Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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I Still Don’t Get It

by Steven A. Cook
December 8, 2010

Sorry for the light posting recently – I am finishing up my book on Egyptian politics. But I could not resist responding to  today’s headline on the settlements. Like I said a few weeks ago, I don’t get it, and ultimately, neither did the Administration. From my post on “Peace Process?”:

I have it on good authority, which in Washington means that I read it in Laura Rozen’s foreign policy blog at Politico and confirmed it through various conversations with colleagues who had coffee with people who know someone who used to work with the folks involved, that Ambassador Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross may soon replace Senator George Mitchell as the Obama administration’s Middle East envoys. Indyk will use his skills to work with the Palestinian Authority, while Dennis Ross would become the Israelis’ primary interlocutor, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton supervising both envoys. My question is: Why bother?

This is not a knock on either Indyk or Ross. I admire and respect both of them. Then if it isn’t the personalities involved, why my cynicism? To be honest, I am perplexed by the Obama administration on the peace process. Don’t get me wrong, I admire their collective tenacity and maybe they will get lucky, but I am a deeply pessimistic about anyone’s ability to push the Palestinians and Israelis into productive negotiations. I know, a brave position on this issue. In all seriousness, politics on either side hardly lend themselves to progress. First, it is abundantly clear that the Israelis have not given up on the occupation. As a result, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been, and will, continue to resist American entreaties that compromise the settlement project. He has apparently learned a valuable lesson from his first turn in the prime ministry—the only people who can take down a government in Israel is the right. That has been the case since the mid-1990s after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to extend the settlement freeze for just an additional 60 days should indicate more clearly than ever that the Israelis are not going to compromise on much.

Second, the Palestinians are in a mess. Funny how little has been said about Hamas since September 1 when President Obama re-launched direct negotiations. Let’s review, however. There are two Palestinian Authorities: A Palestinian Authority-West Bank and a Palestinian Authority-Gaza. They are at war with each other. The PA-West Bank says that the only way to achieve Palestinian rights is through negotiations (though PA President Mahmoud Abbas spent three weeks in August trying to figure how to avoid direct negotiations), and the PA-Gaza argues that negotiations are an Israeli/American ruse that allows the Israelis more time to chew up Palestinian lands so Palestinians have no choice, but to fight. Abbas thus can’t compromise on much for fear of being perceived to be weak (actually, weaker), but that doesn’t really matter because the Israelis are not inclined to be “forward leaning” as they say inside the Beltway.

What capacity do Indyk, Ross, Clinton or President Obama, for that matter, have to alter this situation? Early on, the administration tried and failed to impose costs on the Israelis for continuing its settlement policies, to no avail. Everyone seems to forget that Benjamin Netanyahu has spent far more time in Washington than Barack Obama. So if the reports are true, I say to Martin and Dennis best of luck. Yet, I also say in the inestimable words of Josh Baskin, “I don’t get it.”

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    The clout that the United States has enjoyed on the global stage since the end of the Second World War, both political as well as economic, is diminishing. Barring a miracle the trend is expected to continue into the medium-term future. This, combined with an absence of “total” sincerity on the part of the Arabs and Israelis to find a mutually acceptable formula to co-exist, renders the exercise of bringing these two sides to sign a peace treaty absolutely meaningless. The UN mechanism has been tried and it has failed; other similar initiatives, too, have not gotten anywhere. Yes, “why bother” is the right approach. If the two sides to the conflict do not understand the significance of doing the right thing for the sake of their respective future generations, there is absolutely nothing anybody else can do to end this conflict. Leave ‘em alone.

  • Posted by Morgan Kaplan

    While agree with some of what is said above, I don’t think that the best thing to do is to “leave ’em alone.” The U.S. and the rest of the international community has for too long been caught up in the concept of the peace process, while forgetting about the “process” part.

    What the U.S. should be doing is not pressing for a peace deal, but using its weight to build political and economic security in the West Bank. This “process” would increase Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. cooperation at all levels – which could be vital in building credible partners for a future peace deal – and would create security for both sides.

    It’s about time Washington realizes that a “peace deal” in the Israeli-Palestinian case is far different from other cases. While the traditional model is to first negotiate the peace and then create the conditions that will make it last, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires that the conditions for peace already exist on the ground before any deal is signed. When the peace process resumes again, it should merely be a formality of the peace that already exists on the ground. Simply put any peace deal should be “a certificate of peace,” not a work order.

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