Like previous administrations in recent decades, the Obama administration has exalted the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process but insisted that it cannot be more committed to peace than are the parties themselves. Unlike its predecessors, the Obama administration has set about demonstrating that, on this matter at least, it does not mean what it says.
In one of his very first acts after taking office, President Barack Obama appointed a high-profile special envoy for Middle East peace, former Senator George Mitchell. Since then, he and his foreign-policy team have repeatedly emphasized that this matter is an urgent priority of American foreign policy. Mitchell undertook countless visits to the region, the president himself stressed his intention to promote a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during numerous visits to Arab and Muslim countries, and some officials have even asserted that an unresolved conflict directly threatens U.S. national security interests in the broader Middle East.
The payoff from this diplomatic activism was negligible. Indeed, it resulted in far less progress than was achieved, ironically, under George W. Bush—the ostensible “do-nothing” president on the Israeli-Palestinian front. During Bush’s last year in office, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert engaged in intense and sustained direct negotiations and, by all accounts, substantially narrowed the gaps between them. But Abbas was politically unable to continue after the outbreak of the Gaza War in December 2008 and, more to the point, unwilling to resume talking after Obama became president. After all, why risk domestic opposition by making concessions in order to get Israeli concessions if there is a reasonable chance that American engagement will produce a better result—an Israeli quid without any Palestinian quo? Moreover, the risk that this posture might saddle Abbas with the blame for stalemate disappeared when Benjamin Netanyahu, with his toxic reputation, returned to the prime minister’s office in March 2009 and installed his hard-line coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman, in the Foreign Ministry. Thus Abbas could posit an unrealistic freeze on settlement construction anywhere east of the 1949 Armistice Line (including Jerusalem) as a precondition for resumption of direct talks, something that neither he nor Yasir Arafat did before in dealings with six previous Israeli prime ministers, and he could proclaim himself unwilling to settle for less (meaning Netanyahu’s formal affirmation of support for a two-state solution and his imposition of a partial moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank) once the Palestinian demand had been endorsed by the United States government.
Of course, Netanyahu, too, is not really enthusiastic about the prospect of negotiations. The nature of his coalition, the sentiment in his own Likud Party, and even his own predispositions (to the extent they can be known) all militate against major concessions under any circumstances, especially if they are not integrated into a comprehensive permanent agreement.
Israelis and Palestinians both appear to be more comfortable with what seem to be the manageable uncertainties of the status quo than with the more daunting uncertainties of serious negotiations. Indeed, both parties seem much more focused on shifting the blame for the failure of the peace process to the other side than on making it succeed, and are more concerned about engaging America than about engaging each other. All of this hardly makes for a conflict ripe for resolution.
It is therefore not surprising that what is actually ratification of an objective step backward—“proximity talks” after seventeen years of direct contact—is being portrayed as a significant achievement. But pending a fundamental transformation in the perception of the issues involved by one (or both) of the parties—i.e., sacred identities and narratives as well as mundane costs and risks—the proximity talks are virtually certain to run down the same dead-end street as have all the other Palestinian-Israeli interactions over the years. Indeed, they have already been postponed twice and as these lines are written, there is still no indication when they will actually happen.
The best guarantee that the necessary transformation will not take place may well be the nature of American involvement itself. Obama probably does believe that America can’t want peace more than the parties themselves. If that is the case, he might consider the operational implication – that America also can’t show more fear of stalemate than they do.
Mark A. Heller is principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.