The peace talks opening tomorrow between Israelis and Palestinians once again give rise to great expectations and hopes in Washington. The expectation is for a real breakthrough, something that will bring an end to the conflict or, short of that, at least something that will prevent violence from igniting. After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech in June 2009, which was the first time that a right-leaning Israeli leader publically endorsed the two-states solution, and Palestinian prime minister Salem Fayyad’s statement that within one year the Palestinians will be prepared to manage an independent state, observers in various world capitals hope that there is a real possibility of a breakthrough.
Supporters of the process, such as the editorial board of the New York Times, believe that what gives the process a real chance at this time is President Obama’s full involvement and commitment. Unlike President Bush, who, according to the paper, “ignored the conflict for seven years before arranging a peace conference in 2007 that had insufficient preparation and inadequate presidential investment,” President Obama “made Middle East peace an early priority. He correctly sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a factor in wider regional instability. He is more balanced in his approach that his predecessor, and his chief envoy, George Mitchell, has spent countless hours bringing the parties together.”
But reality in the Middle East, as is often the case, is a bit more complicated than the New York Times would let you know. Apart from the questionability of the assertion that the Bush administration ignored the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is not at all clear that the past three decades of American diplomacy have substantially forwarded the cause of Middle East peace. History proves that Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan both resulted from decisions in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Amman that peace was necessary. They did not emanate from greater American involvement or pressure. Lacking this fundamental element, no degree of American commitment helps. This, for example, was the case in 2000 when President Clinton gathered Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat at Camp David for peace talks that were supposed to bring about a final settlement of the conflict. The talks failed — not due to lack of American involvement and commitment (which, on the contrary, were unprecedented) — and their failure led to the violence of the second Intifada. American commitment can, at best, initiate a process. But it can neither deliver the players nor guarantee that they are negotiating in good faith.
Another factor that determines the success of American negotiating efforts is the stature of America in the region and its image in the eyes of regional players.
At the moment, America’s image in the Arab world is at an all-time low. On the eve of its withdrawal from Iraq, the U.S. is leaving a power vacuum in the country and the region, a vacuum which will most likely be filled by Iran. Despite its diplomatic efforts, Washington has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the near-completion of an Iranian bomb. America’s demonstrated weakness further led to the crystallization of a radical alliance led by Teheran and including Syria, Turkey, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, which today sets the tone in the region. Under the Obama administration, our moderate Arab allies in the Middle East were abandoned. We are unwilling to protect them from the Iranian threat to their regimes and, while they almost openly call for an Israeli attack on Iran, we have naively convinced ourselves that they could be protected if we could find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Only in one area of Middle East affairs has the U.S. under Obama demonstrated rare resolve: abandoning Israel and challenging the special relationship with it. Indeed, the Obama administration has departed significantly from the postwar policy norm. Washington’s focus is now on operating within a consensus in international institutions to legitimize policy. Moreover, Washington’s rejection of unilateral nationalism and preemptive self-defense and its focus on normative international law (such as the universal applicability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) continue to worry Jerusalem and American supporters of Israel. Moreover, President Obama’s Cairo speech (June 4, 2009), titled “A New Beginning,” suggested several shifts: that support for Israel is calibrated to its behavior on the peace process, that Israel’s creation is a 20th-century idea rather than the realization of 20 centuries of aspirations, and that the U.S.’s historical affinity with the Muslim world runs at least as deep as its affinity with Israel.
The result of this sharp departure leaves Israel uncertain and in a difficult position on several fronts. The United States has signaled it will no longer provide the sort of cover it has consistently extended over Israel in international institutions. In fact, rather than shielding Israel in those forums, it is now willing to leverage the threat from those institutions to Israel as pressure. Second, while Israel is increasingly forced to turn to violence in preemption and self-defense, Washington looks increasingly negatively on military answers to problems. Third, it will not publicly defend Israel’s nuclear program. Fourth, the peace process is the touchstone for our support for Israel.
These shifts led Israel’s detractors in the West to become more assertive, at just the time in which United States is leaving Israel exposed at international forums, is questioning its right to use force, is questioning its arsenal, and conditioning its support. More importantly, it has encouraged the Islamic world to believe Israel is no longer under the U.S. umbrella of protection. Practically, Israel should expect an immediate period of considerable challenge and instability — both in terms of physical attacks and in terms of delegitimization — to emerge from this perception.
This is not the most hospitable set of circumstances in which a peace process — which is expected to move ahead powered by Israeli concessions — can be initiated. No degree of Obama administration determination or commitment will make the Arab world welcoming for peace or make Israel fully trust Washington. Both Netanyahu and Abbas know that President Obama, whose popularity is plummeting and whose party is expected to suffer a defeat in the November elections, is unable to force a solution without offending Jewish voters that he cannot afford to lose. They also once again need to deal with the consequences of Palestinian terror which wounded four Israelis in the West Bank even before the talks opened. This, in other words, is hardly a time for high hopes and congratulations. Washington should carefully maneuver in order to make sure that its futile attempts to make peace do not give birth to further violence.
– Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy.