“If at first you don’t succeed,” runs the old maxim, “try, try, try again.”
You have to hand it to President Barack Obama for persistence.
He came to office in 2009 clearly determined to give a good deal of priority to the Middle East in general, and the Arab-Israeli dispute in particular. To the new administration it must have seemed that this new President, with his black power background, could do things no previous US president could have contemplated. Perhaps an unprecedented approach to the Muslim world, holding out the hand of friendship, would engender a new cooperative atmosphere in which old deeply-ingrained suspicions would dissipate, and peace would stand a better chance than ever before?
“It’s worth a try” must have been the prevailing mood, as Obama made his trip to Egypt in June 2009, and delivered a speech in Cairo best remembered, by some, for passages like this:
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”
What is usually forgotten about Obama’s Cairo speech, and is rarely quoted, are passages like this:
“America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable... Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
So it is undoubtedly true that at the same time as Obama tried to match his “let’s be friends” approach to the Muslim world with conciliatory gestures − to Iran, to Syria, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all of which failed − he tried also to press ahead with reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A very early move was to appoint George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, charged with bringing the parties back to the negotiating table. Mitchell strove mightily − and with some success − to achieve just that, for in September 2010 Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did sit face-to-face with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the same negotiating table in Washington, and both talked peace.
The issue that supervened to frustrate this worthy effort, and consequently to freeze the peace process for the next two-and-a half-years, was unfortunately compounded by another of Obama’s mistaken policies.
As Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu was heading a fragile coalition. Back in November 2009 he had managed to persuade his colleagues - many sceptical of, if not downright opposed to, the idea - to go along with Obama’s request for a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. Obama’s hope was that the PA would use this window of opportunity to get peace discussions well under way. In the event most of the 10 months was frittered away by an Abbas reluctant, or fearful, to commit himself to negotiating peace, and it was only in the final few weeks that, with the agreement of the Arab League and supported by the presence of Egypt’s President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, he finally agreed to face-to-face talks. Then, when the 10-month building moratorium drew to a close, he demanded that it be extended if he was to continue with the discussions.
Netanyahu found it impossible to persuade his Cabinet colleagues to renew the freeze on construction, and so the new-born peace process expired. From that moment, however, the Obama administration repeatedly urged Israel to re-impose its moratorium on building in the West Bank. Secretary of State Clinton said more than once that the US regarded continued building within the settlements as an obstacle to peace. But the real obstacle was this attempt of Obama’s to appease Arab opinion. Once the US had urged Israel to desist from West Bank construction, President Abbas was boxed into a corner and it was impossible for him to fudge the issue – as it had been consistently fudged in the past. Construction within the West Bank had never constrained the many previous peace negotiations between Israel and the PA. This time it was an immovable obstacle.
It is, in reality, a non-issue. Both parties accept that in any final agreement the larger West Bank settlements will remain in Israel’s hands. Expanding the infrastructure within these townships, therefore, can have no bearing on any final peace agreement. As for the rest, it is generally agreed that, following the precedent of Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza, as part of a final agreement smaller settlements will be evacuated and handed over to a new sovereign Palestine. In which case the more new construction there is within them, the better the deal, from the Palestinians’ point of view.
Which is doubtless why, in his second attempt to grapple with the formidable Israel-Palestinian issue, Obama is playing a quite different hand.
First he found an opportunity early in his second term to visit the Middle East and to repair his fences with the Israeli public, among whom a certain scepticism about his intentions had been developing. Then, in a signal of the importance he devoted to the matter, he by-passed his Middle East special envoy − George Mitchell’s successor − and nominated his newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, to carry forward plans to revive the peace process.
Kerry began his new effort with a vigorous succession of visits to the region - three in as many weeks − and brokered a somewhat shaky rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Early indications that he intended to base his new peace effort on reviving the 2002 Arab League peace plan were quickly discounted. Instead, the US has quietly unblocked almost $500 million in aid to the PA which had been frozen by Congress for months, and Kerry promised further economic assistance in developing the Palestinian economy, presumably as a sweetener to the PA to return to meaningful negotiations. Israeli construction in the West Bank has been given no prominence in US pronouncements thus far − mild disapproval of “continued settlement activity” is as far as Obama went in his major speech in Israel during his recent visit.
However, a new spanner thrown into the works is the resignation on 13 April of the PA’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad – which Kerry urged President Abbas not to accept. However Fayyad, greatly respected internationally, has indeed gone – and with him a fair degree of PA credibility. His plan to build Palestinian state institutions from the bottom up received much international support. Fayyad was a symbol of good governance and opposition to the financial corruption within the PA that has still not been fully eradicated. As Barak Ravid wrote in Ha’aretz, “Senior Fatah party members saw Fayyad as an obstacle toward their political and economic ambitions. The Palestinian prime minister refused to transfer funds to them or to appoint them as ministers.”
Fayyad's resignation is a setback to Obama’s plans to promote the peace process. Fayyad was not directly involved in negotiations with Israel, but Washington regarded him as a responsible and trustworthy figure within the PA administration. Regardless of reverses like this, Obama clearly intends to pursue his objective of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within his second term, if at all possible.
Unfortunately, the facts of American political life mean that if he does not succeed this second time around, there is no third try available to him.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 April 2013: