The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Now

How President Obama can get peacemaking back on track

Obama Speaks with Netanyahu. May 18, 2009, Washington DC. Lawrence Jackson/White House/Handout/CNP/Corbis.

The upheaval that shook the Arab world in early 2011 should lead to a fundamental recalibration of American policies in the Middle East. As this debate gets underway, many, perhaps most, will conclude that this is no time for pushing hard for Arab-Israeli peace.  They will argue that it is time to let the dust from the Arab revolution settle, to shore up other fragile regimes, and to hope for the best.  Certainly the official view from Israel will reinforce such a wait and see attitude.  But such a posture, at a time like this, will have the effect of making the United States look marginal to the central developments of the region.

While it is true that U.S. influence has waned in recent years–and that need not be such a bad thing–on the issue of Arab-Israeli peace the U.S. still has a major interest and a major responsibility. So, the Obama administration should take a hard look, screw up its courage, and try for a serious multi-pronged effort to get Arab-Israeli peacemaking onto a promising track. If successful–and the odds are admittedly not good–this would mean that the U.S. was aligning itself with both democracy and peace in a vital part of the world.  That would go a long way toward securing American interests. But, is it doable?

The president still has time to make mid-course corrections and start to move in a more promising direction. But time is short and he will have to recognize some of the serious errors he has made if he is to get things right. To have a chance of success, Obama must mobilize a major internationally supported initiative to lay out the broad guidelines, in the form of quite specific principles, for the resolution of both the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Israeli–Syrian one as well.

What went wrong? After all, Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 seemed to be genuinely committed to trying a new approach to peacemaking. And he seemed to understand that Arab–Israeli peace would make a big dent in the intense anti-Americanism that could be found in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Obama got off to a good start in January 2009. He supported the idea of engagement with adversaries, mentioning Iran and Syria by name, and privileging diplomacy over military force. He appointed a respected and experienced former senator, George Mitchell, to oversee the day-to-day conduct of his Arab–Israeli policy. As the national security advisor he named General James Jones, a man with considerable experience with the Palestine issue. In a number of public statements, Obama made it clear that he wanted to move forcefully toward Arab–Israeli peace and he took a particularly firm stand on an issue of great importance to the Palestinians, namely the need for Israel to stop building settlements in occupied territory. Obama’s new approach was aptly expressed in his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University, in which he said: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”

While all of these steps raised hopes in some quarters that American policy was moving into a new and active phase, there were also some warning signs that events might force the new president to trim his ambitions. First there was the obvious fact that the global economic crisis, which significantly worsened in the months before his election, was bound to occupy much of his time and energy. In addition to pushing a stimulus package and bank bailouts to address the economic crisis, his domestic political agenda included passing legislation on health care. These proved also to be difficult and divisive tasks, quickly drawing down on the president’s political capital.

In the Middle East, two elections also made it more difficult for the president to proceed with his initial strategy. First, in Israel, elections resulted in the return of hard-line Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the prime minister’s office. He had served as prime minister in the period 1996–1999 and had strenuously resisted U.S. efforts to move forward on Israeli–Palestinian peace talks. To say the least, his reputation in Washington was that of a stubborn and unimaginative leader who was unwilling to take risks for peace.

The other election that damaged the chances for Obama to pursue his plans to engage constructively with adversaries took place in Iran in June 2009 and was widely viewed in the West as a deeply flawed affair that cheated the reformist movement of a possible victory. Instead of dealing with Iranian moderates, Obama would have to deal with a reinstated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many Americans were highly skeptical about the wisdom of trying to pursue a policy of engagement with this Iranian regime, especially as it continued to follow a policy of producing nuclear energy that led many to believe Iran was on its way to becoming a nuclear weapons state in violation of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Netanyahu Problem

Obama and Netanyahu did not get off to a very good start. With some effort, Obama did help persuade Netanyahu to express guarded support for the so-called ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but he had a much harder time persuading the Israeli prime minister to stop building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. This latter point became a test of wills between the two leaders, and finally in late 2009 Netanyahu gave a partial concession—a moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank (but not east Jerusalem) for a period of ten months. By the time this offer was made, Obama and his political advisors were showing signs of being worried about the prolonged strain in U.S.–Israeli relations. Many seemed to feel that it was time for the president to mend fences and to accept what Netanyahu had offered as a positive first step. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long attuned to the domestic politics surrounding the management of the relationship with Israel from her time as senator from New York state, was quick to label Netanyahu’s offer of a ten-month moratorium as “unprecedented”—which was not true—and to turn to the Palestinians with demands that they agree to enter negotiations.

“If there is indeed still a window of opportunity for a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace, it may not remain open for long. And if Obama does not try to break the impasse, it is unlikely that his eventual successor will do so.”

During the first part of 2010, there was very little real movement in Arab–Israeli peace diplomacy. Mitchell travelled diligently to the region, but his style was so low-key that whatever gains he made were barely noticed. In mid year, Obama and Netanyahu met in Washington for a carefully staged reconciliation meeting. With Congressional elections on the horizon, Obama presumably did not want to burden Democratic candidates with the charge that the Obama administration was excessively tough in its dealings with Israel. Exactly what happened during the meeting between the two leaders is not clear. It seems that Netanyahu made a strong case for U.S. support in confronting Iran; and in return for U.S. assurances on this score, he agreed to enter “direct negotiations without preconditions” with the Palestinians.

White House Middle East advisors began to talk about a “new Netanyahu,” a strong leader who would be prepared to make concessions for peace. The “old Netanyahu,” a man whose ideological roots are found deep in the revisionist Zionist tradition which sees all of Palestine as rightfully belonging to Israel, had strongly opposed previous peace agreements that his predecessors had negotiated, and had been a very reluctant participant in any talks with the Palestine Liberation Organizaton during his previous tenure as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Whether this more optimistic view of Netanyahu was based on some serious understandings with him or was more in the nature of wishful thinking could not be determined, but it did mean that U.S. efforts turned to convincing the Palestinians to enter into direct negotiations.

By this time, efforts to engage with Syria had just about dropped off the radar screen. Sound strategy suggests that the U.S. should have done much more to open serious negotiations on the Syrian front—and here negotiation is the right paradigm–and there is a substantial record to build upon. If Syria were also on track to achieving a peace agreement with Israel—the terms of which are much easier to define than they are on the Palestinian front—then Syria would have every incentive to use its influence in support of the peace process. But it was only the Palestinian–Israeli front that received sustained attention, at least in public. As the expiration of the Israeli semi-moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank approached, the American side pressed hard to get negotiations started between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Several meetings did take place, but there was no meeting of minds, and when the settlement moratorium expired the Palestinians suspended their participation in the negotiations. By late 2010, the ‘peace process’ seemed to have reached a stalemate. In fact, it had never gained much momentum at all.

Avoidable Errors

Several things seemed to be wrong with Obama’s strategy. First, whatever the wisdom of deciding to make a freeze on settlements his top priority, Obama should have realized that Netanyahu would resist, and that much would depend on who was seen to win this initial test of wills. If Obama were seen to back down on this first issue of contestation, that would damage his reputation for being a strong leader. And back down he did.

Second, Obama did not seem to fully appreciate the importance of having a strong alter ego to serve as his primary diplomat on Arab–Israeli affairs. All prior U.S. successes in Arab–Israeli diplomacy had involved a strong president working closely with an empowered secretary of state, both backed by an experienced team of advisors. This was the model that worked for Nixon–Kissinger, Carter–Vance, and Bush I–Baker. But Obama chose to work with George Mitchell, a low-key technocrat—a man of undoubted ability, but not someone known to be especially close to the president. Hillary Clinton, who might have also played a significant role, seemed stand-offish toward Arab–Israeli issues, at least during her first year as secretary of state.

Recent presidents have allowed a certain amount of chaos to reign among their Arab–Israeli policy group. This was definitely the case for Bill Clinton and Bush II, and it also has been true of Obama. While Mitchell was supposed to be his primary advisor, others were also in the game, often sending rather different signals. There was his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, with close personal ties to Israel; there was his outspoken vice president, Joe Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; there was his national security advisor, James Jones;  and, on at least one occasion, there was General David Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, on the importance of Arab–Israeli peace to the U.S.’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

And then there was Dennis. In Middle East circles, if you mention the name Dennis it is immediately clear that you are referring to Dennis Ross. No one has logged more hours working on Arab–Israeli issues—starting back in the Reagan administration and then throughout all of Bush I and Clinton. Ross had made an appearance during the campaign as an advisor to Obama on Middle East affairs, but in the initial round of appointments he had been given responsibility at the State Department for a vaguely defined “central region” of the Middle East that seemed to mean Iran and the Gulf region. In any event, with his strongly pro-Israel views, and his reputation for endlessly promoting the “process” part of the peace process, he was not widely seen as the right person to help steer Obama in the new direction that the president seemed to be pursuing. One of his former colleagues described him as a “down in the weeds kind of guy,” good for managing the day-to-day diplomacy, but not for charting a new course.

But as U.S.–Israeli relations deteriorated, Ross was called upon to help patch things up with Netanyahu. And by late 2010 he was back in an undefined role at the White House with responsibility for some aspects of Arab–Israeli diplomacy. In short, apart from the president himself, who would have the final word, it was not clear which of his many advisors was key to his plans for getting Arabs and Israelis to make peace.

A third misstep by Obama was to define the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in terms of a dispute that could best be resolved by direct negotiations between the parties. Previous administrations—Clinton and Bush II in particular—had been in the habit of saying that “we cannot want peace more than the parties to the conflict,” and that the U.S. would never impose a solution. The U.S. would facilitate, urge, nudge, and persuade, but that was about it. Only in his last month in office did Clinton finally put forward specific proposals. And Bush II, even when he learned that Israelis and Palestinians had made surprising progress in secret talks late in his second term, was unwilling to step in to help clinch the deal.

Obama seemed torn between two paradigms. One saw the Arab–Israeli conflict in strategic terms—its continuation had adverse consequences for U.S. national interests, it weakened moderate forces in the region, gave voice to radicals who whipped up anti-American sentiment, and ultimately made it harder to deal with emerging challenges from countries like Iran or issues like jihadi extremism. Obama himself had expressed this view as candidate in 2008 and again in 2009 after his election. From this standpoint, the U.S. could and should place a high priority on solving the conflict, and to do so should use tough-minded diplomacy, including pressures and inducements, to get the parties to move toward compromises. This could be done in cooperation with other powers, the United Nations and regional players, but U.S. power had to be on display for it to work.

There was some reason to believe at the outset of the Obama administration that the president was setting the stage for this type of forceful American-led diplomacy. But somewhere in his second year, Obama seemed to buy into a different paradigm. Like his predecessors, he said frankly that the U.S. could not want Arab–Israeli peace more than the parties themselves. Obama’s ambivalence was perfectly captured on April 13, 2010, when he stated that Arab–Israeli peace was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” and then also said: “And the truth is, in some of these conflicts the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism. I think it was former Secretary of State Jim Baker [sic] who said, in the context of Middle East peace, we can’t want it more than they do.” While this latter point sounds reasonable on the surface, it is in fact a vapid shibboleth. Taken literally, it means that if one party is reticent, that party will set the pace for diplomacy.

But the Arab–Israeli conflict has never been about which party wants peace most. Each community is internally divided over these issues, which are, after all, existential, and many individuals are divided in their own beliefs. They want peace, but they fear the price that they may have to pay to get it. They often seem to want peace in the abstract, but only on their own terms or not at all. This is not the frame for successful face-to-face negotiations. Instead, it suggests the need for a powerful third-party mediator to help structure the negotiations and shift the calculus of gains and losses.

Even with two strong leaders such as Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, both of whom doubtless wanted peace on certain terms, it would have been counterproductive for the U. S. to sit back until the two parties had narrowed their differences to the point where the U. S. could step in and help them cross the finish line with a few gentle nudges and reassurances. Had Carter and Vance accepted this model, there would have been no Camp David Summit and no Egyptian–Israeli peace (at least not in 1979).

Perhaps Obama began to focus on getting the parties into direct negotiations as part of a strategy of building American domestic support for a more forceful American role further down the road. But by fall 2010, it sounded very much as if direct negotiations were an end in and of themselves. Many analysts who have studied the Israeli–Palestinian conflict carefully are dubious about the possibility of resolving the conflict through direct negotiations alone. Such a model assumes a degree of parity that does not exist. Israel is in a far stronger position, while the Palestinians are weak, divided, and occupied. The big “concession” made by the Palestinian leadership has been to give up their claim to some 78 percent of historic Palestine and to agree to build their state in the remaining 22 percent. Having come to this point, most Palestinians do not feel there is much more room for concessions on their side. And they continue to insist that their capital must be in east Jerusalem and that some satisfaction must be given, if largely symbolic, to the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the 1948 war.

Just as the matter of recovering all of Sinai was never an issue for negotiations in the mind of Anwar Sadat, so also the Palestinians consider these points as fundamental to the question of whether or not a peace agreement is at all possible. Any significant deviation from them will mean peace is an illusion. Where they are prepared to show more flexibility is in the timeline for implementing an agreement; the precise delineation of boundaries, provided that land swaps result in fair compensation for any parts of the west bank that Israel keeps; and on security issues, where the Palestinians are prepared to accept that their future state will never be heavily militarized.

Not surprisingly, Israel sees things very differently. For over forty years, Israel has been in control of east Jerusalem and the West Bank. It sees any relinquishment of these territories as a concession, and no Israeli politician to date has ever publicly accepted the principle of withdrawing to the 1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem. Indeed, many Israeli politicians, including most of the current government, believe in expanding Jewish settlement on the West Bank—a policy interpreted by the Palestinians as intended ultimately to squeeze them out of their homeland. Even the most moderate Israeli leader imagines that some of the West Bank and east Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control indefinitely. And no Israeli leader has said much in public about how Palestinian refugee claims could be addressed. There is very little reason to believe that the parties, given the power imbalance, could bridge the gaps in their positions through direct negotiations. And yet such negotiations have been, as during previous administrations, the centerpiece of American diplomacy.

A fourth mistake, if reports from fall 2010 are true, was that Obama apparently offered some very big inducements to Netanyahu in order to get a mere three-month extension of the settlement moratorium. And even then, Netanyahu refused to comply. This was a sign of Obama’s weakness. By prematurely putting some very big chips on the table for very minor purposes, he insured that the price for much bigger moves would soar. This was simply bad bargaining technique. Fortunately, the president seemed to realize his error and was unwilling to put the offer in writing. It was then dropped altogether, along with the demand that Israel cease settlement activity. This left American policy in early 2011 as consisting primarily of the effort to get the parties back to the negotiating table. But this cannot be the sum total of a strategy meant to succeed, especially in the aftermath of the upheaval in Egypt and its regional spillover.

While Obama has little to show for his first two years of Arab–Israeli diplomacy, it is not axiomatic that he cannot make mid-course corrections and start to move in a more promising direction. Surely the popular uprisings in the Middle East have raised understandable questions about whether this is possible right now, yet those upheavals make it all the more important that the U.S. aligns itself with both democracy and peace in a vital part of the world.

Plans for the Third Year

Some have argued that the significant Republican gains in the mid-term elections in November 2010 will make it harder for Obama to govern. On the domestic front this is doubtless so. But Congress is less a factor in setting the broad lines of foreign policy, although there will certainly be some very strong and uncritical pro-Israeli voices elevated to senior positions in Congress. Still, most of what Obama needs to do to improve the odds of success in the Arab–Israeli arena does not depend primarily on Congress.

The President needs to take the following steps:

  1. He would need to start making the case immediately that Arab–Israeli peace is in the national interests of the United States. The American public needs to hear a convincing rationale for devoting time and resources to the seemingly hopeless task of breaking the Arab–Israeli impasse.
  2. He needs to decide who is going to be his principal spokesman on Arab–Israeli issues. For better or worse, in the current line up of policy advisors, Hillary Clinton is the only person who has the clout to play this role. Mitchell, while genuinely liked and admired, is not viewed as having much real clout by the parties to the dispute.
  3. This way of thinking may not be part of the mainstream Washington consensus, but it is frequently expressed behind closed doors, even in the capital. It leads to the conclusion that if there is to be peace, there may be only one last chance and one last policy option: Obama must develop a new American initiative that proposes the outlines of an Israeli–Palestinian accord, as well as a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace agreement, and mobilize international support behind it. Arab countries moving towards democracy will seek greater purposefulness and fairness in the U.S. diplomatic role in their region, and Obama’s failure to anticipate and understand their reasonable expectations will dangerously erode American credibility further at this critical juncture.

The building blocks are all there—the Clinton parameters of December 2000, the outline of an agreement discussed by the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas in fall 2008, the terms of an Israeli–Syrian agreement discussed in detail during 1998–2000. In short, the U.S., with support from others in the international community, would state its support for an agreement that would establish a Palestinian state on the territories of the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The borders of the state would be based on the 1967 lines, with small agreed adjustments and equitable land swaps. The Palestinian state would recognize Israel and would agree to far-reaching security arrangements, including perhaps international peacekeeping forces at key locations. The hard tradeoff for the Palestinians would be that in exchange for recognition of their state, they would forego the literal “right of return” of refugees to Israel proper, accepting instead some token repatriation and generous compensation for the rest. On the Syrian front, Israel would be expected to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 line, but the Golan would be demilitarized, agreements on water would be worked out, and Syria would be expected to use its influence to help promote a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace. With these principles clearly spelled out, Arab states would be asked to endorse them and to promise to recognize Israel and establish relations with it as peace with the Palestinians and Syrians goes into effect.

Now, this type of initiative will of course be controversial, particularly among partisans of Israel, who have long maintained that the U. S. should not try to impose its views on the parties. But these points do not really go much beyond what previous American administrations have supported. One could imagine that a fairly impressive bipartisan array of former U.S. officials would support the main outlines of this approach, as would European allies, the so-called Quartet partners (European Union, Russia, and the UN) and the Arab League. One would expect many Palestinians to be generally receptive, although Hamas and other factions will be opposed or skeptical. One should not minimize the difficulty of getting Palestinians to accept the watered-down principle on refugee rights.

The Netanyahu government, and perhaps others in Israel as well, would react negatively at the outset and would try to mobilize opposition to this approach. This is where the test for Obama would begin. Could he convince significant numbers of Israelis that this outline was the best path to a secure, predominantly Jewish democratic state at peace with its neighbors? Could most Israelis be convinced that by accepting this framework, and then negotiating hard on the details and side payments—this is when Obama should be prepared for some major positive inducements—that Israel would be better able to face whatever threat might be posed by Iran?

If Obama is unwilling to see this diplomatic initiative through, he would be better off not launching it. But if he genuinely believes that American national interests are at stake, something along these lines needs to be part of his strategy. We will learn a lot  about the president and about American politics by how Obama sets his priorities in the coming months. If there is indeed still a window of opportunity for a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace, it may not remain open for long. And if Obama does not try to break the impasse, it is unlikely that his eventual successor will do so. The odds of success are not good, based on his efforts of the first two years, but diplomacy is not about playing games with good odds. Occasionally, as now, it would mean tackling a strategically important, difficult issue where both the payoff and risk are high. It is for tackling and successfully resolving such issues that we should bestow the title of statesman. Obama may have won his Nobel peace prize, but if he is to really earn it he should use the undeniable power of the United States to promote the kind of peace agreement outlined here.

William B. Quandt is Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. He has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania and was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During the Nixon and Carter administrations, he served on the National Security Council; he played an active role in the negotiations that led to the Camp David accords and the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty. He is the author of numerous books, including Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab–Israeli Conflict since 1967, and Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Quandt is a member of the Board of Trustees of the American University in Cairo.