By Bren Carlill and Adam Frey
Before his inauguration, US President Barack Obama promised that his administration would be engaged in the Middle East peace process from “day one”. Because he is venerated in Europe and the Arab world for being perceived as fundamentally different from previous President George W. Bush, but has also appointed people trusted by Israel to some key Middle East roles, many believe Obama is particularly well positioned to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Although successive US presidents have sought to resolve the conflict, the last two presidents are particularly noted for their attempts. As today there is no peace, it is easy to say their efforts failed because their approaches were faulty, and Obama should try something completely different.
But such thinking is naïve. Although there is no peace, not all previous policies were flawed. With that in mind, and with the backdrop of Israel’s recent military operations against Hamas, which policies should the Obama Administration continue, and which should be reassessed?
Above all, Obama should continue the international community’s attempts to isolate Hamas. Although there is a growing chorus calling on the US and others to engage with Hamas now, doing so would harm, not help, the prospects for peace.
Obama has said he is willing to talk with Hamas as soon as it renounces terrorism and recognises Israel’s right to exist, but not before. This is also EU and UN policy. Yasser Arafat had to meet the same conditions to win recognition.
Yet Hamas refuses to meet these minimal requirements of a peace partner.
Thus, engaging with an unreconstructed Hamas would create a dangerous precedent, whereby violence and intransigence lead to recognition and legitimacy. It would also undercut Obama’s – and the international community’s – future credibility when negotiating with other actors, like Iran.
Further, it would undermine those parties already committed to peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, plus Jordan, Egypt and, increasingly, the moderate Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia, are committed to resolving the conflict non-violently. If Obama negotiates with a Hamas still wedded to violence, it will discredit Abbas and embarrass America’s Middle East allies. At the same time, it will embolden US adversaries – particularly Hamas’ patron, Iran. This would harm the efforts of America’s Middle East allies in their growing struggle against Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, thus harming US interests as well
Obama seems ready to maintain the international community’s red lines. As new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified during her confirmation hearing, “You cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognises Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is the United States government’s position; that is the president-elect’s position.”
Obama should also avoid setting unrealistic expectations or focusing on high-profile summitry. The unfortunate reality is that a final status agreement cannot be implemented right now – the Palestinian parties that are willing to sign a peace agreement cannot implement it, and those parties who could, don’t want peace. One lesson Obama should learn from former President Bill Clinton’s Camp David efforts in 2000 and Bush’s 2008 Annapolis process is that publicly declaring lofty targets to be accomplished within short periods of time often constitutes a recipe for failure.
Obama should instead focus on low profile but pragmatic strategies that can gradually build trust and confidence between the parties. A good example is the US-run program to train a professional Palestinian security force. Since January 2008, this program has trained nearly 1,000 members of the Palestinian security forces. These forces have deployed effectively to Jenin, Nablus and Hebron, where they have significantly improved law and order. As a direct result, Israel removed numerous roadblocks and checkpoints in those areas, dramatically bettering Palestinians’ lives and leading to economic development.
In addition to these immediate benefits, an effective Palestinian security force is an absolute necessity for a stable Palestinian state. As a former US Middle East envoy, Obama’s National Security Adviser, General (ret.) Jim Jones, will be well aware of this program and its successes. Thus, the Obama Administration will likely continue, and hopefully expand, these efforts.
Economic development projects, such as those led by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are another example of the type of practical measures that should be enhanced.
As Blair has repeatedly pointed out, a functioning economy is integral to Palestinian statehood and lasting peace. The two biggest obstacles to such an economy are corruption and a lack of security. Newly effective security forces are helping address the latter. And there has been real progress made against corruption under Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist who was appointed by Abbas after Hamas’ 2007 coup in Gaza. Nevertheless, much work remains.
It is by holding the Palestinians accountable for these and other commitments where Obama can differentiate himself from his predecessors.
Those calling on Obama to show “tough love” and lean more heavily on Israel must recognise that Jerusalem has shown it is willing to make concessions, but will act much more readily if it believes the concessions are being reciprocated. Thus, for example, Israel will hesitate to implement further West Bank withdrawals (an Israeli Roadmap obligation) until Palestinian security forces are willing and – just as importantly – able to crack down on terrorism (a Palestinian Roadmap obligation).
Critically, a West Bank withdrawal would leave Tel Aviv and Jerusalem vulnerable to Palestinian rocket fire. And given Israel’s recent response to rocket fire from Gaza, it is in everyone’s interest – Obama’s, Israel’s and the Palestinians’ – that any Israeli withdrawal be matched by deployment of effective Palestinian forces.
Per capita, Palestinians are the largest recipients of foreign aid in the world. Demanding complete transparency in how this aid is used, which donors to date have largely failed to do, is a way to encourage accountability. Obama will need European cooperation in this effort.
The most important way that Obama can break from previous administrations is by no longer tolerating Palestinian incitement against Israel. Ending incitement has been an obligation in every Israel-Palestinian agreement. For example, each party had to implement peace education programs in their schools. Although there has been some improvement, Palestinian textbooks still regularly portray Israel as illegitimate and temporary. While no one expects Palestinians to love Israel, peace education lays the foundations for acceptance of each side’s right to exist. This is absolutely necessary for any peace agreement to be accepted by the populace.
Delegitimisation of Israel is also endemic in Palestinian media, including that controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Yet despite widespread awareness that incitement persists and of its detrimental impact on the prospects for peace, foreign governments and NGOs continue to finance the Palestinian Authority without conditioning that aid on an end to incitement. Hillary Clinton’s strongly worded statements on the issue, made whilst a senator, show that she is well aware that the problem persists. As secretary of state, she will have the capability to finally address it.
Obama already faces outsized expectations for what he can accomplish in the Middle East. However, if he listens to those calling on him to ‘force’ Israel into further concessions, as if the Palestinians have met all their obligations, he will not advance peace. But, by supporting Palestinian moderates and isolating extremists; emphasising low-profile, practical measures; and making clear as soon as possible that he will insist on all-round accountability, he can generate real momentum toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.