President Barack Obama's new Mideast Envoy George Mitchell, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009.
Policy Options: The Obama Administration and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
This policy brief was written prior to the start of the Gaza War, which began in December 2008.
What are the assets available to the incoming Obama administration for resolving or at least reducing the intensity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What liabilities and constraints will the next administration face and what opportunities might it attempt to exploit for this purpose? This document constitutes a first attempt by two experts — one Israeli, the other a Palestinian —to examine these assets and liabilities, these opportunities and constraints, and to evaluate the various options available to the next administration for solving or ameliorating the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
Assets and Liabilities
In addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the incoming Obama administration will be burdened with a number of liabilities. To begin with, the issues associated with the current financial crisis and the (possibly long-term) economic recession, have far greater impact on the lives of Americans than the conflict in the Middle East, necessarily relegating the latter to a lower priority. The financial crisis has also created a perception that America suffers from serious structural weaknesses, which may diminish its clout in the region.
Second, the Obama administration will inherit President George W. Bush’s record of failure to realize his “vision” of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This “vision”—articulated in June 2002—is no nearer to fruition today than it was when President Clinton left office in 2001. The long-brewing failure of the Bush administration has in turn engendered considerable skepticism in the Middle East regarding America’s ability to “deliver” on Arab-Israeli peace.
More broadly, the U.S. is currently hampered by the perception that the Bush administration’s main project in the Middle East—its effort to bring peace and stability by democratizing the region’s regimes—has failed miserably. Specifically, the assumption that elections would automatically lead to greater moderation and peace in Arab societies has backfired. Rather, electoral processes have led to greater representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament, Hezbollah’s strong showing in the Lebanese elections in May and June of 2005, and Hamas’s landslide victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections.
Finally, any effort to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will also suffer from the regional consequences of the Iraqi debacle. The devastation wrought in Iraq has left Iran as the only significant regional power in the Persian Gulf, and has created a perception that the region’s radicals and rejectionists—Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas—are gaining ground, while the forces of moderation are in retreat.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration will also inherit significant assets. The first of these is that the last phase of the diplomatic process, launched by the Bush administration in Annapolis in November 2007, has prepared the groundwork for a breakthrough. The very fact that these talks took place was a very positive development relative to the deadly violence that characterized Palestinian-Israeli relations during the seven years of the Second Intifada.
Equally important, as the interview given by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in late September 2008 makes clear, there now exists a far greater appreciation on the part of Israel’s mainstream leadership of the decisions required to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
An even greater success story involves the far higher level of safety and security recently achieved in some parts of the West Bank. Some of this improvement is the result of the cumulative fatigue experienced by Palestinians who fought hard during the previous seven years and have now chosen to take part in the “amnesty” scheme offered by the Palestinian Authority (with Israeli acquiescence). But equally important have been the efforts led by U.S. Army General Keith Dayton and his staff to train Palestinian Security Forces battalions in Jordan and to deploy them in the West Bank. Together with parallel successes in training and deploying Palestinian police, these efforts have allowed the PA to establish a “monopoly of force”—resulting in far higher levels of security—in Jenin and Nablus. Based on this track record, the Israeli defense community has recently approved the deployment of similar forces in the tinderbox that is Hebron—which is the best evidence of the IDF’s confidence in these forces’ performance.
Another important asset is that the situation in Iraq looks far better than it did a year ago. A large number of provinces have been pacified, in no small measure owing to the surge in U.S. troops “on the ground.” While factors such as the cease-fire announced by Moktada al-Sadr and the decision of Sunni tribal leaders to shun al-Qaeda also played an important role, the success of the surge arrested the tendency to underestimate America’s power and influence in the region.
Finally, the U.S. increasingly enjoys a relative improvement in its relations with the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Paradoxically, this improvement is associated with the failure to democratize the Middle East mentioned above. The perception on the part of these regimes that Washington has largely abandoned this project has contributed to reduced anxieties: The U.S. is no longer seen as seeking to destabilize them. This in turn has created a friendlier environment for cooperation between these governments and the United States.
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