article

09.23.11

Obama’s Weak Mideast-Peace Hand

The president insisted at the U.N. that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved through direct talks, but he has little leverage with Netanyahu and Abbas. By P.J. Crowley.

President Obama reiterated at the United Nations this week that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests not through a U.N. resolution (which the U.S. will veto) but through direct negotiation. While he’s right, the reality is, you can’t get there from here, at least not any time soon.

There literally is a roadmap to peace, but the parties are not currently prepared to make the trip. They lack the political will, and the President the leverage, to get a serious negotiation started, much less reaching the ultimate destination, an actual agreement.

The United States, for most of this year, has tried to create the right conditions for negotiations to resume. The fact is, they don’t exist. There is no rapport or trust between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And President Obama does not have a strong enough relationship with either man, particularly Netanyahu, to bridge that gap.

For more than a decade, politics, not substance, has been the primary obstacle to progress. The so-called final status issues—borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem—are complex and emotional, with competing histories and narratives on all sides, but broad parameters of a peace agreement are known.

Two states would be formed based, as Obama outlined in May, on the 1967 borders—with adjustments. The states would share Jerusalem as a capital, under international oversight. The vast majority of Palestinian refugees would “return” to the new Palestinian state, or stay where they are. Since the abilities of Palestinian security forces would be limited, an international force would provide security assurances to both sides.

In an actual negotiation, all sides would get something meaningful, and give up something meaningful. Therein lies the fundamental problem. The current leaders do not have sufficient political capital to achieve the deal outlined above.

Stung by regional politics surrounding the Goldstone Report in 2009 and a false start to negotiations last year, Abbas has made specific demands for a return to direct talks: terms of reference, which the Obama attempted to satisfy with his speech in May, and a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu granted a partial freeze once, but is unlikely to do so again, certainly not for free.

Abbas lost faith in the Obama administration after it failed to persuade Netanyahu to extend the settlement moratorium. He knows his request for statehood and/or elevated observer status at the U.N. is not a substitute for direct negotiations. But he has already gained some additional leverage over the process, particularly as countries such as France and Russia break with the United States.

Given the evaporation of the peace camp on the Israeli left, the only political pressure on Netanyahu comes from within his coalition—from Avigdor Lieberman on his right. Over time, the prime minister has made a convincing argument that further steps outside direct talks, such as another settlement freeze, risk bringing down the government. Its replacement would be even less willing to negotiate. Thus, absent a meaningful “get” such as acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state, which the Palestinians will not give in advance of negotiations, Netanyahu will continue to say the right things but stand pat.

There are valid concerns that, should the Palestinians mount an effective nonviolent campaign based on rights rather than resistance, Israel may be further isolated or delegitimized. However, given everything happening in the region, this appears to be a risk Netanyahu is willing to take. For the moment, he already has what he needs, the public assurance of a U.S. veto.

Wherever the peace process travels from here, the U.S. no longer is its navigator.

Obama’s U.N. speech was primarily about domestic and international damage control. What started two years ago as smart policy—Middle East peace is what American presidents do—has lately created political risk. Already criticized across the political spectrum for being too hard on Israel, the president was obviously constrained, not wanting to jeopardize a key constituency, or give prospective opponents a valuable wedge issue as the 2012 election approaches.

The U.N. speech shored up his domestic political base, but at a cost. Whatever happens, the credibility of the United States has been damaged. The extent will depend on whether the U.S. is forced to actually exercise its veto of Palestinian statehood.

Regardless, one fact is clear. Wherever the peace process travels from here, the U.S. no longer is its navigator. Right now, no one is.