Envoys to Nowhere

Despite the excitement surrounding Obama’s selection of Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell as peace envoys, it’s very unlikely that anything will change in the Middle East or south Asia.

I hope with all my heart that most of what I am going to write in this article will prove mistaken. President Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East peace process, and of Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (and de facto American broker for the Kashmir issue), are both in themselves very positive moves. The Bush administration's neglect of these two conflicts was among its more disgraceful foreign-policy omissions. The appointment of such senior, respected and impressive figures to these roles are a welcome sign of how seriously the new president and his team take these issues.

The Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has played a key role in inflaming Islamist extremism in Pakistan and in persuading the Pakistani military to back anti-Indian militancy and terrorism. The Israel-Palestine conflict-as emphasized in a recent article by Prince Turki al Faisal, the former-Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington-has been central to encouraging hatred of the United States and support for extremism across the entire Muslim world. I can certainly testify to this myself in the case of Pakistan, where I was traveling during the latest Israeli campaign in Gaza.

The problem is that in both cases the objective circumstances are highly unfavorable to peace-and in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, these circumstances include the positions taken by the great bulk of the U.S. establishment, Democrat as well as Republican. This renders Mr. Mitchell's task vastly more complicated than the one he faced in Northern Ireland.

To put it bluntly, the United States has never been an honest broker in the case of Israel and the Palestine. My own experience of eight years at three different think tanks in Washington, DC makes me highly pessimistic that it can ever be, at least without a revolution in the political affairs of either Israel or the United States itself.

In Northern Ireland, the terms of the peace settlement itself were extremely complex. In the case of Israel-Palestine, it is not so. Everyone knows the basic contours of any deal. They are essentially those of the Arab peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia five years ago and accepted by the vast majority of Arab and Muslim countries: namely, complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, with any annexations beyond that line compensated by equal amounts of Israeli land and with some form of special status for the old city of Jerusalem. As to Palestinian refugees from Israel proper and their descendants, the overwhelming majority will not be permitted to return home, but they will receive massive economic compensation and some formal gesture of recognition of the injustice done to them.

None of this is particularly complicated. The problem is that Israel's fractured political system has never been able to create a consensus behind such a deal, because the leaders of coalition governments have either been dependent on extremist parties or afraid (as at present) of extremist victory in the next elections. This remains true, even though numerous Israeli leaders, including Ehud Olmert, have warned that if Israel continues to dominate the Palestinians, the inevitable result will be a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the sea which will eventually destroy Israel from within.

Lacking a clear offer from Israel (as opposed to partial, qualified and revocable concessions) the PLO leadership has never had the political ammunition with which to confront its own extremists. The United States has remained throughout an essentially unconditional supporter of Israel, instead of bringing to bear the massive pressure necessary to concentrate the minds of the Israeli electorate on the real choices facing them.

I see no signs, however, of a willingness in the Democratic establishment to confront Israel on this issue-least of all on the part of a secretary of state who will, I fear, be engaged in a permanent, unstated, low-level campaign to inherit the presidency when Obama leaves, and who will therefore be extremely unwilling to confront any major domestic U.S. lobby. Without such willingness, Mitchell's diplomacy will lack the necessary element of strength and will probably fail as so many before him.

In the case of south Asia, the same is true, though here the United States is not nearly as culpable. In the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke could negotiate with two immensely powerful and convincing cards in his hands. On the one hand, he could threaten credibly to throw U.S. military force into the balance-and did so on two occasions. On the other, there was the promise of eventual membership in the European Union as a reward for compliance-or its permanent denial as a punishment for noncompliance.

The EU is of course not relevant to south Asia. A promise to open U.S. markets to Pakistani textiles and to massively increase U.S. economic aid might have some of the same effect but in present economic circumstances is extremely unlikely to happen. The threat of U.S. military attack can be and, indeed, has been used against Pakistan. The problem is that the Pakistanis feel that this is to some extent a paper tiger, since for the United States to take a course of action that would risk destroying Pakistan would be to risk handing al-Qaeda and its allies a tremendous historic opportunity-especially given Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons.