, support structure for financing, planning, or abetting terrorism. The agreement was imbedded is a series of implementation and confidence building formulae to facilitate a final full peace agreement. Given Palestinian demands that were unattainable and Israeli requirements that would not be fulfilled without adequate trust, rather than serving as a framework for enhancing confidence, the effort to implement the agreement enhanced the level of distrust for the other side. For the agreement was based on a fundamental Catch-22. The agreement had to be implemented to enhance mutual trust. However, mutual trust was a necessary prerequisite for implementation of the agreement. The agreement proved to be a recipe for failure.

There were proposals that Obama go over the heads of each of the governments and direct an appeal directly to the people on both sides. He could ask the Israeli public to make a fundamental choice between remaining both a democracy and a state with a majority of Jews or continue an undemocratic occupation. He could ask the Palestinians whether they wanted a state of their own alongside Israel but committed to non-violence. The problem with such a populist appeal is that that its success would be too easy and obvious, for the answers from both publics would be a resounding affirmation. But since there would be no implementable result, the cynicism on both sides would be reinforced now supplemented by greater distrust of America being able to make a positive contribution.

Alternatively, the US could reach for a radical game change and bet on all or nothing. A year ago, Professor Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University, a former adviser to the Barak government and a Geneva Initiative negotiator, and author of A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine and The Shift: Israel-Palestine: From Border Struggles to Ethnic Conflict, published an article, "We Need a Game Change" in The New York Times (8 March 2012) in which he advised Obama that the current political and psychological gap between the Israeli and Palestinian mindsets was too wide to bridge so that the chance for a successful negotiation was close to zero. The only option was to bet all or nothing. Make a total commitment to investing 100% of one’s political capital, time and energy into brokering a deal or continue to remain on the sidelines. Otherwise it was unrealistic to expect the United States president to perform the job that neither the Palestinian nor Israeli sides have been able to achieve. On the other hand, the piecemeal approaches of Oslo and Wye offer poor precedents and further efforts along those lines are doomed to eventual failure. But such advice was merely another version of waiting on the sidelines.

Alternatively, the United States could throw up its hands in despair and quit the field, turning the problem over to the UN or another consortium of interveners as Rashid Khalidi has advised in his September 2011 article in The New York Times, "An End to the Status Quo". The world cannot afford to wait while America fiddles and the region goes up in flames. Following the Arab Spring and the revolutionary eruptions of the last few years, the Arab public will no longer acquiesce in a fifth decade of occupation and more and more blather. Negotiations without issue are no longer tolerable for millions of young people around the region emboldened by the taste of freedom and tired of what they perceive as America’s coddling of Israel. Is Obama going to be on the wrong side of history in the Middle East or will he resolutely oppose the oppressive and untenable status quo before the peoples of the region take the matter into their own hands?

It is already clear that Obama will not be abandoning the field. Neither has he opted to continue to sit on the sidelines. What can he do to avoid getting ploughed under by the muscular approaches of either side? Obama is not a football but a basketball player. He will adopt a full court press but the phrase means precisely the opposite of what it connotes. It stands not for a risk all offensive strategy but for a set of tactical defensive procedures. Instead of concentrating on pushing with all your might to score, the team enters the game and adopts a person-to-person zone defence with specific diplomats assigned the task of blocking and corralling one particular player and position from the other side. The United States must not see itself as mediating or brokering between two competing teams but must enter the game determined to beat both of the other sides, not by concentrating on scoring points but by preventing both the Palestinians and the Israelis from using the period of play to score points themselves. The aim is to entrap each of the sides in their own courts beneath their own nets so that each side tires and gets worn down. It is a process of tactical harassment of each of the main ball handlers from the other side while preventing the ball from being passed off.

The analogy is meant to point to the following:

1) America is not a referee but a team playing against both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

2) America is not out to score points but to prevent either the Palestinians or the Israelis from using their time to score points and make an agreement impossible.

3) America should itself avoid prescriptions for a solution other than mouthing banal platitudes about peace, good will and good intentions while recognizing that its opponents are in short supply of both.

4) The main object of American involvement is to get the players committed to a series of round robins that will produce an agreement between them that will be implemented and will endure rather than once again be attenuated or possibly abandoned altogether.

5) The narrative of the past has to be rewritten from a series of failed attempts to get a final agreement to a series of increasingly successful efforts in teaching the two players to play basketball together. And in the series of games as they continue, each side may win in turns but both will only really win when they become committed to playing basketball and not fighting.

6) Since the United States will never retreat into isolationism and since it remains committed in the Middle East, then it should recognize that it is not a referee but a player itself competing with both sides, but a player not determined to win each or all the games but determined to teach the game.

7) That is why the rhetoric must change from telling either player what it can and must do to challenging each player to learn and adapt its tactics to see if that side can get by the blocking tactics of the United States. Changing its own attitude in redefining its roll is a critical first step. That is why Obama is dead on in saying he is not going to advance proposals but to listen and hear. Obama does not have to say that he is also going to block and tie up their players in their own ends to give each side time to get their own acts together.

8) Israel is an economic, security and innovation partner of the United States; The largest economic support for Palestine comes from America. The USA can work on the terms of its partnerships with either entity with both positive and negative incentives to the degree each moves towards a peace agreement with the other.

I have already portrayed Obama as a social democrat and a community conservative, but that refers to his ideology. However, his style affects his approach to a problem like peace between the Israel and Palestine. Recall that Barack Obama is a left-handed basketball player who likes to fake right and go to the left. He also plays point guard responsible for setting up the plays rather than scoring himself and, even more importantly, controlling the ball to ensure that it gets to the right player at the right time. In his first term in office, Obama totally lost control of the ball with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, advising Valerie Jarrett, he told her, "You need to just calm down. This is gonna be fun! Valerie, you’re not a guy but let me explain it to you in sport terms. It’s like we’re in a basketball game, and I’m gonna fumble the ball, and someone’s gonna steal the ball, and I’m gonna miss a free throw, but we’re gonna win the game." (cf. Larissa MacFarquar’s "The Conciliator, The New Yorker 7 May 2007) This, of course, reinforces the widespread agreement that he is unflappable and cool, an aloof but pragmatic searcher for consensus. "We must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side."

However, in that search for consensus, he is not a glad-hander. Unlike Clinton, he dislikes the hassle and the political hustle, the detailed tactics to get votes and legislators on your side. It is not the tactics of politics but political tactics that intrigue him. And the bottom line of his tactics is that, though he writes in a different genre than the homespun strung-out tales of Abraham Lincoln, he is a teller of tales, a narrator, but one focussed on his own life and how the presidency fits into it as an outlet for his own "special qualities" and his determination to produce an experience he found common in Black Protestant churches, "collective redemption". Barack Obama is not interested primarily in the details of negotiations, the going back and forth and the give and take to reach a deal. He is not President Johnson’s scrappy wheeler-dealer. He wants to reconcile Palestine and Israel because if they can be reconciled, it makes possible redemption for anyone.

Kyle-Anne Shiver’s critical article on "Obama’s Politics of Collective Redemption" (American Thinker 11 February 2008) begins by depicting a great leader poised to redeem collective sins and "change nearly everything, bringing about a new era in which permanent solutions are found to age-old conditions." In the case of Israel-Palestine, the specific issues of where the border will run, how many if any refugees will be allowed to return and under what rubric, the governance of the holy basin as well as border and security issues are matters of pragmatic possibility. The redemption of a liberation process, however, will result from the peace agreement itself made between and by the two parties and that will bring about the greatest transformation in which hope replaces cynicism, and dreams of new possibilities replace the constraints of dealing with the necessary demands of self-protection and security.

Obama recognizes the difference between the prudence and calculation of interests and considerations and the search for common ground that go into making an agreement. On those elements he will offer his and his team’s services as facilitators. (See Ryan Lizza, "The Obama Memos: The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency," The New Yorker, 30 January 2012)But he is also aware that beyond detached reason, each of the sides in the conflict is driven by a more basic yearning: "Zionists’ yearning for homecoming…to a place where they believed Jews had once led authentic, independent, and pristine lives of simplicity and purity: a pastoral kind of life, with the golden city of Jerusalem at its center," and the almost erotic attachment Palestinians have "toward the landscape of Palestine – a landscape that was lost" and "is more important for many Palestinians than the lost community." (Avishai Margolit, "Palestine: How Bad & Good, Was British Rule?" New York Review of Books, 7 February 2013) Olive trees, figs and apricots permeate the nostalgic longing for return not captured by characterizing return as a right. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press) The longing and sense of loss also have to be dealt with through a redemptive process of restoration. Making peace will require as much sensitivity to these affective dimensions as to the detailed back and forth trade-offs.

Parties to a conflict can reconcile with each other over conflicting interests and needs. But, at the same time, each party has to reconcile with itself concerning its dreams and aspirations. Obama is as sensitive to the latter as to the former and sees himself providing even more input into the latter for each party is more than capable of looking after its own interests. Besides, in that equation, America has its own interests, however relatively small compared to the parties in the conflict, and America can best deal with each party on that level by trying to reconcile American interests with Israeli interests and American interests with Palestinian interests. Precisely because of that, Obama will have an easier time being non-partisan in the Middle East than in dealing with the intractable divisions in Congress.

Obama has to control the tempo of the new game he has set in motion and not let the clock run out as Olmert did. He has to recognize when opportunities open up and he can push for a fast break and when to hold back, and which of his team to assign to carry the ball at any one point. He has to be able to handle and pass the ball while having an overview of the whole game. And if he is going to play a full court press where the Palestinians and the Israelis in turn try to carry the ball, he has to demonstrate not that he is the best friend of each, but that he can block every move unless they begin to conform to a reconciliation process. This does not require a well thought-out strategy but a mastery of the various skills and tactics, a situational awareness and a short response time so that he can control the game from the perimeter of the play. He has to be as sensitive to the fears of Israelis as he is to the aspirations of the Palestinians. He knows that the problem is not the solution per se, because these have been negotiated ad nauseum, but how to finish the game without a brawl breaking out. To do that, he must immerse himself in the process but not by offering his own framework agreement or road map or bridging proposals.

He has to stick to tactics and eschew setting down an overall strategy. That is and will be his strategy.

Next Blog: Obama, Religion and Politics

[Tags  peace
agreement, Obama, Israel,
strategy, tactics]

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