It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when the Palestinians and Israelis trusted the U.S., were making incremental progress to improve the lives of Palestinians and conducted regular, albeit not very productive, bilateral talks. Actually, it was less than three years ago.
Recall in December 2008 this from the U.N. Security Council:
Reaffirming its support for the agreements and negotiations resulting from the 2007 Middle East summit in Annapolis, Maryland, the Security Council called on the parties, regional States, and other States and international organizations this morning to intensify their efforts to achieve a two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as peaceful coexistence among all States in the region.
Adopting resolution 1850 (2008) by a vote of 14 to 0 — with Libya abstaining — at the end of a meeting in which four permanent members were represented by ministerial and other high-level officials, the Council declared its commitment to the irreversibility of the ongoing bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, and supported “their determined efforts to reach their goal of concluding a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues.. . .”
Toward that end, the Council called on both parties to fulfill their obligations under the Road Map and to refrain from steps that could undermine confidence or prejudice the outcome of the negotiations. It called on States and international organizations to contribute to an atmosphere conducive to negotiations and assist the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, it urged intensified diplomatic efforts to foster “mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence between all States in the region in the context of achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement on the resolution included this: “The Annapolis process had advanced under the leadership of both sides and must be built upon; it was not a matter of lip service, but of genuine commitment to turning the two-State solution into reality. The Arab Peace Initiative was a historic proposal, and just as Israel should reach out to the Arab States, so should they reach out to Israel. There could be no turning back the clock; the process must go forward along the chosen path.” Even if you don’t buy that rosy portrait, the parties were at least in the same room.
What a difference a president makes, no? In 2011, the U.N. is poised to assist in the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, there are no bilateral negotiations, and both the Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders seem professional and personally to disdain President Obama.
The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz explains that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s current strategy seems as much based on spite as self-interest:
The Palestinian Authority plans to approach the United Nations Security Council in July to begin the process of getting Palestine recognized as a full member of the United Nations and to assure a vote on the matter by the General Assembly in September, Haaretz has learned.
The UN General Assembly is authorized to accept Palestine as a member state, but can do so only after it receives a recommendation to this effect from the Security Council. This is not likely to happen, because the United States vehemently objects to the Palestinians’ unilateral efforts in the UN and it has veto power over Security Council decisions. . . . The Palestinians realize this, both Israeli and foreign diplomatic officials say, but they are interested in making sure that the United States is isolated on the Security Council and forced to exercise its veto.
In short, Obama might not have been able to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis (for that would require that the former renounce perpetual war against the latter), but one can imagine a far less disastrous outcome than the present situation. Understandably, there are those who want to spare Obama from the “lion’s share of the responsibility for this unhappy state of affairs,” such as Aaron David Miller:
The president, to be sure — perhaps with the best intentions and the worst analysis — has made a complex situation more complicated. But the preponderance of blame surely rests with the locals’ incapacity and unwillingness to get real and serious about what it would take to reach an agreement.
Actually, that’s an explanation — a falsely even-handed one — for why there is no peace deal. It’s not an adequate defense for the degree to which Obama alienated each side from the other and from the U.S. That, and the resort to unilateralism by the PA, is certainly, in large part, a function of Obama’s propensity to raise and then dash expectations and paint both sides into a corner (as with the total settlement freeze).
The desire to blame “both sides” appeals to some Americans’ sense of fairness, I suppose. But “both sides” are not to blame in this circumstance. As Elliott Abrams (who was deputy national security adviser for the Middle East when the parties were talking to one another) writes:
Unwilling to make far-reaching compromises himself, and now convinced Obama would not force deep concessions on the Israelis, Abbas decided to secure his legacy a different way: through a facade of national unity. Sure, he lost the elections to Hamas and they have Gaza, but with this unity deal there would be new elections next year and — on paper, anyway — the split would be over and the Palestinian family together again. And he would deliver more: United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state through a vote to admit it to membership. So Abbas would leave office with honor. To be sure, he would always be a transitional figure between Arafat and whatever came next, and neither peace nor real statehood would be any closer. But in the realm of symbolism and rhetoric where Palestinian political life has always been lived, he could say he had never yielded an inch to the Zionists.
These developments left both [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi] Netanyahu and Obama high and dry. For Netanyahu, the Hamas deal not only meant that no negotiations were possible but also endangered the existing cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank economy had (with some Israeli help) improved steadily in the last few years, and the new American-trained PA police worked closely with Israel against terrorism — and especially against Hamas. It was possible to see some ways forward: handing control of more West Bank territory to the PA, strengthening PA security forces, watching a Palestinian state develop on the ground under [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad’s pragmatic leadership. Now that approach was gone.
To sum up, as Abrams put it, “Previous presidents — both Clinton and George W. Bush — had managed to gain the confidence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, while Obama is now mistrusted on all sides.” And he managed along the way to lose any influence in Europe on the matter and annoy a chunk of the American Jewish community. To the degree that one can argue that he’s not entirely responsible for the dismal state of Palestinian-Israeli relations, we should assign the balance of the blame to Abbas.