Is there an Israeli-Palestinian “opportunity” for the Obama Administration?

Nov 27, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 27, 2008
Number 11/08 #07

There is much debate currently about whether the incoming Obama administration in the US should focus on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking once it assumes office, and if so, how? Most notably, two prominent US foreign policy elder statesmen, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently jointly argued in the Washington Post that in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, “the opportunity for success has never been greater,  or the costs of failure more severe.” Israeli commentator Shmuel Rosner had an interesting and specific response to this last claim, but this Update is an attempt to canvass other views about  Israeli-Palestinian prospects at the moment.

First up is veteran Middle East peace processor Aaron David Miller, who served as Middle East advisor to six US presidents from both political parties. Miller argues that “would be mediators” need to keep their “enthusiasm for quick and easy solutions under control” and posits three reasons why significant progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace looks very unlikely at the moment. These are: Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian differences on key issues, especially Jerusalem and refugees; the Fatah-Hamas split and other Palestinian dysfunctions; and Israel’s ongoing political uncertainty. He advises concentrating on managing Israeli-Palestinian issues, and exploring the Israeli-Syrian option. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. A reasonably similar argument – including the conclusion that the Israel-Syria negotiations should be the diplomatic focus – comes from noted Israeli commentator Ari Shavit.

Next up is Professor Uzi Arad, an Israeli academic who previously had a senior role in Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Arad previously was an advisor to Likud-leader Binyamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister, and explains here Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinian issue in the current election campaign. As Arad explains, this includes – in recognition of the lack of opportunity to make a final peace –  efforts to promote projects to improve Palestinian economic prospects, ongoing political negotiations focussed mainly on non-final status issues, greater efforts to involve regional states in resolving the conflict, and attempts to reduce the Iranian role in stoking conflict and violence. For Arad’s complete analysis and discussion, CLICK HERE. A very different view of Netanyahu’s “economic peace” proposals comes from Yossi Alpher, another former intelligence figure turned academic and peace activist.

Finally, the heart of this Update consists of the views of nine top American academic experts on whether the Obama Administration should appoint a special Middle East envoy, and if so, what that envoy can realistically do. The views were solicited by the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) forum, and include Robert Satloff, Robert Freedman, Adam Garfinkle, Joseph Joffe and other notable scholars. They don’t all agree, but there are many important insights among them into the realities of the current Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian situation. To read the full forum, CLICK HERE.

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An Israeli-Palestinian agreement: Forget about it



I’ve been a Palestinian firster for most of my professional life. I believe that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the key to regional peace, and the sine qua non for preserving Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

These arguments remain valid. What’s changed is that a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians may no longer be possible. I choose my words carefully here. Varying kinds of accommodations cease fires, informal cooperation and temporary arrangements may still be possible. But an agreement now or perhaps for the foreseeable future that revolves conclusively the four core issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security) isn’t.

Three realities drive my pessimism and should force experts, politicians and would be mediators to keep their enthusiasm for quick or easy solutions under control.

First, there are the issues. There is a myth out there driven by the Clinton parameters of December 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Geneva accord a year later, and the hundreds of hours of post Annapolis talks between Israelis and Palestinians that the two sides are “this close” (thumb and index finger a sixteenth of an inch apart) to an agreement. The gaps have now narrowed, perhaps impressively, but closing them, particularly on the identity issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, is still beyond the reach of negotiators and leaders.

It’s not that there are metaphysical or magical reasons why these core issues can’t be resolved; it’s that the political will is lacking among leaders to reach an agreement and that the current situation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians makes it impossible for them to do to. That everyone knows what the ultimate solution will look like (an intriguing notion that is supposed to make people feel better) is irrelevant if the circumstances for an agreement don’t exist.

THIS BRINGS me to my second point. The dysfunction and confusion in Palestine make a conflict-ending agreement almost impossible. The divisions between Hamas (itself divided) and Fatah (even more divided) are now geographic, political and hard to bridge. Until the Palestinian national movement finds a way to impose a monopoly over the forces of violence in Palestinian society, it cannot move to statehood. The hallmark of any state’s credibility (from Sweden, to Egypt, to Poland) is its control over all the guns. Criminal activity is one thing; allowing political groups to challenge the state, or its neighbors, with violence is quite another. What Palestinian leader can claim to speak for all Palestinians or negotiate an agreement against the backdrop of a separate entity which controls 1.3 million Palestinians, possesses a different view of governance and nation-building and often attacks its neighbor? And what Israeli prime minister could ever make concessions to a Palestinian leader who doesn’t control all of the guns? There is no solution to this problem now. Only by restoring unity to the Palestinian house will a conflict-ending agreement be possible. And that agreement will have to take into account the needs of both Israel and a unified Fatah-Hamas negotiating position which doesn’t reflect Hamas’s extreme views and irredentism.

Third, there is serious dysfunction at the political level in Israel as well. Israel has its own leadership crisis. The state is in transition from a generation of founding leaders with moral authority, historic legitimacy and competency to a younger generation of middle age pols who have not quite measured up to their predecessors or to the challenges their nation faces. The leadership deficit is a global phenomenon, but not all states are sitting in a dangerous neighborhood on top of a political volcano. Is there an Israeli leader today who has the authority and skill to make and sell the tough choices required for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

So what to do? My days of giving advice to Israelis and Palestinians are over. I would, however, respectfully suggest to President-elect Barck Obama, in my capacity as an American who doesn’t want to see America fail again, that he recognize there’s no deal in this negotiation now. Manage it as best you can: help support an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, train PA security forces, pour economic aid into the West Bank and Gaza, even nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the big issues, but don’t think you can solve it; you can’t.

Instead, go all-out for an Israeli-Syrian agreement which is doable and will enhance American credibility to confront Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran over time with tough choices, and improve America’s regional standing. Then, perhaps, your chances on the Israeli-Palestinian track may be better. In the interim, I’m afraid sadly that the bottom line for Israelis and Palestinians is not a good one: Israelis will have their state, but Palestinians will never let them completely enjoy it.

The writer, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, worked as an advisor on the Middle East for six Democratic and Republican secretaries of State. He is the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

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Doing what is doable

by Uzi Arad

Bitterlemons.org, 24/11/08

Binyamin Netanyahu’s approach to the future of the Israeli-Arab peace process is likely to be driven by a number of considerations. First is the desire to move forward and achieve tangible progress wherever possible, stagnation being simply not acceptable.

Second, progress can be accomplished only within that space that realistically allows for it. To seek progress beyond what is feasible would be an exercise in futility; not to seize opportunities wherever these present themselves would be equally wrong.

Third, from Israel’s standpoint, progress can only be defined as that advance which leads to peace with security. Anything else is abnormal. Thus, fourth, the critical task is to realistically judge what is the most extensive scope or space for achievable progress.

This practical approach stands in contrast to the recent ambitious, indeed blatantly impossible effort to accomplish a final status agreement within a year, as some had hoped. By all accounts, the political terrain is simply not ripe for closure on a final status agreement. As the current outcome of this valiant endeavor demonstrates, the negotiators have left unresolved the thorniest issues, the most difficult of which are Jerusalem and refugees.

When it comes to Jerusalem, the very thought of taking a city that is currently united and that should develop and prosper as Israel’s capital and a holy place for all three monotheistic religions, and amputating any part of it from the integral whole as a throwback to the long defunct status quo ante, would be a severe failure of imagination as well as contrary to the Israeli and Jewish ethos.

As for the refugees issue, not only should there be zero Palestinian return to Israel but it is also necessary that the principle of fairness be applied when compensation is considered. Just as Arab Palestinians could be compensated so should Jewish refugees from Arab lands–who are also defined by the United Nations as refugees–as required under United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.

Worse still, from Israel’s standpoint, the effort to arrive at final status as managed by the current Israeli leadership has mainly yielded Israeli concessions but few, if any, reciprocal Palestinian ones. The absence of reciprocity is yet another critical flaw of final status negotiations.

It would be more practical therefore, at this juncture, to draw the appropriate lessons and put an end to “endism”, i.e., to the approach that believes we are within reach of resolving everything in one fell swoop, thereby ending the conflict in a quick fix.

What then should be done instead? One can delineate some “spaces” for doable progress. The first, which seems the least politically loaded and the one that may enjoy the widest international support, is the promotion of economic activity and projects that could quickly improve conditions in the Palestinian areas. Such projects have been advanced by Quartet emissary Tony Blair, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli, Palestinian and international officials or entrepreneurs and international institutions. There is a rich agenda of economic initiatives that could, if advanced vigorously by Palestinians and Israelis together, accomplish quick and demonstrably positive results. These would be translatable into job creation, higher revenues and faster economic growth for the Palestinians. While this may not be a substitute for political progress, it will definitely have a positive effect on it.

Political dialogue should certainly continue between Palestinians and Israelis throughout, because while final status issues cannot be resolved at this point, there are a number of other issues, pertaining to civilian or even security areas, which need to be addressed and improved, if only gradually. This would generate a bottom-up process that could prove, over time, more constructive. Institution-building within the Palestinian Authority should be encouraged and the role of the PA’s law enforcement and police forces should be further advanced. However, it is only realistic to assume that the burden of security responsibility to fight terror would remain in Israeli hands.

Indeed, terrorism and extremism remain the most serious obstacles on the road to peace and security. A challenge shared by both Israelis and moderate Palestinians is to overcome Hamas. Evidently, as long as Gaza is under Hamas control and as long as Hamas exercises considerable influence in the West Bank and in Palestinian politics in general, these factors seriously undercut any genuine prospect for substantial political progress.

The other space for diplomatic maneuver that could provide for tangible progress seems to lie at the sub-regional and regional level. It has long been advocated by Netanyahu and others that the two countries that made peace with Israel and border on both Israel and the Palestinian territories, namely Jordan and Egypt, be more involved. Some of the economic ideas being considered across the spectrum of Israeli politics, from President Peres to Netanyahu, refer to infrastructure projects that clearly require extensive international cooperation.

Beyond that, there seems also to be space for a new architecture of multilateral regional frameworks. These could sustain the “economic peace” options, some of which entail extensive regional cooperation reaching to the Gulf. In fact, of all the “baskets” of the multilateral negotiations that were conducted in the nineties it now seems that the economics (and water) basket is the most promising. The refugees basket would be the natural venue to discuss the compensation dimension raised above. The regional security basket would be a field for active diplomacy in light of the fact that so many countries within the moderate Arab world, including in the Gulf, confront the threat of a potentially nuclear Iran with all its destabilizing consequences.

Indeed, the single most urgent and important area that necessitates progress is neither the Palestinian nor the Syrian, but that of neutralizing the Iranian threat. This is not only because it is the most serious and potentially dangerous of developments but also because of its projection on the Arab-Israel dispute. The more menacing Iran is, the stronger its surrogates, Hamas and Hizballah, and the more distant the possibility of peacefully resolving Arab-Israel issues.

Only last week the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that Iran has now produced enough nuclear material to make, with further enrichment, a single atomic bomb. Hence the urgency and the need to concentrate, first and foremost, on attenuating the Iranian threat. Only when this is done will the influence of Iran’s proxies subside and the prospects for real and far-reaching progress in resolving the Arab-Israel dispute become significantly better.- Published 24/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Prof. Uzi Arad is director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC, Herzlia. He was foreign policy adviser to PM Binyamin Netanyahu and prior to that served for many years in the Mossad, where his last position was director of intelligence.

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Middle East envoy?

Nov 20th, 2008 by MESH (Middle East Strategy at Harvard)

From MESH Admin

Over the past week, MESHNet, the closed-forum companion to MESH, conducted a poll of MESHNet members, asking them who would make the best Middle East envoy of the Obama administration (if it is decided to appoint one). The structure of the poll emulated an earlier poll administered to a panel of Israeli experts, taking the same nine candidates and the same scoring system. MESHNet members (persons with a professional interest in the Middle East, 179 in number) were asked to rate the candidates, from “most suitable” for the job (a score of 5) to “least suitable” (a score of 1). Sixty-three MESHNet members responded to the poll question. Here are the results, comprised of the average score for each candidate:
Dennis Ross    3.350
Bill Clinton    2.904
Richard Holbrooke…    2.904
Colin Powell    2.747
Daniel Kurtzer    2.619
Condoleezza Rice    2.458
Bill Richardson    2.394
Hillary Clinton    2.336
James Baker    2.222

In parallel, MESH asked a number of its members to assess whether the appointment of a special envoy is advisable. Their nine responses appear below. (Respondents did not have prior knowledge of the poll results.)

Alan Dowty ::
Would it be wise for the new administration to dispatch a special envoy to the Middle East? Yes, by all means; it has become standard practice, and not sending an envoy would evoke cries of despair and dismay from near and far. It has become de rigueur to create the impression that the United States is making an all-out effort to achieve settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether success is expected or not.

Furthermore, if only to satisfy the need to create the impression of seriousness, the envoy needs to be on the A-list—like the names proffered in the poll. A low-level appointee would, again, evoke hue and cry.

And in order for this impression to be convincing, the appointed envoy must actually be allowed to make a serious effort. Perhaps neither the envoy nor the administration really believes that chances for success are great, but the onlookers are too sophisticated to be fooled by a charade. The effort must be real.

And so long as the envoy is making a serious effort, why should the negotiation not be directed at the most tractable channel, the one where a slight possibility of success actually exists? Not the Israel-Palestinian channel; though a majority of both publics probably still favor a negotiated, two-state solution, there is presently no Palestinian negotiating partner who could credibly implement such an agreement.

But on the Syrian front, there is a glimmer of daylight. The strategic logic of a deal between Israel and Syria is such that the last six Israeli prime ministers have all given it their best shot. Maybe the time has come.

So who, among the august personalities posited, should be the deus ex machina? It must be someone with infinite patience, infinite optimism, and an infinitely thick skin to withstand the inevitable barbs from all sides. Are such qualities likely among the high fliers on the present list of candidates? Unfortunately, such a combination of humility and prominence is a rarity of nature.


Robert O. Freedman :
: Obama’s two predecessors took opposite positions on the question of whether or not to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East. Bill Clinton had a special envoy, Dennis Ross, who was active during the entire period of the Clinton presidency and whose book, The Missing Peace, recounts his experience as special envoy. By contrast, George W. Bush chose not to have a special envoy and was widely criticized, justifiably or not, for paying insufficient attention to the Middle East.

In my view, Obama should appoint a special envoy for a number of reasons.

First, Obama will have many important priorities when he first takes office. In addition to the problems facing the U.S. and world economies, which can be expected to take up much of his time, there are serious problems in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia. There simply will not be sufficient presidential time to spend on helping to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, even if the conflict were ripe for settlement, which it is not. Under these circumstances, appointing a special envoy will enable Obama to demonstrate his continued interest in the process—as opposed to Bush, whose interest was, at best, episodic—and thereby reassure the parties to the conflict that the United States is concerned about helping to try to find a solution for it.

A second advantage of a special envoy is that it will enable Obama to gather information about the positions of the various sides to the conflict. Neither the Israeli-Palestinian nor the Israeli-Syrian conflicts is at this point ripe for settlement. The Israeli elections are scheduled for February 10, and there are serious disagreements among the three major parties, Kadima, Likud and Labor, as to how to move forward. At the same time, the split between the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas which controls Gaza, is growing greater by the day, as the cancellation of unity talks in Cairo so clearly demonstrated. Meanwhile, Syria is obfuscating as to whether it would be willing to cut ties with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran in return for Israel giving up the Golan Heights. With none of the conflicts appearing ripe for settlement, a special envoy could serve Obama by gathering information as to the positions of the parties, and imparting it to Obama. He would then have a firm base of information from which to operate when he finally has the time to devote to the Middle East.

Perhaps most importantly, a special envoy could advise Obama on whether or not it is worth investing scarce presidential time on the Syrian-Israeli conflict, as Bill Clinton did, albeit without success. Given the Israeli elections, the special envoy might best spend his or her time, at least initially, in trying to determine whether or not Syria is willing to pay the price of peace—cutting ties with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran—or is just using the talks with Israel to try to improve its position with the United States. Should Bashar Asad of Syria not be serious about peace, as many skeptical Americans and Israelis believe, then the United States can discover this early in the Obama presidency, allowing the special envoy to devote his or her efforts to working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, if Asad is indeed serious about paying the price of peace, then the geopolitical advantages to the United States of a Syrian split with Iran and its proxies would be well worth the time spent on Syria by a U.S. special envoy.

In sum, even if Obama does not have the time to immediately deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, his appointment of a special envoy will, at the minimum, commence his administration’s involvement in trying to help find a solution to it.


Adam Garfinkle :: As I have written before and elsewhere, the idea of appointing a special envoy to, not the “Middle East,” but to the Arab-Israeli arena early in the tenure of the next administration is a good one—but not necessarily for the reasons often advanced. The reasons for appointing someone prestigious but politically shrewd do not include actually advancing the so-called peace process, and they are not based on the myth of linkage—the empirically unsupportable idea that an Arab-Israeli diplomatic settlement would have a dramatic positive bearing on other regional problems. The real reasons are these:

  • Despite whatever progress has been made in the post-Annapolis process, the situation remains unripe for a breakthrough for lack of strong and credible leadership on all sides. Yet the optic of U.S. engagement remains important for other reasons. It makes it easier politically for several important Arab states to cooperate with the United States against Iranian intrigues. Supporting the morale of moderates on all sides may prevent things from sliding backwards. It can help keep the Europeans and others from baying excessively at the diplomatic moon in hopes of miracles that don’t exist. And it may have some benign overwash on the tricky process of extracting ourselves from Iraq. The optic of leaving Iraq cannot be allowed to become one of failure or regional disengagement; that’s why some exiting U.S. troops should go to Bahrain or Qatar or Kuwait and not home, and it’s another reason why diplomatic engagement in the Levant can be at least marginally useful. We should want to spread out the newspaper headlines.
  • The optical approach will help keep the issue off the president’s own desk; he has more important things to do both at home and abroad, and he doesn’t need an albatross of diplomatic futility hung around his neck so early in his tenure.
  • A special envoy can help keep up the optic of engagement while the president’s new team gets chosen, nominated, enmeshed in hearings and finally confirmed—a process that can take many months thanks to the ongoing dysfunction of Congress.
  • That envoy could be a useful point-man to help smooth what could be a rough Palestinian political transition in January—in case no one else is in place to do that job.

It is crucial that any special envoy understand the real purposes of his (or her) assignment, and not go forth as if tilting at windmills. That might only make things worse, and end up burdening the president rather than freeing him (temporarily at least) from this mess. As a famous 20th-century American philosopher once put it, “These things must be done delicately.”


Josef Joffe :: First, forget the usual suspects like Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright or the likes of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. The only American of weight who understands the duplicities and obsessions of the Middle East is Henry Kissinger. The handicap of his age can be turned into an advantage. Tell the players to come to New York, since Henry can’t shuttle as he used to in 1974. They’ll behave better than in Ramallah or Jerusalem.

But is it wise to appoint an envoy? The Middle East is like Detroit and General Motors: There is no solution, but any American administration has to act as if there were, as if yet another bout of shuttling or another $25 billion will make GM competitive with Toyota. And so with the Middle East.

First of all, the so-called core of the problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has never been less at center-stage than it is now. It is dwarfed by the struggle for hegemony that pits Iranian ambitions (with Hamas and Hezbollah in tow) against the United States, Israel and the Sunni regimes. This is the central strategic issue. This is where, short of war, coalitions must be harnessed and containment strategies be organized. This is where regional conflict threatens to spill into the global arena. On that enlarged stage, extending from the Levant to Tehran, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has shrunk to almost negligible dimensions, which do not require the bulk of America’s attention and resources.

Moreover, there is no two-state solution at hand because neither party actually wants one. Why such a counter-intuitive judgement? Israel has learned that it cannot relinquish strategic control over the West Bank, given the sorry aftermath of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. It is “never again,” even if a deal could be struck with Mahmoud Abbas, as it could not with Hamas. No imaginable Palestinian Authority can at this point assure a no-threat West Bank; hence, Israel cannot leave.

Nor does Abu Mazen have an interest in seeing the Israelis leave. For it is the IDF that guarantees not only his political, but his physical survival. This is a heartening irony—Israel protecting a Palestinian president. But there is no Palestinian state in this surprising twist of history.

Perhaps one day, Marwan Barghouti, currently in an Israeli jail for multiple murders, could acquire the leadership status that would allow him to prevail against Hamas and rule the West Bank, perhaps even Gaza, with an iron hand. But the time scale is askew here. “Envoy time” is measured in months, the evolution toward a new and stable political order in the lands of the Palestinian Authority should be measured in years—many years.


Mark N. Katz ::
It has been widely reported that on November 18, Obama called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and told him that the United States “would spare no effort to facilitate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.” Obama, then, should definitely appoint a special envoy for the Middle East.

As previous administrations have learned, efforts to achieve peace between Israel on the one hand and the Palestinians as well as neighboring Arab states on the other are extremely difficult and time consuming. Nor is there any guarantee that these efforts will succeed—as several previous American diplomatic initiatives have shown.

Because of the time commitment needed for seriously trying to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, neither the president nor the secretary of state should get immersed in the nitty-gritty negotiations that will be required. There is simply too much other important business for both of them that will not receive sufficient attention if either (or even more unfortunately, both) become overly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Nor is this a task that the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs should undertake either, as this would leave precious little time for him or her to deal with America’s many other important relationships in, as well as the other problems of, this region.

In short, for there to be any hope of an American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian settlement, it will have to be undertaken by someone whose sole task it is to try to achieve one. If this effort is successful, the president can—rightly—take the credit. But if it is unsuccessful, the blame can be assigned not so much to the president as to (yes, you guessed it) the Middle East envoy.

Of course, even with a Middle East envoy working on it full-time, the attempt to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will still take up more of President Obama’s time than he may now anticipate. Although his desire to facilitate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is noble, he may find that there is a trade-off between “sparing no effort” on this and getting much of anything else accomplished.


Walter Reich :: The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been at least as complex as a game of three-dimensional chess. Not only are the problems between Israel and the Palestinians excruciatingly hard to solve. So are the problems between Israel and many of the other Arab parties.

Moreover, the strains within each party—among the Israelis, among the Palestinians, and among the Arabs in general—are very great, and each of them could cause any peace deal to unravel, implode or even explode.

As a result of this, no party has reason to feel confident that a peace deal would actually hold for very long. What would Hamas do before the ink on a peace agreement has dried? What would Hezbollah do? And what would stop the Arab world as a whole from renouncing the treaty once Israel withdraws, even if it’s based on the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab League? During a visit to Ramallah last July, then-candidate Obama reportedly told the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, that “the Israelis would be crazy not to accept” the Saudi initiative,” which, he told Abbas, “would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.” Would it?

And would it now that the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been escalated from the level of three-dimensional chess to an even higher level by the fact that a truculent Iran, which is totally opposed not only to peace with Israel but with that country’s very existence, has, according to nuclear inspectors, finally produced enough nuclear material to make, with further purification, a nuclear bomb? What would Iran do if such a peace deal were signed?

Some argue that, despite this complexity, it’s precisely because of the specter of a nuclear Iran that a peace deal is finally possible: many Arab countries, especially the Saudis, are frightened of this, they argue, and would put muscle behind a peace deal. Moreover, they say, getting a deal, even on paper, might make it easier for the United States to leave Iraq.

Maybe so, and maybe Obama should indeed enter these dangerous waters by naming a Middle East envoy and starting negotiations actively and energetically right away. The risks might be great, but the rewards might be even greater.

Yet the challenge for Obama has grown enormously as a result of the global financial meltdown, which has complicated all of his agendas, both domestic and foreign. Can he afford to take a major, well-publicized gamble and get stuck in the familiar morass of failure? An immense amount of hope has been invested in him and his capacities to save America and the world during this period of economic crisis. Can he afford to dissipate this hope by failing in a very visible and early bid to solve a problem that, until now, has proved insoluble?

At the least, Obama should wait to find out who will win the Israeli elections in February. One candidate, Tzipi Livni, would surely support a major peace-deal initiative. Her opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, presumably would not—though American pressure might well cause him to change his mind. But events in the Arab/Muslim world, especially in connection with Iran, a major terrorist attack, a crisis elsewhere, or a worsening global economy, could well cause Obama to put all of his plans regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict on hold.

Given these risks and uncertainties, I don’t think Obama should name a peace envoy now. Certainly, he can wait until February. Meanwhile, this new American leader, who based his candidacy on the theme of change, is about to experience a lot of it, both domestically and internationally, and most of it not, alas, under his control.


Robert Satloff :: Candidate Obama promised he would appoint a special Middle East envoy. President Obama’s decision whether to fulfill that promise depends a) on the purpose of the appointment and b) on the personality of the envoy.

Appointing an envoy makes a lot of sense if the purpose is to signal heightened, sustained and political-level interest on the part of the new Obama administration in key aspects of Arab-Israeli relations, recognizing that a breakthrough toward Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot occur until vital structural factors are put into place. These include building Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state (i.e., putting flesh on the bones of the Arab peace initiative); developing Palestinian security forces as an effective instrument in the fight against terrorism, incitement and corruption; investing in the array of social/economic initiatives currently championed by Tony Blair; and extending the political legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas past the original end of his term of office to prevent a void of Palestinian leadership and an easy political victory for Hamas.

Appointing an envoy does not make sense if the idea is to signal American urgency for achieving an early peace breakthrough, the pursuit of which is both impractical and counter-productive in the near term. Nor does it make sense if the envoy views his/her mission as the vehicle to repair America’s relations with the wider Arab and Muslim “worlds,” which is a burden that Israelis and Palestinians should not have to bear.

Given this analysis, the personality of a proposed envoy is important. The particular choice should be someone endowed with patience, persistence, and a willingness to pass the baton to someone else – perhaps the president, perhaps the secretary of state, perhaps another envoy – depending on circumstances. This is not the job for someone who believes that the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be achieved on his/her watch or someone who views this responsibility as the path to a Nobel Prize.

More broadly, under certain circumstances, it makes sense to empower an envoy to be the lead person on both Arab-Israeli and the Iran issues, given that the Iran issue is the most significant strategic factor in Arab and Israeli thinking these days and that demands made of key regional states (i.e., Arabs ) on the Iran issue will be met in turn with demands made of America and Israel on the peace process. Efficiency suggests, therefore, that it is better for a single empowered envoy be capable of holding serious conversations on the issue with his counterparts abroad, who in most circumstances will be the same person. The danger here, however, is of feeding a negative concept of “linkage”–the idea that “if only Israel were to do x, y, z then all the problems of the Middle East would be solved.” This means that anyone asked to fill this broadened envoy portfolio would have to be someone inoculated from the linkage bug, someone who understands the Middle East as it is, not as we Americans would like it to be.


Raymond Tanter :: Whether it is wise to appoint an envoy for the Middle East depends on the president-elect’s planned focus of attention, whether he intends to have a White House-driven or cabinet-driven administration, and whether he would like to encourage or suppress differences in recommendations to the White House within and from the State Department.

If the president-elect wishes to focus on the economy from the White House, he should have a strong secretary of state, which would argue against having an envoy for the Middle East. However, if the secretary of state were to be given a substantial part of the action on international economy, a Middle East envoy would be desirable. Likewise, if it looks as if policy-driving national security events from the region merit an overarching strategy developed within the White House, he may wish to have a less prominent secretary of state, a strong national security advisor, and an envoy who reports to the White House and State. And if the president-elect wishes to encourage a process of “multiple advocacy” at State, then an envoy with direct reporting to the White House and to the secretary of state would be warranted.

Consider historical examples to illustrate these principles. During the Nixon administration, the president desired highly centralized foreign policy formulation from the White House, at the expense of State. In this regard, Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, played the envoy role in the Middle East, as well as in virtually every other important theater.

In the Reagan administration, I was the White House liaison to Middle East envoy Ambassador Philip Habib, who had an office at State and reported regularly to President Reagan. Although Secretary of State Alexander Haig was at first not keen on sharing the action with the White House, his personal affinity for Habib and me minimized bureaucratic rivalry.

President Clinton chose resolution of Arab-Israeli disputes as the area in which he would make his foreign policy legacy, and so appointed Dennis Ross “Special Middle East Coordinator.” Having Ross at the White House allowed Clinton to organize a last-ditch effort at Camp David during 2000. Although the outcome left much to be desired, it was more the responsibility of Yasser Arafat than the division of labor among Americans or the fault of any of them.

If President-elect Obama decides to appoint an envoy for the Middle East, this person should have a writ that includes a larger region than the Arab-Israel zone, to coordinate contact groups of allies for interrelated problems, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Such contact groups might resolve pressing issues like the future status of the Iranian dissidents in Iraq, an Awakening Council model for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and developing leverage against the Iranian regime by reaching out to its opposition in advance of higher level American negotiations with Iran. An envoy would coordinate these issues as part of a strategic architecture for a similar area of responsibility as CENTCOM.


Tamara Cofman Wittes :: Obama stated repeatedly during the campaign his intention to devote early and focused attention to the Middle East peace process. Since the transition period is mostly about structure and personnel, observers are naturally focused on the question of whether to appoint a special envoy for the peace process. But to my mind the question is misplaced.

In a bureaucracy, structure is power—but appointing an envoy does not necessarily convey much power or many resources to a diplomatic effort on behalf of Arab-Israeli peace. A special envoy without many staff, or one who is not situated at a senior level within (or above) the State Department bureaucracy, will not have the authority or capacity to mobilize efforts across the department, and will therefore not have as much impact as an envoy with his/her own office and a reporting line direct to the president or the secretary of state. So structure matters, and appointing an envoy does not alone produce the required structure.

Furthermore, effective peace process diplomacy is more than having the right mediator in the room with the warring parties; it must bring in key Arab governments, key U.S. military and intelligence resources, and key external stakeholders—meaning that, to be effective, a peace process envoy must be able to call on the full range of executive branch resources, from U.S. ambassadors at post to CENTCOM planners. Most crucially, an effective peace process envoy must be able to represent the president and bring the president’s personal engagement to bear at the right times.

Thus, the key question is not whether there will be a special envoy, but whether the person taking the point on Arab-Israeli affairs—whoever he may be—will carry with him the authority and credibility of the U.S. president. The local actors all have, or aspire to have, special relationships with Washington. They will not respond well to any diplomatic envoy who cannot both symbolize and operationalize a direct link to the American president. Whether the point person is a special envoy or the secretary of state is less important than whether she can speak on behalf of Obama, and whether she can bring Obama into the process at those critical moments when he needs to weigh in. So the identity of Obama’s peace processor will be crucial—much more crucial than her title.

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