By Michael Doran
American presidents have been trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict since the days of Truman. Sooner or later, every one of them has learned a harsh lesson about the limits of American influence. There is no reason to believe that President Barack Obama’s experience will be any different. In fact, his opening gambit in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking suggests that his own lesson may already be upon him.
In his Cairo speech on June 4, the President said that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” and he called for a halt to Israeli settlements, which he deemed illegitimate. His advisers have repeatedly explained that this policy includes an end to so-called “natural growth,” meaning construction and population expansion within the boundaries of existing settlements. Obama’s ban on natural growth nullified an understanding that President George W. Bush had reached with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israelis agreed not to appropriate any new West Bank territory; in return, the Bush Administration gave the nod to natural growth within existing settlement blocs.
Out of a mix of motives, Obama reversed this policy. On a personal level, he finds settlements morally offensive. He likely considers them to be a long-term, demographic impediment to a two-state solution. Their continuous growth underscores the impotence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, sapping him of legitimacy, and validating the hard-line arguments of Hamas. Previous presidents and secretaries of state have held similar views, but they expressed their concerns in a less dramatic manner. Obama chose to take an early, categorical, and public stance in order to launch a shot across the bow of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. In the 1990s, Netanyahu’s recalcitrance had been a thorn in the side of the Clinton Administration. The former Clintonites advising Obama no doubt relished the idea of immediately knocking Netanyahu back on his heels so as to begin negotiations from a position of strength.
In addition, Obama also sought to make an impression on the Arab world. Taking an unyielding, principled stand would, he reasoned, restore the credibility of the United States. According to mainstream Democratic analysis, George W. Bush had abandoned the role of “honest broker” in the conflict. Moving too close to Israel, he lost the trust of the Arabs. Armed with copious polling data, Obama’s advisers argued that the Palestinian issue was the sine qua non for redressing the balance. Strike a powerful note on the settlement issue, they told the President, and the Arabs will gravitate toward you in response.
Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs, however, have reacted according to this script. Netanyahu fought back with unexpected subtlety. When he visited Washington in mid-May, the White House greeted him with a remarkable display of influence on Capitol Hill. It lined up key supporters of Israel to deliver a consistent and stern warning to the new Prime Minister: “Do you really want to fight over settlements with one of the most popular American presidents in living memory?” Netanyahu was certainly shaken by this power play, but hardly coerced. In a step that the White House did not foresee, he quickly ran to capture the moral high ground in Israeli politics.
Shortly after Obama’s address from Cairo, Netanyahu delivered a speech of his own. In it, he tacked to the political centre, presenting himself to the Israeli public as the representative of a mainstream consensus on national security. Approximately two-thirds of all Israelis support the position that their prime minister staked out. On the specific issue of settlements, Netanyahu reaffirmed the basic lines of the Bush-Sharon agreement: natural growth, yes; settlement expansion, no. “We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements,” he said. “But there is a need to have people live normal lives and let mothers and fathers raise their children like everyone in the world.” The warm reaction to the speech in Israel gave Netanyahu renewed political capital. He now turned to his critics in Washington with a warning of his own: “Do you really want to fight with three quarters of the Israeli public over the building of kindergartens?”
Obama is now on the horns of a dilemma. If he backs down on natural growth, he lays himself open to Arab claims that he is a hypocrite. On the other hand, if he sticks to his guns, he will become Israel’s senior city planner, rejecting building permits for a school one day, and a new home addition the next. The President can certainly win the fight over building permits, but he must already be asking himself whether it is really worth the prize. Victory will eat up at least a year of precious time, and it will not have a strategic impact.
If Obama found Netanyahu difficult to coerce, he failed to charm the Israeli Left. Israeli pundits have noted the conspicuous absence of a pro-Obama coalition on the Israeli political scene – this, despite the fact that the Israeli Left detests the settlements as much as or more than Obama himself. Many Israelis simply do not understand how the country’s security dilemmas fit into Obama’s larger scheme. With respect to the issue of gravest concern, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama’s strategy remains worryingly opaque. And with respect to the Palestinian question, many Israelis are sceptical about the power of any American president to overcome the Hamas-Fatah split, and to create conditions on the Palestinian side that will achieve a two-state solution capable of guaranteeing Israeli security. In a context fraught with uncertainty, Obama is inviting the Israeli Left to join with him in a fight against Netanyahu in order to achieve… well, what precisely?
In addition to the vagueness of his goals, Obama’s body language has dealt the Israeli Left a weak hand. The Cairo speech cast Israel as a bit player in a US-Muslim drama. The President, stressing his Muslim ancestry, did not take the time to fly to Jerusalem, where he might have reasoned with the Israeli public about the value to it of abandoning the Bush-Sharon agreement. Instead, his advisers denied flatly that such an agreement had ever existed. As a consequence of this disingenuousness, many Israelis fear that the administration aims to buy goodwill from the Muslim world by distancing itself from Israel, and they wonder whether settlements are not simply the first of many concessions that will be demanded. With such doubts swirling in the air, it is difficult for the Israeli Left to trumpet the Obama agenda.
The White House has sacrificed some credibility on the Israeli side, but it surely must have recouped its losses by garnering Arab goodwill. Think again. Today, the peace process is on hold until the settlement question is resolved. Mahmoud Abbas has refused to sit down with Netanyahu in direct negotiations, insisting instead that the Israelis must first implement the total settlement freeze that Obama himself has demanded. This is a wise tactic. Were Abbas to negotiate with the Israelis today, they would simply demand reciprocal concessions. The Americans, however, have already made a public commitment on settlements, so why not pocket it, and hold Washington to its word?
Meanwhile, Washington has simultaneously been attempting to mobilise the Arab states – particularly the Saudis. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have exhorted Saudi King Abdullah to take public steps toward normalising relations with Israel. So far, this effort has registered no successes. The President’s interest in involving the Saudis arises from his realisation that the Hamas-Fatah split means that Abbas does not have the power to deliver on an agreement that would guarantee the legitimate security concerns of the Israelis. Hamas controls Gaza, and it will not submit to Abbas’ authority, especially with respect to the key issue of abandoning terrorism.
Hamas is the elephant in the room of the peace process. Washington seeks Saudi Arabia’s help in weakening it. Riyadh could become the linchpin in an Arab support network around Abbas, in order to help shift the balance of power against Hamas. In addition, Obama hopes to offset Israeli scepticism by energising a normalisation process with the Arab states – one that will run parallel to the Palestinian-Israeli track. The Israelis complain to Washington that it has singled them out for censure while making no corresponding demands on the Arab side. “If we are to freeze settlements,” they ask, “what will the other side provide in return?” Washington looks to Riyadh to help formulate a response.
The Saudis, however, have only limited incentive to help Obama with this problem. They and their public do not regard an Israeli moratorium on settlement growth as a concession; it is, rather, a moral imperative and a Palestinian right. Washington is asking them to reward the Israelis dramatically for returning what is, in their view, stolen property.
But Obama’s problem with the Saudis runs deeper than the settlement question. There is a larger, strategic question at play. It’s worth asking whether Riyadh can really offset Hamas in a meaningful way, and whether, in its own view, it stands to gain from diving headlong into the midst of an intractable dispute that has persisted for more than 60 years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tar baby. No sober Arab leader could relish the idea of taking responsibility for developments in such an unpredictable and unmanageable arena – particularly now, when peace is hardly in the offing. Quite understandably, the Saudis much prefer to occupy the politically safe position of Arab umpire: they sit on the sidelines and critique the Americans. They quietly help out here and there to keep the game from falling apart, but they don’t want to be players.
The President’s advisers promised him that taking a principled stand on settlements would generate goodwill in the Arab world. There is no doubt that the Cairo speech struck a chord with many Arabs. But goodwill of that sort is not a strategic commodity. Even a popular honest broker cannot reshape the iron interests of the parties on the ground, none of whom see much benefit in taking risks to achieve a goal that they do not really believe in. Many Western diplomats tell themselves that peace is nearly at hand, but the parties on the ground – Arab and Jewish alike – are highly sceptical. And for good reason. The power of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, supported by Iran, looms in the background. It is highly unlikely that, in the next four years, a major breakthrough will take place. In order to maintain good relations with Washington, the leaders in the region will certainly play along with the Obama Administration. But the name of their game is not “Peacemaking” but, rather, “Shift the Blame”. Its object is to take positions that paint one’s rivals as the real obstructionists in the eyes of Washington.
The central strategic challenge for the United States in the Middle East is diminishing the power of the Iranian-led alliance. The peace process is not as effective a tool for addressing this challenge as the administration believes, because the disarray of Fatah and the power of Hamas (not to mention the other rejectionists in the region) will not allow significant, forward movement. Everyone in the region knows this, though few will say so openly. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates are today focused on one key question: Is Washington going to go the distance with the Iranians, and thwart their nuclear program? Obama’s Cairo speech did not provide an answer. It bought a modicum of goodwill from Arab publics on the settlement question, but it did not address the crucial strategic question that is keeping Middle Eastern leaders awake at night.
The American engine is revving loudly, but the administration cannot put the car in gear, because significant obstacles block the way. President Obama will soon realise, if he hasn’t already, that the map that his advisers handed him does not match the terrain of the region. He can take some consolation in the fact that every president before him has reached a similar point in the road. Some of them, like Eisenhower, developed new maps as they went along. Others, like Carter, never did. Their place in history has, in part, been determined by their ability to chart a new course.
Dr. Michael S. Doran is an academic expert on the Middle East who has also held senior US government posts related to Middle East policy. He currently teaches at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. The above was originally published on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH – blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh) blog and is reprinted by permission of the author.