Thursday, December 9, 2010

So who is to blame?

President Barack Obama's peace process seems to have breathed it's last breath, and like always, whenever a peace process falters it's time to assign blame. Playing the blame game with this recent process is actually pretty easy. In 18 months absolutely nothing was accomplished. I've decided to break up the blame into easy-to-compare percentages, which will of course add up to 100% of the blame for failure. You might think my numbers are subjective, but I assure you they are based on strict social science. Let's take a look:

"For once, it's not my fault!" - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal
The Obama Administration (50% of the total blame for failure)
I alluded a few days ago to the fact that the Obama administration really owns the lion's share of the blame for the fiasco that the peace talks became. Obama's team (including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell) lacked any semblance of either a vision for a post-agreement Israel/Palestine or a strategy for conducting productive talks. I still maintain that unless Obama knew he had the time, tools, and strategy to pursue final status negotiations, he should never have started them. It quickly became apparent that he lacked all three as his domestic problems (including the health care bill, constant stalling from Republicans in Congress, and Don't Ask-Don't Tell) began to eat away at any time he had to lend his leadership to the peace process. The attention these other issues demanded also played a role in denying Obama tools to pressure the parties when they stalled or refused to budge from their positions.

The Obama administration sized up Netanyahu after Biden was blind-sided on his visit to Israel by the declaration of additional settlement housing in East Jerusalem and there was even the snub of Netanyahu (as he was left waiting in the White House while Obama had a long, pleasant dinner with his family). Both of these actions initially showed that Obama was willing to get rough with both the Palestinians and Israelis to push them towards peace. He came out swinging by strongly asserting that peace was in the interest of the U.S. and refused to live by the old "we can't want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians do" mantra of Clinton and G.W. Bush. However, as soon as the tension became apparent in the Israeli and American press Obama backed way off and gave Netanyahu a huge victory, allowing him to dictate the terms of negotiations. When Obama blinked in his game of chicken with Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister knew full well Obama would be unable or unwilling to put pressure on him. By the end of the fiasco, Netanyahu was in such a strong position that he had the Americans begging for a mere 90 days of a partial settlement freeze and Obama offering to pay the Israelis billions for the pleasure of keeping the crashing talks afloat.

This begs the question of why Obama ever decided to launch peace talks (he did very early in his presidency too - just two months in). I hardly think he saw a peace agreement as low-hanging fruit. I think he was more or less probably convinced he needed to pursue Israeli/Palestinian peace by his closest foreign policy advisors or those at the State Department that tend to see negotiations as an end in themselves. If you remember, one of the first foreign policy goals was a historic reset with the Muslim world and the Cairo Speech. How could an American president "reset" relations with the Middle East without pursuing Israeli/Palestinian peace. It was intended as a gesture to help him reach out, but the whole strategy behind it was never really fleshed out (much like the Iraq War under Bush). Good intentions obscured the immense challenges that would accompany the peace process. In a phrase, Obama was "mugged by reality."

The Israelis (35% of the blame)
While the Obama team is mostly the blame, the Israeli administration under Netanyahu does share in this. His constant assertions as to what conditions a future Palestinian state would have to have placed on it (no military, no control over airspace or air waves, and a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan valley) only gave the Palestinians more reasons to not even sit down with him. The partial settlement freeze was meek but it was the right move. The lack of East Jerusalem's inclusion was a sore spot for the Palestinians and it obviously signaled Israel's unwillingness to talk about the final status of Jerusalem. From most of the Israeli media reports, it was obvious that the Israelis were generally unwilling throughout the 18 lackluster months to discuss any substantive issues and instead wanted to talk endlessly about unhelpful issues that would neither build trust nor get the parties any closer to an agreement. I don't honestly blame the Israelis for not extending the 10-month partial settlement freeze. No progress had been made in talks during those months (partly due to their stalling) and the U.S. lacked a cogent strategy going forward. It seemed like political suicide to keep going along with Obama's all-but-failed peace process any further and Netanyahu did what was best for him politically. How can you blame him? Finally, one thing you can blame Netanyahu for is his constant assertion that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state before any peace negotiations could be completed. It's unhelpful, unnecessary, and was meant to be a stalling tactic with Abbas. Abbas countered this demand by simply reiterating that it was not the place of the Palestinian Authority to comment on the identity of foreign states. Good for him. The PLO and PA recognized Israel long ago and it's senseless and unhelpful for them to recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state. The U.S. government doesn't formally recognize Israel that way, why ask it of the Palestinians?

The Palestinians (15% of the blame)
The Palestinians, of course, share in the blame. They stalled for months after the start of the partial settlement freeze because it did not include East Jerusalem and there were still concerns over whether any substantive issues would be discussed (no.) I understand their reasoning for stalling, and it makes a decent amount of sense, but in the interest of serious peace negotiations, they should have swallowed their pride and hit the negotiating table months earlier. The early peace process Obama administration was easily the friendliest American administration they'll ever see and they should have shown that they were fully committed. Their stalling didn't win them any benefits for their  Palestinian constituents and rushed Obama's team to try and cram more and more into the few months they had before the freeze expired. Peace takes courage and Abbas showed very little.

And there you have it, my rundown for who's to blame for the failure of the Obama peace process. Apparently the parties are going to move back to U.S. mediated proximity talks. The Israelis, Palestinians, and Obama administration can still redeem themselves, but I find it extraordinarily unlikely that they'll behave themselves, make smart decisions, and be courageous for the sake of peace. The Israelis and Palestinians need to refrain from taking needlessly antagonistic actions towards each other and the Americans need to make a final status proposal and develop a cogent proximity talks strategy. Time will tell...

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