Time to Move Past Camp David Envy

by , March 22, 2010

The most significant problem between the United States and Israel, pace the absurd little flap that developed over Vice President Biden getting blind-sided on a trip to Israel a couple of weeks ago, is that the United states still wants to micromanage an illusory "peace process" that the two entities directly involved in have little interest in furthering – at least for now. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government is frail and dependent on coalition partners who don’t want to talk about compromise just now, and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority still has little control, although recent developments might make a coalition with Hamas, which controls Gaza, slightly more likely.

Of course, there is little question that Biden was blind-sided during his recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Beyond the question of whether Biden received an intentional slap in the face from elements of the Israeli government, however, is why the United States is so eager to try to jump-start – again – talks that might lead to a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

After spending much of Tuesday reiterating U.S. support for Israeli security, Biden was caught off-guard by the announcement from Israel’s Interior Ministry that it would add another 1,600 housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope will be their capital if the vaunted two-state solution ever comes to pass. Last year, President Barack Obama had called for a freeze on more housing for Jews in the West Bank, but he pulled back when the Israelis refused to offer an ironclad guarantee.

Netanyahu says he was unaware of the Interior Ministry’s decision and was embarrassed by it. But he didn’t rescind it.

Biden’s purpose in Israel was in part to try to smooth the way for what have been billed as indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, with former Sen. George Mitchell as the go-between – and to declare his undying love and almost unconditional U.S. support for Israel. Those talks are in jeopardy now, but one wonders why so much effort was put into them.

It’s almost as if every American president at some point gets a bad case of Camp David Envy and figures he can get the elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace done and secure himself a place in history. And given that al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists, however sincerely or hypocritically, cite Israel-Palestine as a cause of their rage, solving it might well be helpful. But such an accord, if it ever comes, will grow from conditions among Israelis and Palestinians that promote mutual confidence.

Such conditions do not exist now. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, controls only the West Bank, while the militant Hamas controls Gaza. It is unclear whether Abbas could deliver a settlement that Palestinians would honor. Israel at this point, whether sincerely or hypocritically, is more concerned about a potential nuclear threat from Iran than about Palestine.

On paper a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio makes sense. Instead of blundering in and trying to jump-start the process, however, the United States should wait until the two parties are ready to resolve the matter themselves. It is embarrassing when the United States wants an agreement more than the parties directly involved do.

For some reason, however, the Obama administration has decided to make a big deal out of the announcement. For various reasons the Israeli government is not especially pleased with Obama or his administration. Perhaps it’s overcompensation. When Obama called on Israel a year or so ago to halt West Bank settlements, it was a blunder – a president shouldn’t make such a request unless he has already negotiated acceptance behind the scenes. Oops. Israel wasn’t ready for that, though it softened its utter resistance and talked about a 10-month moratorium, excluding East Jerusalem. Still, somebody in the Israeli government – and if Netanyahu wasn’t aware in advance it doesn’t speak well for his competence – was ready to put some egg on the American face.

The mistake was compounded by making such a big deal of it. The U.S. is in the position it has been in through much of the last 30 years or so – wanting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a two-state settlement more than either of the parties involved want it right now. If Obama were smarter he would say nothing and start cutting off aid – informing the Israelis but not making a public announcement. But after looking “soft” after letting the firm demand to stop settlements wither and die, he apparently thought he had to look “tough” now. Or so the constricted logic of too much of what passes for diplomacy goes.

So now the United States and Israel are said to be trying to dial back a sense of mutual outrage that has developed. Things would be easier to manage, however, if the United States contented itself with having diplomatic relations with two entities – Israel and the Palestinian Authority – that are in the midst of what appears to be a currently intractable dispute over territory. Diplomatic life would be much simpler, which you might think would be a relief to "No Drama Obama."

But then perhaps it was embarrassing. When President Obama demanded that Israel stop building new settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River entirely, he soon discovered that he had no effective leverage over Israel except to cut off some $3 billion a year in military and economic aid, which he wasn’t about to do.

It’s not that all the provocation is on one side. In Ramallah last week Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dedicated a public square to the memory of Dalal Mughrabi, a 19-year-old girl who in 1978 led the deadliest terrorist attack in Israeli history, killing 38 Israelis. That hardly sounds like a friendly gesture leading to the threshold of peace.

There’s a certain hubris in imagining – as just about every American president since Jimmy Carter’s brokering what has turned out to be a cold peace between Egypt and Israel has managed to imagine – that if the U.S. just pushes a little harder, comes up with more creative diplomacy, perhaps develops its own suggested roadmap, as some in the administration even now are said to be urging, that a problem that has been intractable for decades can be solved hesto-presto. For better or worse, however (and in fact it’s more than likely for better), it really isn’t all about us.

The United States has enough problems just now without trying to micromanage Israeli-Palestinian relations. It should take advantage of this public spat to pull back from that unwise ambition.

Read more by Alan Bock