Paul Pillar

The Albert Haynesworth of the Middle East

This week, the powers that be in Washington gave up on two bad ideas. In one, management of the Redskins football team suspended for the remainder of the season its talented but troublesome defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, ending his playing time in Washington less than two years after the team lavished on him the most expensive contract for a defensive player in league history. In the other, the Obama administration acknowledged as a failure the deal it had tentatively reached last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu providing for a partial 90-day suspension of the building of Israeli settlements in occupied territory in return for an assortment of U.S. concessions to Israel and the hope that negotiations with the Palestinians could reach some understanding about boundaries. I addressed at the time of the deal the reasons it was a bad idea. I should have been even more pessimistic; the deal collapsed even before the 90 days were up, and before the deal was ever really completed in the first place. The main immediate reason for collapse involved one of the faults that was apparent from the beginning: the exclusion from the freeze of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, which is where most of the expansion has been taking place.

It is generally a good idea, of course, for bad ideas to be abandoned, and that is true of these two. Such abandonment, however, should also stimulate reflection about the costs of the bad idea, what it says about those who conceived it, and the prospects for future handling of the problem the idea was intended to address.

The cost to the Redskins of their mistake includes $35 million paid to Haynesworth and a lot of disruption and distraction to the rest of the team. The cost of the mistaken deal with Israel includes more wasted time, more disillusionment among the Palestinians, and more discrediting of the United States regarding its ability and willingness to do something about this granddaddy of Middle Eastern conflicts. Supposedly the terms of the aborted deal are now inoperable. But U.S. concessions to Israel, like the guaranteed payments to Haynesworth, have a way of becoming irretrievable. Remarkably generous support to Israel has a way of coming to be seen as Israel's due, even to the point of eliciting Israeli complaints of the “what have you done for me lately?” variety. U.S. officials reportedly already are reassuring the Israelis about military security support, even though the provision in the deal about military aircraft ostensibly is off the table. Israelis probably also can rest easy regarding continued U.S. vetoes in the United Nations Security Council of anything Israel doesn't like. It also will be interesting to watch what happens to the settlements issue in U.S.-Israeli discussions. The U.S. promise not to bug Israel about settlements after the 90 days were up is another concession that supposedly died with the deal. But this concession by its very nature, with the United States having shown its willingness to bargain away recognition of the reality that more construction of settlements narrows the negotiating space, has undercut the U.S. ability to pursue the issue seriously again. It, too, may effectively be an irretrievable concession.

Each of these two cases involved a superior-subordinate relationship in which one ordinarily would expect the superior (the coach or the superpower) to prevail. But in each case the subordinate (the player or the client state) has gotten the best of the episode. Sports columnist Mike Wise says, “Albert Haynesworth won.” He didn't have to be used the way the coaches wanted to use him, and he leaves Washington with a boatload of money. He is fat and happy. Netanyahu also won—not in the sense of what is in Israel's long-term interest, which still would mean a two-state solution, but rather in the sense of escaping unscathed the latest brush with a hint of U.S. pressure and of perpetuating the near-term objective of the status quo, or rather the status quo modified by the continuous creation of new facts on the ground in the form of settlements. This appears to be what Netanyahu and many others on the Israeli right want; in other words, they do not want a settlement with the Palestinians, notwithstanding statements by some claiming that they do. Violence affecting Israelis is low and controllable. U.S. largesse continues. They are fat and happy.

The episodes say different things about the leaders involved. Although the Redskins' owner's wallet is lighter and the coaching staff put up for awhile with Haynesworth's insubordination, the head coach in the end reasserted his authority. The lasting impression of Obama is the opposite. He showed he is either unable or unwilling to play hardball on a matter of importance to U.S. national security interests. Whatever Benjamin Netanyahu might be worrying about these days, pressure from the United States is not one of them.

All of this provides reason to be as pessimistic as ever about the peace process. There are grounds for even more pessimism about the United States stepping up to play the role it would have to play to make that process move, given a new bad idea that emerged in Washington during the past week: the tax deal. Like the abortive deal with Israel, it demonstrated again Mr. Obama's inclination to favor near-term propitiation over hardball. Netanyahu must have been smiling as he saw Congressional Republicans roll the U.S. president as easily as he had.