After almost one year of intense pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by the Obama Administration, direct talks between Israel’s right-wing government and the PLO are set to resume next week. Israel insisted and received guarantees that there would be no guarantees. The talks will include all final status issues but have no agenda. The Palestinians did get a one-year timeframe, but with no word on what happens if that timeframe is not met. Not surprisingly, there is little excitement or optimism among Israelis or Palestinians.
Is this just the latest in a series of serial diplomatic failures on the Israeli-Palestinian front or is there something different brewing this time? In fact, there are three new factors at play:
- The United States now owns the process lock, stock, and barrel. No matter how many times American diplomats may try to slough off blame by saying that “we can’t want peace more than the parties,” there is no doubt that the Arab and Muslim worlds see this as a referendum on what role we can play in the region.
- The United States over the last year has empowered and entrenched the right wing government in Israel and weakened the pro-U.S. Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.
- Hamas and other potential spoilers have been left in a very comfortable position to watch and wait – and to pick up the pieces if the United States fails.
There are two dominant (and negative) stereotypes of the United States in the Middle East: we are either seen as an imperial force working with Israel to keep the region divided and undeveloped or we are a well meaning democracy and superpower that nevertheless is too weak to represent our own interests in the region when they conflict with Israel’s. Indeed, a recent poll of Arab public opinion by Shibley Telhami and Zogby International showed that while an amazing 86 percent support a two state solution, 61 percent of Arabs are “most disappointed” with Obama’s policies on Palestine/Israel in the past year.
In light of these attitudes, and after literally dragging the Palestinians into talks with an extreme right-wing government in Israel, the United States will be expected to either deliver Palestinian freedom or to support the Netanyahu government’s vision for a “state” with only symbolic sovereignty and little land. If the U.S. chooses the latter, as the most domestically painless course, it will cement the Arab public’s vision of the United States as a problem to be solved – not a source for stability – in the Middle East. Our failure will be a force multiplier for America’s detractors at a time when we are still at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, still competing with Iran, and still trying to eliminate al-Qaeda.
The second change is that we have weakened the Israeli center and the PLO leaders in Ramallah, America’s traditional allies. By accepting the dictates of the Netanyahu government – including a US-back down on settlement construction and acceptance of an agenda-less set of direct talks without terms of reference – the United States has limited the ability of the Israeli center to pressure the current right-wing government. Simultaneously, by preventing Palestinian reconciliation, the United States has ensured that President Abbas goes into the talks with a fractured constituency; especially vulnerable to the expected humiliations Netanyahu has a habit of delivering (ask Vice-President Biden).
This leads us to the third change – Hamas is now arguably in as comfortable a position as it has ever been. Hamas is happy to sit this out and watch President Abbas get beaten by an intransigent Netanyahu and a quiescent Obama administration. If talks fail, and the Israelis manage to convince the Americans to once again blame the Palestinians, Hamas can simply fill the political void that will be left by Fatah’s and the PLO’s collapse – an outcome that some in Fatah are afraid is not far removed from the goals of some in Netanyahu’s cabinet.
However, if any American president can take a bad hand and turn it around, it is Obama. But turning it around will mean an unprecedented expenditure of domestic political capital as the US faces off against Netanyahu. The only reason the political right in the US has not gone full bore against the President for pushing talks is because Netanyahu is the one that insisted on them. The moment the President begins advocating for vital US national interests in the form of a genuine peace, you can expect a firestorm of criticism from Likud’s allies in the American right.
It is a fight the President can certainly win, and with a majority of American’s behind him, but is it a fight he is willing to have? America’s interests hang in the balance.