President Obama’s speech on the Middle East last Thursday is being picked over and analyzed by former peace negotiators and Middle East analysts. There is general agreement that his comments were a mistake. In a telephone interview today, Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who has recently wrote critically of the “religion” of the peace process, went so far as to say, “There was no need to give that speech.” Instead, Miller said, “It could have been given a week or two after the visit.” Throwing out the reference to 1967 borders with no explanation or background was an error, especially since, in Miller’s view, Obama violated the “cardinal rule” in dealing with Israel: no surprises. But whether the speech was given before or after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit, what the president hoped to accomplish is still a bit murky.
Miller’s take is that “it had a lot to do with the G-8 meeting” and the upcoming showdown at the United Nations. In his view the White House is looking forward to some sign of progress or resumption of discussions in order to ward off European support for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in September. Miller said he would have counseled Obama to quietly tell Netanyahu that both “have a common problem” and see if Netanyahu could give him something to work with in discussions with the Europeans.
In his view, the president “will not give up on direct negotiations” as the means of achieving a peace agreement. Miller is confident that Obama will oppose an effort at the U.N. in September to “isolate” Israel. But, of course, the flap with Netanyahu has only exacerbated matters.
Before then, Miller argued that Obama will try to take the two issues he deems easier — borders and security — and try to “quietly, very quietly” make progress in advance of September.
Other analysts take exception to this. Elliott Abrams, a veteran Middle East negotiator and former deputy national security adviser, thinks if this really is the plan, it’s misguided. He told me this afternoon, “The ‘borders and security first’ ” idea will not work. For one thing, the far northern and southern borders are easy and the security fence runs pretty much along the Green Line. The hard part is near Jerusalem — meaning that without discussing Jerusalem, you can’t do much on borders. For another, ‘security’ requires detailed discussions but at bottom means knowing who is across the line and what their intentions are. A security agreement with a joint Fatah-Hamas government is a non-starter.”
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies agrees. He e-mailed me, “ I have doubts as to whether the President is going to make a concerted effort to make quiet progress on borders and security before September. First, he does not have the trust of either Abbas or Netanyahu. Second, the Palestinians have made it clear that they are committed to the unilateral track regardless of what the Israelis offer up, which will be a deterrent for the Israelis to come to the table.” Even if the parties do sit down, Schanzer said “borders and security” first has already proven to be a failure. “I think that Camp David 2 [with President Clinton] and Taba showed the world that you can’t make a deal by tackling borders and security without first tackling Jerusalem and refugees.” In fact, there’s good reason, he explained, to start from the other end. “Borders and security are practical issues that can be negotiated somewhat rationally. Jerusalem and refugees are emotional issues for the Palestinians that cut to the core of their long-standing rejection of Israel’s very existence. If anything, they should be tackled first. If you can get past those hurdles, you are theoretically on your way to a peaceful promised land. But, that’s a very big ‘if’.”
Abrams told me, “It is possible that the administration wants some meeting, any meeting, to take place so it can point at the session and say ‘see, there are negotiations, so the U.N. vote is unnecessary.’ ” Unlike Miller, who sees these as substantive, Abrams told me, “Such a meeting will not be real, but if it can head off the U.N. vote, that would be good. I assume the president is trying to figure out while in Europe what it would take to get U.S.-E.U. unity on all of this, and I wish him luck. It would be nice to think that his two speeches were tactical in this way, rather than reflecting his deep misunderstanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Ouch.
As for the Europeans, it is far from clear what Obama can do deter them from supporting a U.N. vote. Schanzer said that “we were either asleep at the switch here in Washington, or the president sat by quietly and knowingly while the Europeans coalesced around this unilateral initiative.” Rather than publicly undermining Israel’s bargaining position, Schanzer said, “ The right way to head this off is to go on a diplomatic offensive in Europe, explaining how Palestinian unilateralism will be a death knell to the peace process, and could even prompt another war over disputed territories. The full weight of the president of the United States could go a long way.” He said that so far, he “hasn’t seen any evidence” that such a course is planned.
Rather than cause a public fight with Israel, create dissension in his own party and entirely overshadow his comments on the Arab Spring (remember, that was the supposed purpose of the speech), Obama could have done things quite differently. Contrary to this administration, which seeks to publicize spats with Israel, the prior one worked hand-in-glove with Israel to develop trust and give the prime minister confidence to “take risks for peace.” The administration seems allergic to this idea. Why not make it very clear to other nations that there is a price to be paid for hopping on the unilateral bandwagon? Why did Obama not use his speech to make clear that decent countries cannot promote “peace” by recognizing a government led by terrorists?
Some can say these are simply oversights or misjudgments. But it is also apparent that this president has a fondness for putting the concerns of Palestinians ( e.g. settlements, borders) first and the concerns and sensibilities of Israel second. Every time.
Finally, Miller argued that while Obama made a bad situation worse, “8 percent of the problem is Palestinian-Israeli incapacity.” He bemoans that “the era of heroic leadership is over” and considers the current leaders to be mere “politicians, not masters of their political houses.” Such even-handedness, I would argue, belies the history of talks and overlooks the root of the problem: The Palestinians have yet to decide as a people whether to have a state or a perpetual war against Israel. For 63 years no Palestinian leader (heroic or otherwise, with the possible exception of Salam Fayyad (whose future and health are now in doubt) has been able to give up the war. I frankly don’t imagine that will change anytime soon.