"Mixing Middle East Diplomacy and Midterm Elections"
Op-Ed, Agence Global
September 1, 2010
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BEIRUT -- Conventional wisdom says that US President Barack Obama would not make serious moves to pressure Israelis and Palestinians in their peace negotiations before the US mid-term congressional elections in November, for fear of the pro-Israel lobby's wrath that could hurt the Democrats in the elections and perhaps give the Republicans control of the House of Representatives. Well, conventional wisdom is being put to the test in a serious way this week, as Obama personally participates in the first session of the Israeli-Palestinian direct negotiations in Washington this week.
Middle East policy has been one of the more intriguing slices of the Obama administration since it took office 20 months ago, full of dynamism and rhetoric, but with few results. Six principal issues often get confused in this respect, and even though they are all linked they should be separated because each proceeds according to its own timetable, and with different degrees of success: the disengagement from Iraq, Arab-Israeli negotiations, Syria-Lebanon-Hizbullah issues, Iran, anti-terrorism policy, and outreach to Islamic societies.
Obama focused on Arab-Israeli diplomacy quickly and forcefully upon taking office. He re-engaged the United States in the negotiations in a direct and sustained manner through the respected George Mitchell. He boldly pushed Israel to freeze its settlements and asked the Arabs to make gestures of recognition or normalization to Israel, and was rebuffed on both counts, getting from Israel a partial, eight-month freeze on some construction. He then regrouped and successfully pushed the principals to hold proximity talks intermediated by the US, and now hosts the direct negotiations in Washington. These are not the actions of a flippant man or government, but they have achieved only procedural steps forward.
The United States until now has remained silent on its own views about what substantively constitutes a fair peace agreement, on critical issues like borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. If the direct talks that start this week reflect the well known positions of both sides, they will quickly reach stalemate, requiring the strong intervention of the US mediators. This is likely to happen soon, when the Israeli partial settlement freeze expires later this month.
The United States will have to react substantively at that point, offering ideas that both sides could live with. The Obama administration's track record on this has been very thin, because it seems to have shunned offering substantive positions or suggestions. Yet it clearly must have ideas on those core issues that will be negotiated, and it knows that at some point it must go beyond logistical facilitation and get more deeply involved in the negotiations through two possible means: suggesting bridging proposals on key issues or even proposing a complete peace accord, that respond to the needs of both sides; or, using political muscle to cajole them into moving towards an agreement. Both these options run the risk of antagonizing the pro-Israel lobbies, which conventional wisdom says will not happen in an election year.
Allowing the talks to fail is also a possibility, but not an attractive one to an administration that has invested heavily in this issue and needs policy successes to counter anti-Obama and anti-Democrats attacks at home. Yet failure is a real possibility, given the enormous constraints that hem in the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and structural deficiencies like the fact that the Palestinian negotiators have limited legitimacy because they do not represent Hamas and other key Palestinian constituencies.
So why is the United States making this high-stakes move at a time when so many elements seem lined up against the chances for success, and at a moment when domestic political forces in the US associated with the pro-Israel lobbies can exert maximum pressure to constrain Washington's room for maneuver and thus negate its critical perception as a fair mediator? It would seem that the moment of reckoning for the US mediation effort is very near. Conventional wisdom would have it that Obama would not risk pressuring Israel before the November US elections, so perhaps the strategy is to get the direct talks moving, exert maximum mediating energy by trying to narrow gaps in the two sides' positions, and wait until December and beyond before starting to really pressure both sides.
This seems unrealistic, though, because Washington may not have this much time to use, if the settlements freeze issue intervenes and creates a crisis. So the United States may have to be forceful this month, but that is hard because of the November elections, and in any case the US has shown no signs of desiring to come down hard on substance when faced with resistance by Israelis and Palestinians.
The only logical conclusion from the evidence at hand -- and the experience of the last 20 months -- is that if we look to Washington to break this stalemate, we are probably looking in the wrong place. We shall soon find out.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
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