The Bush Years: What Went Wrong
The years spanning the Bush administration (2001-2008) were more talk than action, from the “Road Map for Peace” that went nowhere to the Annapolis summit of December 2007, which was all theater and rhetoric. The Bush administration either gave up or delegated the matter to envoys and secretaries of state (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) who were given neither the trust nor the authority to make policy.
Bush never committed himself personally to mediating peace, the way Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had, and the way James Baker, the Secretary of State under the first Bush, also did. Without the personal commitment of an American president to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a substantive resolution (such as the Saudi peace plan), the situation will not get better and may get worse.
As a result, American influence in the region was so damaged that when Israel and Syria in 2008 resumed negotiations over the future of the Golan Heights, they turned to Turkey, not the United States, as a mediator. That influence and the trust it entails needs rebuilding.
Obama is signaling that he will be committed to that end, although so far his signals have been brighter than the substance they’re scouting for. What follows is a brief analysis of what Obama has accomplished so far in terms of advancing the Palestinian-Israeli peace agenda, and what he should do if a permanent peace in the Holy Land is to be the legacy of his presidency.
The Obama Years: What Can Go Right
Obama immediately appointed George Mitchell to be his envoy to Israel/Palestine. Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, was the architect of the Belfast Peace Agreement that ended the long-running war between Britain and the Irish Republican Army. Mitchell also chaired a commission that led to Clinton’s 2000 peace negotiations with the Palestinians’ Yassser Arafat and Israel’s Ehud Barak at Camp David—negotiations that came close to a final resolution, but ultimately failed.
But having an envoy, as the Bush years proved, won’t be enough. This will require Obama’s involvement, his spending some of his political capital, his willingness to look the Palestinian and Israeli leadership in the face, whatever it may be, and his willingness to cajole and even threaten, if need be—threaten a cuit-off of aid, for example, if either side balks at moving toward a peace treaty. But Obama’s biggest challenge, which no American president has yet met, will be to treat both sides equally, rather than to favor Israel as a matter of course. Obama has never signaled that he’d be willing to do that. Absent that willingness, however, he may find Arab trust hard to earn.
Leadership Issues: Whom to Trust
The other challenge for Obama will be to figure out who to trust among both Palestinians and Israelis. Among Israelis, his best bet is a government led by the centrist Tzipi Livni. The more likely scenario, however, was an Israeli government led by the hawkish and rarely compromising Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not interested in ending settlement activity in the West Bank nor in returning the Golan to Syria. Among Palestinians, it’s an open question, because Mahmoud Abbas is proving to be ineffective and too reliant on US aid, while Hamas continues to be the time bomb in Gaza. But no one, including Obama, has the luxury to refuse to negotiate with any side. Unfortunately, Obama is also signaling that he’ll take the Israeli route on that score: no talks with Hamas.
Obama’s Palestinian-Israeli Agenda for Peace
The policy options for the United States are no secret to anyone. If there is to be a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Obama will have to make the following conditions the framework of any agreement:
- Israel’s right to exist: All Palestinians and all Arabs must recognize Israel’s right to exist without conditions. That includes Hamas. It includes Hezbollah in Lebanon. But while it is essential that Hamas (or its derivatives) recognize Israel’s right to exist, it isn’t indispensable that Hezbollah does so—a peace agreement creating a Palestinian state should not depend on anyone but Israel and the Palestinians.
- Palestinians’ right to exist: It sounds odd, but in fact, since 1967, Palestinians’ right to exist has been implicitly denied by Israeli occupation and obfuscation to a lasting peace treaty. Through occupation, uit is Israel that denies the Palestinian right to exist rather than the other way around. A peace treaty will not be successful unless Palestinians are granted an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with provisions for some form of realistic contiguity (through an access road, for example). That independent state must not be conditional. Palestinians should have the rights that all other independent states, like Israel, enjoy, including a military.
- Israeli settlements: Israel must not only end building settlements in the West Bank. It must dismantle its existing settlements and return the land to Palestinians. As a matter of compromise, Israel and the Palestinians could (and probably should) agree that all settlements needn’t be dismantled. In exchange, however, Palestinians should get a square mile of Israeli land for every square mile of West Bank land taken up by an Israeli settlement.
- The West Bank wall: Israel’s West Bank wall needn’t be dismantled. But if Israel chooses to keep it, it must be moved back to the 1967 boundaries as stipulated by United Nations Resolution 242. The wall has sundered Palestinian properties and communities and illegally annexed to Israel 15 to 18 percent of the West Bank’s territory.