A Snare and a Delusion

by , June 08, 2009

The speech in Cairo, as well-crafted and rhetorically (if not meticulously accurately – this was persuasive rhetoric, not scholarship) balanced as it was, was not a surprise. Obama had promised to make an appeal to Muslims from a Muslim capital, and the trip to Turkey after the G-20 meeting last month was not it – although that meeting had perhaps more geopolitical and strategic significance than this one did. What surprised me was the heavy emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something Obama implicitly promises to take an active part in trying to resolve.

Quite frankly, I thought that Obama was well aware that this conflict has been a snare and a delusion, perhaps a pool of quicksand for every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter at least. Since Carter ostensibly brokered what has turned out to the Egyptian-Israeli "cold peace" – an absence of conflict for 30 years, which is no mean feat in that part of the world – in 1978, every president has had Camp David envy. Each has made at least a cursory effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord and have an accomplishment for the history books. And every president has failed, some looking more desperate and ridiculous than others.

So I thought Obama just might be too smart to invest much of his own personal capital in this effort, especially early in his presidency when there has been insufficient time to lay the proper groundwork. Send the overrated George Mitchell to call meetings and dither and send Hillary in a few times a year to make it look as if the U.S. is putting real effort into it, but don’t put the personal Obama stamp on it unless, against all odds, the parties get to the verge of a breakthrough. That way you get credit for trying but minimal blame when, as most predict, the effort comes up short of a viable agreement again.

Perhaps Obama does have in mind something like that scenario except that he figures he can gain more credit by being more active than his predecessors at the beginning of their terms, then step away from personal involvement but be ready to step back in and claim credit if something resembling an agreement does happen to develop. It is at least a possibility that sheer war-weariness will eventually be enough to permit the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a modus vivendi that would at least reduce the amount of energy being wasted on hostility and fear so that it could be directed toward something more constructive, like figuring out how to make the desert economically fruitful. Perhaps a reincarnation of the Hong Kong of old, where two cultures, the Chinese and the English, coexisted in mutual wariness yet found ways to cooperate in the pursuit of profit?

I can dream, can’t I?

Unfortunately, the geopolitical barriers to a two-state solution, the outcome to which almost all interested parties claim to be committed, are rather formidable, and they would be even if the Israelis and Palestinians had polities that could produce a firm consensus on which interests are unshakable and which are negotiable in dealing with the other polity. But at this point neither group has a polity capable of producing a long-term negotiating strategy or the ability to enforce concessions on their own side.

The Palestinian disunity problem is right out in the open, of course, with Hamas having won elections and been exiled to de facto control of Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority tenuously controls a West Bank sprinkled with Israeli settlements, and is politically divided to boot. The Israelis are little better off in that regard. Their political system is inclusive of all kinds of religious and political beliefs and ideologies – which would arguably be a benefit in a country mostly at peace – which typically leads to fragile coalition governments beholden to some micro-party to stay in power and thus unable to negotiate coherently.

Neither side can guarantee security to the other. No Palestinian quasi-governmental entity can guarantee that no rogue elements might fire rockets into Israel, eventually including into the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor, and it’s unlikely that an Israeli government (even a non-Netanyahu one) would be willing to guarantee that Israeli settlements in the West Bank will not expand, let alone begin to pare them back in ways that would make a Palestinian state more geographically viable.

Even if the two sides could overcome all these difficulties, and even if a substantial number of Israeli settlements were dismantled and turned over to Palestinians on favorable terms, any resulting Palestinian state would be dependent on Israel economically, for access to water and secure trading routes. In terms of security, the Israelis are almost sure to insist that a Palestinian entity have no standing military (which might be used against Israel) but only an internal police force. How likely is it that Palestinians would develop confidence that the Israeli government would not abuse the power that geography and relative military capabilities give it? One thinks more in terms of decades or centuries than months or years.

Then there is the little matter that the surrounding Arab states, however they may say in public that they are committed to a two-state solution, are in no great hurry to see such an outcome. Jordan is ruled by Hashemites, but its population is majority Palestinian. Memories are longer in the Middle East than most Westerners, who have already forgotten who won the American Idol competition, understand. Jordanians – at least the ruling class – have not forgotten the Black September uprisings of 1970, engineered by Fatah, the ancestor of whatever it is that Mahmoud Abbas is the titular head of these days.

On the other side, Egypt is well aware that Hamas is a descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still outlawed in Egypt but politically active enough that the Mubarak government feels some heat. It’s not eager to see their progeny gain legitimized, internationally recognized power right next door.

The Saudis might not feel directly threatened by the rise of a Palestinian state, but they are still in no hurry to see the status quo, under which they are the most influential power among Sunnis, upset in ways that might diminish their effective power. The ruling family has taken firm action against potentially violent al-Qaeda-like movements, but it also feels vulnerable to restiveness that could express itself through less violent but ultimately more effective channels to loosen the family’s grip on absolute power.

The current interest of the neighboring Arab states, then, is to pay lip service to a Palestinian state while seeing little or no progress in that direction. Little or no progress on this issue is not all that difficult to achieve.

One might like to stretch one’s sense of the possible to imagine factors in addition to war-weariness that could contribute to an ultimate resolution of this dispute over territory and resources. If new generations sick of the disruptions were to arise, Israelis and Palestinians might be reminded that they have the virtue of familiarity. Over the years both sides have been fully aware of which proposals the other side was certain to reject, which they then demanded, thus assuring no progress and self-righteousness all around. It takes a certain familiarity to be able to push one another’s buttons so unerringly. If that familiarity were used to find ways to cooperate rather than to prolong confrontation, it might lead to arrangements that could overcome the geographic/geopolitical factors that make a truly independent and viable Palestinian state so unlikely.

What seems certain is that neither the United States nor any other outside power will be able to develop a framework for peace on its own that both Palestinians and Israelis will be able or willing to accept. The U.S. might serve a useful purpose by being available to put the final touches on an agreement and have an impressive ceremony in the White House, but sheer will and expertise in the mechanics of negotiating will not do it. I think that even though he is not directly experienced in foreign affairs, Barack Obama is smart enough to figure a good bit of this out. That’s why I’m surprised to see him so directly involved in activities (like denouncing West Bank Israeli settlements, which every U.S. president has officially opposed since 1967 or so) that are interpreted as direct personal involvement in the chimerical peace process. Unless he pulls back soon – and other issues might force that – he seems to be setting himself up to be perceived as an overly ambitious and pitiful failure.

Read more by Alan Bock