11.21.10

Obama's Mideast Bribes Won't Work

Israel will likely take Obama and Clinton's $3 billion offer in exchange for a settlement freeze, but don't expect a peace deal. What might succeed is a dramatic step not by the Israelis, but by the Palestinians, says Leslie H. Gelb.

What on earth are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hatching up for the Middle East this time? Believe it or not, the secretary of state and the president are offering Israel $3 billion of front-line jet fighters, mostly free, if it freezes some as yet unspecified settlement construction in the West Bank for 90 days. Their aim is to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. And wait until you hear this one: They are promising never again to ask Israel for another such freeze. This “strategy” tosses away all their bargaining leverage up front before Israel even starts negotiating.

U.S. officials say their bosses believe that this “new” freeze—as opposed to the freeze that failed a month ago—will trigger the elusive peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. But it won’t. That is, it won’t unless the Palestinians are prepared to put their own dramatic peace offer on the table, the way President Sadat of Egypt did in his historic 1977 peace visit to Jerusalem. But they won’t.

The U.S. president and his secretary of state also are said by their subordinates to think that if they can, finally, create an Israeli-Palestinian peace, that will dissipate vicious anti-Americanism and even terrorism throughout the Muslim world. But it won’t. Anti-Americanism and terrorism among Muslims rests far less on what happens with Israel and far more on how and when American combat ends in the Middle East and upon improving how our Muslim allies treat their own people.

When Obama and Clinton launched this latest round of peace talks almost three months ago, it rested on their judgment that the parties were truly “serious” about compromise. They did not know anything more concrete than that. And so, predictably, the talks flopped after only three weeks. Israel’s nine-month freeze had expired on settlement building, and the Palestinians walked out of the negotiations. As far as I’m able to learn, the two American leaders don’t know anything more about what the two sides will do now—even if the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approves the overly generous offer from Washington. As I stressed only two months ago, this is extremely unwise. It makes no sense to push the parties to the negotiating table with little prospect of success and a very good chance of another dangerous failure.

Two questions arise. Why aren’t the Israelis just saying “yes” right away? And why in heaven’s name is the Obama administration making this startlingly generous offer without good reason to believe the talks will succeed?

One reason for Israel’s hesitance or reluctance is that Netanyahu’s cabinet contains many hardliners wary of uncertain peace talks. Another is that the Obama-Clinton offer may not be as clear and precise as reported. There are loose ends about exactly what Israeli construction activity will be covered by the new freeze. Nor has it finalized how much of the $3 billion tab for the fighter jets will be borne by Israel. Bargaining also continues over certain U.S. security guarantees that may be part of the overall package. But the strong betting is that Israel will take the deal, if for no other reason than Washington is promising never to ask for another such freeze.

By offering this no-future freeze pledge and advanced military hardware, Obama and Clinton are essentially eliminating America’s future bargaining leverage over Israel. Why would they do such a thing?

Palestinian leaders should be emulating Anwar Sadat, the great Egyptian president who went to Jerusalem in 1977.

From the earliest days of his tenure, Obama has appeared mesmerized by the dream of creating harmony between Muslims and Americans. His speeches and private musings testify to this. Somehow, he’s got it in his head that the key to nirvana is to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In other words, he seems to believe that the main reason for Muslim hatred or dislike of America is its support for Israel and, in turn, Israel’s denial of a Palestinian homeland. Fix those problems, Obama seems to feel, and the walls of Muslim hatred will come tumbling down.

Without doubt, these feelings are part of the anti-American, anti-Israeli story among Muslims. But more important is Washington’s long history of support for people like the shah of Iran, the kings of Saudi Arabia, and the authoritarian presidents of Egypt. Personally, I don’t think American leaders have had much choice but to back these leaders. The alternatives were always far worse, far more extremist. But a price had to be paid for this realism, and America has been paying it. Also, whatever Americans may feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s role is extremely unpopular among Muslims. These attitudes will not disappear, no matter what happens between the Israelis and Palestinians. That is one among many irritants.

Based on my reading of this torturous history, I would not try to start negotiating between Israel and Palestine by leaning on or bribing Israel for the umpteenth time. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. What might succeed is a dramatic step not by the Israelis, but by the Palestinians. Their leaders should be emulating Anwar Sadat, the great Egyptian president who went to Jerusalem in 1977. His nation had been defeated in the 1973 war, and Israel occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula, a historic Egyptian territory. There was no prospect that Israel would return this land after Egypt had attacked Israel in 1973. But President Sadat took his pride and his great dream for peace with Israel and stood before the Israeli Knesset. In effect, he put his life, not to mention his popularity at home, on the line and conferred recognition and legitimacy upon the state of Israel. In return, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, every square inch.

His words are worth hearing again. “Yet today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.” He added a warning about Palestinians: “In all sincerity I tell you that there can be no peace without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to overlook or brush aside this cause.”

Today, President Abbas of the Palestinians and his Prime Minister Fayyad also can journey to the Knesset. And there, they can pledge acceptance of “a Jewish state of Israel.” Those very words could not help but unleash a positive Israeli response on the West Bank and even East Jerusalem. That act alone would shrink the haystack of hatred so that the two sides might find the needle of peace.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.