As Direct Talks Die, What is Washington Doing?

A short while ago, I was asked to write an article about why there was some hope for the peace process. I agreed to write it, after some consideration.

I was completely honest in the article, describing why I thought the best hope for success in the talks lies in the potential for a serious American effort to move the process forward and how this was actually possible politically.

What I left out, or really, only lightly alluded to was my near certainty that such effort was not likely to be forthcoming. For the most part, that seems to have been the case.

A photo op even seems too much to hope for from direct peace talks now

What we’re left with now is a growing sense of despair, as the Palestinians seemed poised, at this writing, to quit the current round of talks (the first in two years) in the wake of Israel’s refusal to extend the phantom “moratorium” on settlement construction.

There have also been some significant developments in Washington that bear some scrutiny in the wake of what seems to be a disastrous failure of a great deal of effort on the part of the Obama Administration to broker direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

I’ll start with one event that, while it certainly made the news, has not gotten anything like the attention it deserves, especially from Israel. That is Obama’s success in convincing Russia to cancel a billion-dollar weapons deal with Iran.

This deal was in the works from 2006, and was agreed upon in 2007. The Bush Administration had spent considerable effort to thwart the sale, with no success, and the fact that Obama succeeded is a major foreign policy victory for him. More than anything, it should have been a major bone to toss to Israel, whose current government has repeatedly indicated that they would be more disposed toward negotiations with the Palestinians if more was done regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Russian arms were air defense systems, and their presence could have made a theoretical Israeli attack on Iran more difficult.

This episode, while greeted very warmly by Israel, of course, seems to have had no effect on their positions, either in terms of the Palestinians or their level of cooperation with the Americans.

This week, it was revealed that Obama had offered a stunning package to Israel if it would only agree to extend the shallow moratorium for an additional sixty days. The contents of the letter were publicized by no less a figure than

David Makovsky of WINEP

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Makovsky is not a man likely to spread misinformation in this sort of matter, and his close relationship with Dennis Ross (who briefed members of Congress this week about the latest developments, including, presumably, this letter) means he has access to this information.  Here is his description of the offer:

“…the letter guarantees that Washington will not ask for a moratorium extension beyond sixty days. Rather, the future of settlements is to be settled at the table as part of territorial negotiations. Second, the letter promises that the United States will veto any UN Security Council initiative — Arab or otherwise — relating to Arab-Israeli peace during the agreed one-year negotiating period. Third, Washington pledged to accept the legitimacy of existing Israeli security needs and not seek to redefine them. In this context, the letter explicitly mentions the need to ensure a complete ban on the smuggling of rockets, mortars, arms, and related items, as well as the infiltration of terrorists into Israel. This touches on one of the most sensitive aspects of negotiations: averting infiltration into Israel from the eastern border of a Palestinian state. In this context, the letter offers to help maintain a transitional period for Jordan Valley security that is longer than any other aspect of a negotiated peace — an apparent allusion to keeping Israeli troops in that region for an extended period of time.

Finally, Washington pledges to engage Israel and Arab states in discussions of a “regional security architecture,” addressing the need for more consultations on Iran. Although such a structure would not be formalized until a peace deal is reached, the United States would begin preparing the groundwork in advance. These efforts would not constitute commitments on the part of the PA or Arab states, but they would be important for Israel as unambiguous articulations of U.S. policy, which could in turn bear heavily on how the peace talks unfold.

Finally (sic), the letter explicitly discusses the need to enhance Israel’s defense capabilities in the event that the parties reach security arrangements. Even if a security deal fails to materialize, Washington’s offer creates the baseline for Israel’s defense needs in a post-peace era. These needs reportedly include a range of missile systems and aircraft (e.g., additional F-35s), layered missile defense, and multiplatform early warning means, including satellites. The Obama administration realizes that these needs would mean an unspecified increase in U.S. security assistance to Israel once a peace agreement is concluded.

That is a truly stunning package for a mere sixty-day extension of a freeze with so many loopholes that, from the ground, it is almost impossible to discern that anything is frozen at all. It is not an exaggeration to compare that offer to paying the value of a new Mercedes for a 20-year old Chevy.

And Bibi turned it down.

The White House denied sending the letter, but they did not specifically deny making an offer of this kind to Israel. It is virtually certain the offer was made.

One would think Obama would have learned his lesson by now. Earlier this year, he pushed hard and had a big hand in winning Israel admission into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This was a prize that Israel had been after for years and was particularly of interest to Netanyahu for quite some time.

The general body of the OECD was disposed to accept Israel because Netanyahu had agreed, after some kicking, to indirect, “proximity talks” with the Palestinians, but US activism on Israel’s behalf was a very big factor. In all, it was a huge prize for Israel for almost no cost.

In essence, Obama was going that lopsided deal one better, and it is only Netanyahu’s political stubbornness that saved the President of the United States from himself.

Not that I begrudge much of what was offered to Israel. Other than support of a continuing Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley – which would reduce any hypothetical Palestinian state to something considerably less than an independent state – I’d like to see Israel get most of the rest of that package. But not for free. These are precisely the

Bibi seems to have reason to smile these days

sorts of incentives that should make settlement evacuation, moving the Separation Barrier to the Green Line, facilitating travel between the West Bank and Gaza and, above all, the end of the occupation achievable and politically realistic for an Israeli Prime Minister.

These things cannot be given away for so insignificant a gain as a two-month reduction in settlement construction in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem. This continues a trend that has not only remained consistent for the US, but also for Europe: ignoring the fact that Israel has relatively little incentive to end the occupation.

If Israel continues to get everything it wants and then some for nothing or very little, why should any Israeli leader take the massive political risk of ending the occupation? It didn’t work, in terms of domestic politics, either for Ehud Barak when he left Lebanon or for Ariel Sharon when he left Gaza. Neither act was viewed positively even a year later, if they ever were at all.

This has to change, and that change has to start in the White House.

It’s going to be tough. Republicans are poised to make significant gains in Congress, though given the way Congressional Democrats have largely behaved on this issue that may not be as big a deal as one might think.

The one item that gave me some hope recently was Obama’s initiative in reaching out to Syria while working to keep the Israeli-Palestinian talks together. That gave me some hope that there might finally be a strategy being formed. Subsequent events have certainly dampened those hopes.

We’ll have to see how the administration behaves after the mid-term elections. We’ll also have to see what one last event I’d like to touch on means.

Rahm Emanuel has quit as Obama’s Chief of Staff. Emanuel, known as an aggressive mover on Capitol Hill, will not be missed either by right-wing Israel-supporters or left-wing Israel-critics; he was generally disliked by radicals on both sides, and not a few moderates as well.

Emanuel’s successor, Pete Rouse, is a very different man. Emanuel cut his chops on Chicago politics, while Rouse has worked on the Hill since 1971. He knows Washington, and he is widely liked and respected. He also worked as a

Pete Rouse

legislative aide for James Abourezk, former Democratic Senator from South Dakota who later founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), so he has some background on this issue, and background that is the polar opposite of Emanuel’s.

Rouse, though, is a DC guy, but not really a foreign policy person. Will he be able to help Obama regain the kind of Democratic support for his Middle East approach in Congress that he enjoyed in his first few months in office? Granted, even that support was rather tepid, but it’s much greater than what he has now.

Rouse may be able to rally more support on the Hill for Obama’s policies. He is also much more of a strategist than Emanuel, whose style is more akin to a steamroller. Rouse had a very large role in helping Obama make a big name for himself as a young Senator, thus paving the way for his White House bid. If he can also help develop a real Middle East strategy, and combine that with rallying support on the Hill while mollifying AIPAC and other such groups, things could change.

That’s a lot to ask, and the task is only growing more difficult and labyrinthine every day. But if the US is to finally play the constructive role it has not in a very long time, and that we hoped would be coming with Obama, this is where the hope lies.