05.09.10

Obama's Pathetic Mideast Policy

"Indirect" talks between Israel and Palestine? Hopeless. Reza Aslan on why anything short of creating two independent states is a complete waste—and why it’s time to replace George Mitchell as envoy with Bill Clinton.

So this is what it’s come to.

After decades of Israeli occupation, half a dozen bloody wars, countless terrorist attacks, two Palestinian uprisings, and thousands upon thousands of dead Israeli and Palestinian civilians. After Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords in 1978, the Fez Initiative in 1981, the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Hebron and Wye Agreements in 1997 and 1998, Camp David (Take II) in 2000, the Saudi Peace Initiative in 2002, the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit in 2005, The Quartet’s “Road Map to Peace,” and the so-called Joint Understanding proposal spearheaded by George W. Bush in Annapolis in 2007—after all of this, we’re supposed to be encouraged by this week’s launch of indirect “proximity talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Pathetic.

Unless the Obama plan comes with serious consequences for both sides if they fail to meet their obligations, it will simply be another rotting carcass strewn along the path to peace.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department announced that President Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell has begun what is being billed as the first round of indirect talks between Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Apparently the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet, in separate rooms, divided from each other by a wall (no irony there), as the hapless U.S. envoy carries messages back and forth in an utterly absurd display of shuttle diplomacy that looks less like a negotiation and more like how my mother used to settle spats between my sister and me.

If after all these years, and despite the reams of proposals and agreements signed onto by both sides, we have found ourselves back at square one in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, then there truly is no hope for peace in the Middle East.

This is all a waste of time, of course. Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear that he is unwilling to meet the absolute minimum requirements for direct negotiations. Not only has settlement activity in East Jerusalem continued unabated (though Netanyahu has graciously agreed that henceforth his government would try not to embarrass President Obama by publicly announcing new construction plans, an agreement that, according to The Economist, his own interior minister has already flouted) but even the much lauded 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank has proved to be a sham. As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has reported, and as I can attest to with my own eyes during two weeks traveling through the region, there has been absolutely no freeze in settlement activity in the West Bank.

Stephen Kinzer: Obama’s Deadbeat DiplomacyIn any case, the Likud Party (you know, the party in charge of Israel) has made it clear it has no intention of allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state—ever. The Likud Central Committee, at the behest of the current prime minister, voted almost unanimously in 2002 on a resolution stating: “There will be no Palestinian state west of the River Jordan.”

Here is what Netanyahu said at the time in urging party members to vote for the measure:

“My friends, we must present the situation in the clearest possible way: We won’t lend a hand to the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River... A clear message to the whole world should be sent from here. We must vote as one in favor of the draft resolution against a Palestinian state.”

My friends, those are the words of the man in charge of Israel’s peace negotiations.

Fortunately, there are more rational voices in the governing coalition who recognize that the very existence of Israel as a safe and secure Jewish majority state is dependent upon the creation of a stable and economically viable Palestinian state.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the man who came closest to securing a peace deal in 2000 (before it was scuttled by Yasser Arafat), recently acknowledged that “As long as between the Jordan and the [Mediterranean] sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic.”

Barak went on to say what every Israeli I have ever spoken to knows to be true: “Without an agreement, we will be subject to international isolation, and we will suffer a fate similar to that of Belfast or Bosnia, or a gradual transition from a paradigm of two states for two peoples to one of one state for two peoples, and some people will try to label us as similar to South Africa.”

That’s right. It’s time for Israel’s leaders to choose the future it envisions for its children: Either the immediate establishment of two independent states living side by side, or an apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules over what will very soon become a Palestinian majority, or a single, undivided, binational state.

Which will it be, Bibi? You’re running out of time to decide. Very soon the decision is going to be made for you, either by circumstances beyond your control or by a United States fed up with the threat to its own national security posed by the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Don’t take my word for it, see comments made by Centcom Commander David Petraeus, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones.)

Obama is said to be working on his own peace plan. But unless his plan comes with serious consequences for both sides if they fail to meet their obligations, it will simply be another rotting carcass strewn along the path to peace (George Mitchell is obviously a serious and deservedly well-respected negotiator, but Stephen Kinzer is right to note that he has gotten nowhere in the 16 months he’s been on the job. It’s time to shake things up and replace Mitchell with someone whose authority and integrity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unmatched: Bill Clinton.)

Until the United States, the only force with the power to bring about a two-state solution, decides to get serious about peace between Israel and Palestine and impose a solution to the crisis—one that includes immediate establishment of future borders, a formula for sharing custody of the holy sites, a plan to divide Jerusalem, the placement of a NATO force to secure the Palestinian borders, and forced negotiations between the two sides over final status agreements—there will never be a solution. Proximity talks? You’ve got to be kidding.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.