United States President-elect Barack Obama’s election victory has revived hopes that stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations could finally lead to a two-state solution. Few new presidents have been greeted with such optimism and associated high expectations.
However, the chances for progress depend on more than a new American president. There are several interrelated factors: US engagement, the availability of a viable peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian internal politics and the broader international situation.
An examination of these factors indicates that the optimism is unjustified and that President Obama will not be more successful in bringing about a two-state solution to the conflict. This does not however mean that the situation will remain static or that those pursuing a just peace have no recourse for action.
Early US engagement is not enough
Days after Obama’s election, speaking on CNN, Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to President George Herbert Walker Bush, advised the President-elect to start early on reviving peace negotiations as a way to “psychologically change the mood of the [Middle East] region” and “because the Palestinian issue … gives the members of the region a deep sense of injustice” (Fareed Zakaria GPS, 12 November 2008). Former US President Jimmy Carter echoed these views, urging Obama to avoid the mistakes of other presidents who waited until their final year in office to push for an agreement (see “Obama will waste no time pursuing Middle East peace,” Haaretz, 12 November). In a June speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, Obama himself pledged, “to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration.”
These voices reflect a consensus that early and sustained US engagement has been the missing ingredient. The problem, however, has never been a lack of US engagement. Rather, it has been too much of the wrong kind. Earlier administrations, whether or not they actively encouraged negotiations, have been deeply involved. Since 1967, the US has given growing military, economic and diplomatic support to Israel – in effect intervening heavily on one side of the conflict.
Aaron David Miller, a former top State Department official, succinctly summed up the American role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy over the past quarter century as “Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations” (Miller, “Israel’s Lawyer,” The Washington Post, 23 May 2005). The George W. Bush administration, like that of former US President Bill Clinton, adopted Israeli positions as its own: the permanence of large Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, opposition to Palestinian refugee rights and support for Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state,” even though 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinians whose second-class status would be legitimized by such recognition.
The outgoing Bush administration took American engagement to unprecedented levels both overtly and covertly. Contrary to the well-crafted public initiatives, like the Annapolis conference and attempts to revive the “peace process,” it was the Bush administration’s covert activities that had the greatest impact. Intervening directly in Palestinian internal politics, it pushed for Palestinian elections, and then when Hamas won, attempted to overturn the result. The administration helped arm and train Palestinian militias opposed to Hamas and vetoed a Palestinian “national unity government.” It has supported the blockade of the Gaza Strip and used financial aid to bolster client Palestinian leaders (see David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008). While these realities are often ignored, confronting them is nonetheless essential to understanding how American policy would have to change for the US to play a constructive role in fostering a just, sustainable and agreed peace.
For an Obama administration to live up to the expectations and break with its predecessors would require that the US: make financial and other aid to Israel conditional on compliance with international law and signed agreements (such as long-ignored United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring Israel to dismantle settlements); stop interfering in Palestinian internal affairs and respect the democratic choices of the Palestinian people; and call for an immediate end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It would also require that the US exercise its influence to level the power imbalance in negotiations, rather than weighting the scales even further towards the stronger party. This includes using consistent standards for judging violent acts, negotiating ceasefires and apportioning responsibility for breaches of ceasefires by Israelis and Palestinians.
To assess the prospects for a change in policy under the Obama administration, there are two relevant questions: first, what are Obama’s positions on Palestine-Israel and related regional issues; and second, how much will his actions in office hew to or deviate from these known positions?
Obama set out detailed positions in speeches before AIPAC in March 2007 and June 2008 (the following points are drawn directly from these speeches except where otherwise indicated). Key elements are that Obama:
- Supported the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in July-August 2006 and repeatedly in the Gaza Strip as exercises of Israel’s right to “legitimate self-defense;”
- Supported Israel’s 6 September 2007 air attack on Syria which unsubstantiated reports claimed targeted a weapons of mass destruction related site;
- Opposed the holding of Palestinian elections including Hamas in January 2006;
- Opposed the February 2007 Mecca Agreement establishing a national unity government between Hamas and Fatah peacefully resolving internal Palestinian differences;
- Supports continued “isolation” of Hamas until it meets political conditions imposed by Israel and the Quartet;
- Stated that “I will always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself in the United Nations and around the world,” suggesting continued use of US veto to block UN action on the conflict;
- Promised at least $30 billion of military aid to Israel over the next decade and pledged to push for Israel to gain access to armaments reserved for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) members;
- Pledged that the US “should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests” and “No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States;”
- Stated “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided;”
- Opposes Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return (“The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense”); (Hilary Leila Krieger and Tovah Lazaroff, “Obama: Palestinian refugees can’t return,” The Jerusalem Post, 29 January 2008)
- Stated “Any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state;”
- Supported the Bush administration’s approach of forming an alliance of “moderates,” including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one side arrayed against Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas;
- Considers Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons “unacceptable,” supports strong sanctions and divestment and has refused to rule out the use of military force.
- Obama has expressed no support for Palestinian “rights” and has never publicly used the type of effusive emotional language identifying with Palestinians’ aspirations as he does regarding the Israelis. While repeatedly castigating Palestinians, he has been uncritical of Israel.
Against this record, there were two moments during the campaign that fueled speculation about a more even-handed approach. In March 2007, Obama observed that “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” However, facing protests from pro-Israel groups, his campaign clarified that he meant “the Palestinian people are suffering from the Hamas-led government’s refusal to renounce terrorism and join as a real partner in the peace process” (“Obama under fire for comment on Palestinians,” Associated Press, 15 March 2007).
Obama also attracted attention when he told Jewish community leaders, “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel” (Hilary Leila Krieger, “Obama: Pro-Israel needn’t be pro-Likud,” The Jerusalem Post, 25 February 2008). This was interpreted as evidence Obama might prefer a more “dovish” Israeli government. If true, that would only put Obama in the company of earlier US administrations that also unofficially preferred non-Likud-led governments. This also presupposes substantive differences between Likud and other major parties in Israel, which as will be demonstrated, are far from self-evident.
Obama’s willingness to talk with Iran has also raised hope of a less confrontational approach. However, even the Bush administration in its final months has shown a willingness to engage with Iran without necessarily abandoning its substantive positions.
During the campaign, Obama actively distanced himself from establishment figures, including elder statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski and Clinton aide Robert Malley, who were accused of being “pro-Palestinian.” At the same time, “the advisers most intimately involved in [Obama’s] Israel-related policies are veterans of the Clinton administration and come out of a pro-Israel milieu” (Ron Kampeas, “A look at Obama and McCain advisers,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 28 October 2008). President-elect Obama’s first major appointment of pro-Israel hardliner US House Representative Rahm Emanuel to serve as White House chief of staff confirms this trend.
In sum, Obama’s positions are remarkable only for their conformity with long-standing US policies. As Obama told AIPAC in June, “I have been proud to be a part of a strong bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment … both [Senator] John McCain and I share because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party.”
What then are the prospects that in office Obama will deviate significantly from these positions? Were he inclined to do so, it would come at the cost of dealing a major blow to his own and his party’s credibility on bedrock commitments. Obama’s foreign policy team will be drawn from a Democratic Party establishment that is committed to the same consensus. He would also have to buck his own party’s congressional leadership. Given that Obama rose to power by earning the support of his party establishment rather than building an alternative coalition, he would risk alienating his political base. Politics do not disappear after an election; another is always around the corner, whether midterms in 2010 or reelection in 2012.
None of this means that major change is impossible. But it does suggest it is difficult and unlikely that Obama will expend the enormous political capital necessary when he himself publicly rejected the common view that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all trouble in the [Middle East] region” during his June speech at AIPAC. His agenda will be dominated by the deepening economic crisis in the US and globally and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Change, if any, is likely to be slight and therefore insufficient to significantly advance a viable two-state solution.
The unavailability of an agreement
Obama’s task would be much easier if Israelis and Palestinians had already bridged central issues dividing them. However, despite a year of intense US-supported negotiations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could point to no specific substantive progress at a joint meeting with the international Quartet this month. The Quartet’s final declaration made the best of a bare cupboard stating that “[w]ithout minimizing the gaps and obstacles that remain,” Abbas and Livni “shared their assessment that the present negotiations are substantial and promising and they have succeeded in putting in place a solid negotiating structure for continued progress in the future” (Quartet Press Statement, 9 November 2008).
The Quartet’s focus on process could barely mask the reality confirmed in statements by Israeli and Palestinian officials over several months that virtually no progress has been made on core issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. The parties have barely moved on these issues and in some areas have regressed from positions established at the unsuccessful July 2000 Camp David summit. In the occupied West Bank there has been eight more years of relentless Israeli settlement construction compounded by the construction of Israel’s wall annexing large areas.
Obama inherits a situation where the consensus supporting the two-state solution is much weaker than in 2000 and a process lacking credibility and support among large segments of the Israeli and Palestinian populations.
The Israeli political scene
Israelis will elect a new government in February 2009. A conventional view is that prospects for successful peace negotiations depend on the currently dominant Kadima faction, headed by Foreign Minister Livni, prevailing over the Likud party led by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Livni represents the Israeli willingness to continue with the peace process,” wrote one Israeli commentator, whereas Netanyahu would be on a “collision course” with an Obama administration presumed to be highly motivated to solve the conflict (Amir Oren, “On a collision course with Obama,” Haaretz, 12 November 2008). Yet, any Israeli government emerging from the elections is likely to follow a roughly similar course.
Supposedly committed to the two-state solution, Livni recently confounded expectations of an ambitious peace agenda by pointedly rejecting comments by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister and Kadima leader Ehud Olmert that Israel had to withdraw almost to the 1967 boundaries (see “Livni distances herself from Olmert comments on ‘67 borders,” Haaretz, 11 November 2008). Livni, it is to be recalled, failed to form a coalition following Olmert’s resignation because she could not attract a key partner unless she guaranteed there would be no negotiations on Jerusalem.
Livni also warned the incoming Obama administration not to take an active role in the peace process. “You [the new administration] don’t need now to do anything dramatic about it. The situation is calm. We have these peace talks,” she said before Jewish leaders in New York. Livni also told the Quartet, “We don’t ask you to intervene. Please, this is bilateral. We don’t want you to try to bridge gaps between us. Don’t put new ideas on the table.” She also reaffirmed her opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees, “not even for one of them” (Shlomo Shamir, “Livni: Israel not counting on Obama in peace talks,” Haaretz, 13 November 2008)
Netanyahu, while nominally opposed to a Palestinian state, may take a similar approach as during his earlier term between 1996-99 when despite predictions he engaged in the process even while stalling on substance. Indeed this month, Netanyahu “pledged to continue negotiations with the Palestinians if he wins February elections, backing away from earlier hints he would abandon US-backed peace talks.” At the same time, Netanyahu “gave no indication he would make significant concessions” (Steve Weizman, “Israel’s Netanyahu softens line on peace talks,” Associated Press, 10 November 2008).
Thus, the Israeli elections will not change the reality that there is no major party and no conceivable ruling coalition that will be able to meet the minimal conditions for a two-state solution. All Israeli parties are on the ideological defensive; they have no legitimate and practicable path to preserve a Jewish state as Palestinians under Israeli control become the majority.
Any Israeli government will pursue a strategy of conflict management, probably including renewing the Gaza ceasefire and going through the motions of negotiation as a means to minimize external pressure. Israel is also likely to mobilize its allies to pressure Obama to maintain a confrontational American stance towards Iran. Already, Israeli officials have been in touch with President-elect Obama through his advisor Dennis Ross to emphasize that Iran remains their primary concern (see Helene Cooper, “A World of Advice for Obama on Foreign Policy,” The New York Times, 13 November 2008).
Reconciliation between Hamas and the US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, has yet to materialize. Hamas pulled out of Egyptian-sponsored talks set for earlier this month, citing continued arrests by PA forces of Hamas members in the West Bank. Hamas has publicly maintained a commitment to restoring a national unity government while Abbas, under continued pressure from Washington, has maintained a confrontational stance towards the Islamist movement.
Abbas asked the Quartet to maintain political, economic and “security” assistance “to the legitimate Palestinian government which has accepted the Quartet principles and PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] commitments.” “Legitimacy” here clearly means foreign approval rather than a democratic mandate, which the government appointed by Abbas lacks. A further complication is that Abbas’s legal term of office expires in January 2009, and there is little prospect of elections any time soon.
The PA leader’s statement to the Quartet suggests a view of the peace process not as means to a negotiated settlement but as a mechanism to maintain external support against domestic political rivals. Any Palestinian party participating in negotiations under such conditions would not – even if it reached agreement with the Israelis – carry with it the necessary Palestinian consensus to make such a deal stick.
Hamas leaders hope the new American administration might engage with them. They have sent conciliatory signals meant to woo the incoming president, including reiterating Hamas’s support for a two-state solution (see “Listen to Hamas,” Haaretz editorial, 9 November 2008). Given Obama’s repeated commitments to the Quartet conditions that Hamas first recognize Israel, renounce resistance and abide by signed agreements, whether or not Israel does so, these overtures are unlikely to be sufficient.
Hamas leaders are aware of the precedent where the US began a short-lived dialogue with the PLO only after the latter met political preconditions in 1988. The lesson of that episode and the Oslo period is that there is little advantage to trading political concessions for mere recognition or talks as ends in themselves. It would also only be to Israel’s benefit if Palestinian factions began a competition to become the most acceptable face of the Palestinians for a US administration.
Palestinians would be better off focusing on a strategy that is not dependent on nuances in the attitudes of US administrations. This includes reestablishing the political legitimacy and unity of the Palestinian national leadership through revival, reform and democratization of the PLO and mobilizing Palestinian and international grassroots solidarity to support legitimate Palestinian rights and oppose Israeli occupation and other discriminatory practices.
Little change in policy but not a static situation
There is a relevant lesson from the global financial crisis. Credit rating agencies gave AAA ratings to securities that turned out to be much riskier. There was a conflict of interest: the rating agencies were paid by the very investment banks that issued the securities. In hindsight, such ratings should have been viewed with much more skepticism.
There is also a large industry that for various reasons views the survival of the “peace process” itself as paramount, regardless of its failures and is therefore unfailingly “optimistic” about its prospects. For Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the process is a means to appear busy resolving the conflict while staving off political pressure. We cannot also discount the distorting effects of millions of dollars in funding received by organizations tied to the continuation of the peace process. Some analysts inside the peace process bubble discount the importance and influence of all activity outside its confines, too easily dismiss ideas at odds with prevailing orthodoxy and therefore find themselves constantly surprised by developments they did not foresee.
We can expect little change in US policy just because a new administration takes office. This does not mean that US policy will never change. The outgoing administration has adapted its approach to regional shifts of power and other developments beyond its control. At the same time, after fifteen years, the peace process has reached a dead end, and the two-state solution looks unachievable. The new administration will not easily revive it. What then?
Regardless of US policy, regional resistance is likely to persist, frustrating efforts to maintain the status quo or impose a peace that fails to deal with fundamental injustices and inequalities. There have been two Palestinian intifadas (uprisings) against Israeli occupation in the past twenty years, and there are warnings of a third. Israel will find it increasingly difficult to justify its policies to global public opinion and will face a growing challenge from the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Efforts to pursue Israelis accused of war crimes in the occupied territories through universal jurisdiction will intensify and may begin to bear fruit. Palestinians in Gaza will refuse to remain besieged. Palestinian citizens of Israel will continue their own struggle for democracy.
A recent British government effort to urge the 27 European Union member states to enforce a ban on imports of products from Israeli settlements suggests that even the most staunchly pro-Israel governments will not forever remain immune to public pressure for policies grounded in international law (“Britain tells EU to clamp down on W. Bank imports,” Haaretz, 4 November 2008). During President Obama’s term, Palestinians will become the absolute majority population in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip together for the first time since 1948. These trends will require US policy-makers to reexamine their responses.
With open discussion so constrained in official circles, this is also a moment when the growing number of academic and civil society conferences, debates and activities aimed at exploring alternatives to the two-state solution can begin to decisively reshape visions of a just, achievable and peaceful future for all the people of the region.
Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, which originally published a version of this analysis. Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli- Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
- Obama picks pro-Israel hardliner for top post, Ali Abunimah (5 November 2008)
- Obama adviser Dennis Ross’s dodgy record, Michael Flynn (4 November 2008)
- Can Obama best Rice?, Nadia Hijab (11 August 2008)
- What Obama missed in the Middle East, Ali Abunimah (24 July 2008)
- The senator, his pastor and the Israeli lobby, Ali Abunimah (31 March 2008)
- How Barack Obama learned to love Israel, Ali Abunimah (4 March 2007)