Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama and the Middle East

Hussein Agha & Robert Malley
The New York Review of Books
Vol 56, No 10 - June 2009

Hussein Agha is Senior Associate Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the author, with A.S. Khalidi, of A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine. (June 2009)

Robert Malley was Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab–Israeli Affairs and Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff from September 1998 to January 2001. He is currently Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. (June 2009)

By virtually every measure—name, race, origins, and upbringing—Barack Hussein Obama was a revolutionary presidential candidate. In Mideast policy at least, there is little reason to imagine that he will be a revolutionary president. The radical break with traditional US policy came with the Bush administration, during which the US invaded and then occupied Iraq, shunned Syria, and engaged in an effort, at once ambitious and irresponsible, to reshape the region. Bush's presidency represented an upheaval because it was both guided and blinded by a rigid ideological outlook and because of its uncommon proclivity to choose military over diplomatic means. Obama's first step will be to close that stormy parenthesis. It will be no small achievement.

His own agenda for the Middle East is at the center of greater speculation, and at the heart of that speculation is the question of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There are signs—the fact that they are taking their time, reviewing their policies, consulting broadly—that the President and his team are committed to pragmatism and patience, qualities they found wanting in Bush's rash attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East but also in Bill Clinton's impetuous efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement. Their focus, at the outset at least, likely will be on improving conditions on the ground, including the West Bank economy, curbing if not halting Israeli settlement construction, pursuing reform of Palestinian security forces, and improving relations between Israel and Arab countries.

But there also are hints of a grand ambition biding its time. Obama has not staked his presidency on resolving the conflict, but he has not shied away from the challenge either. Judging by what the new president and his colleagues have suggested, attending to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a matter of US national interest. The administration seems prepared to devote considerable diplomatic, economic, and, perhaps, political capital to that end. And the goal, once the ground has been settled, will be to achieve a comprehensive, two-state solution.

At first glance, there's more reason to be confounded than convinced. If such is the President's objective, it will be pursued under unusually inauspicious circumstances. In Israel, a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who never tired of reiterating his commitment to a Palestinian state has been replaced by one, Benjamin Netanyahu, who can barely bring himself to utter the words. His coalition partners—a mix of right-wing, xenophobic, and religious parties—make matters worse. Even the participation of Ehud Barak and his Labor party in the coalition is of scant comfort. Barak was prime minister when Israeli–Palestinian negotiations collapsed at the Camp David summit in 2000; the principal lesson he seems to have drawn is to distrust all things Palestinian. As defense minister under Olmert, he barely concealed his disdain for the talks the Palestinians conducted with his own government, dismissing them as an "academic seminar." It is hard to imagine this new coalition going further than its predecessor, which, in Palestinian eyes, didn't go far enough.

On the Palestinian side, intense Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have so far failed to stitch the national movement together. The price of their divisions, costly under any circumstances, has inflated several-fold as a result of the war in Gaza in December and January between Israel and Hamas. The conflict proved, if proof were still needed, that President Mahmoud Abbas cannot continue to talk peace with Israel when Israel is at war with Palestinians and that Palestinians cannot make peace with Israel when they are at war with themselves. Hamas possesses the power to spoil any progress and will use it. It can act as an implacable opponent against any potential Palestinian compromise. Bilateral negotiations that failed when Olmert was prime minister and Hamas was a mere Palestinian faction are unlikely to succeed with Netanyahu at the helm and Hamas having grown into a regional reality.

If, despite this desolate landscape, the Obama administration nonetheless is determined to push for a final agreement, it could be because the President has something else in mind. At some point, he might intend to bypass negotiations between the parties and, with support from a broad international coalition including Arab countries, Russia, and the European Union, present them with a detailed two-state agreement they will be hard-pressed to reject. The concept stems from the notion that, left to their own devices, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable of reaching an accord and that they will need all the pressure and persuasion the world can muster to take the last, fateful steps.

It is one option. But before jumping toward it, basic issues should be explored. Getting the leaders to endorse a peace deal will be no mean feat, but it is not the only and perhaps not the most substantial challenge. The other question is how in the current climate the Israeli and Palestinian people would welcome a two-state solution. Would they view it as authentic or illegitimate? Would they see it as ending their conflict or merely opening its next round? Would it be more effective at mobilizing supporters or at galvanizing opponents? What, in short, would a two-state solution actually solve?

The challenge of ending the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has, of late, almost entirely revolved around tinkering with the details of a two-state agreement. Efforts toward a settlement, whether official or unofficial, focused on adjusting percentages of territorial annexation and land exchange; dividing and defining forms of sovereignty over Jerusalem; describing the attributes of a Palestinian state; and, more often as afterthought than central concern, finding technical ways to resettle and compensate the refugees. Successive failures and the repeated inability to satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian needs have been vexing. So far at least, these difficulties have not called into question the assumption that an equilibrium of interests exists or that it can be fully found within a two-state agreement. It's just been seen as a matter of trying harder.


The time will come for the US to unfurl a grand diplomatic initiative. Not now. The most urgent task is to prepare the way for that day by countering the skepticism that has greeted and torpedoed every recent American idea, good or bad—from Secretary of State William Roger's 1969 plan to the road map. The time is for a clean break, in words, style, and approach.

For many in the US, the notion of such radical change often is reduced to the question of whether or not to talk to Hamas. That is a diversion. The challenge is whether Obama can speak to those for whom Hamas speaks. They are the people who have lost faith in America, its motivations, and every proposal it promotes.

The broader point is this: a window exists, short and subject to abrupt closure, during which President Obama can radically upset Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions and make it possible for his future plan, whatever and whenever it might be, to get a fair hearing—for American professions of seriousness to be taken seriously. It won't be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won't be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak, incompetent, and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless, and reckless. It won't be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region's most relevant actors.

It won't be done by trying to perform better what was performed before. President Bush's legacy was, in this sense, doubly harmful: he did the wrong things poorly, which now risks creating the false expectation that, somehow, they can be done well.

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