Learn From Our Mistakes, Mr. President

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

September 1, 2010

When President Obama sits down with Middle East peacemakers tonight, he will find himself face-to-face with the enormity of the task to which he has committed the prestige of his high office—and the reputation of the United States. After all, it took him 20 months and several missteps just to get the parties to the point where they are negotiating directly with each other. Now he is setting a 12-month deadline to achieve a breakthrough agreement on the thorniest, most emotionally fraught and politically perilous issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s a timetable which will put pressure on him much more than it will the Israelis and Palestinians. And on the eve of the ceremonial opening, the horrible Hebron terror attack serves as a bloody reminder, if one were needed, that the enemies of peace will stop at nothing to dash any hope for an American-brokered reconciliation.

So here, with the humility of an American peace negotiator who tried to help Bill Clinton achieve the breakthrough that President Obama now seeks, are some practical principles that might be useful for him and his advisers to bear in mind.

The answer to terror is security cooperation.

The more negotiations progress, the more determined Iranian-backed terrorist groups will be to sabotage it. Vows to “continue the talks as if there were no terror, and fight terror as if there were no talks” do little to assuage the growing sense among Israelis that a peace deal will make them less, rather than more, secure. The only antidote is effective and visible security cooperation between the increasingly capable Palestinian security services in the West Bank and their Israeli counterparts. That will crimp the terrorists’ running room while demonstrating to Israelis that the Palestinian Authority is serious about stopping them. In this case, the terrorists struck in an area under Israeli security control but they surely came from an area under PA responsibility. The PA has already arrested over 100 Hamas activists. If they are able—with the help of the Israeli security services—to find the perpetrators and those who sent them, they should put them on trial and incarcerate them or, better still, hand them over to Israel for prosecution.

The answer to increased settlement activity is an agreement on borders.

The more negotiations progress, the more the settlers will insist on building. They took advantage of Tuesday’s terror attack to presume the right to end the current moratorium immediately. Murdering civilian settlers and laying building foundations in West Bank settlements are not morally equivalent. But they are equally deleterious to the attempt to resolve the conflict because they undermine Palestinian faith that negotiations will lead to a contiguous, independent state. Obama should use the limited time available before the settlement moratorium actually expires at the end of this month to focus the negotiators on defining the western border of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians have already agreed in previous negotiations to the principle that some settlement blocs will be annexed to Israel as part of a land swap. If negotiators can agree on which blocs will be absorbed by Israel, settlement activity can continue there, while the moratorium is extended everywhere else.

Don’t forget the other Arabs.

The attendance of Egypt’s President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah at tonight’s dinner is an important manifestation of Arab state support for the negotiations. But their presence highlights the absence of two other Arab leaders who can play a significant role—the one as spoiler, the other as facilitator. Syria’s Bashar Asad wants his own peace negotiations but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently cannot bear the political freight of negotiations on two tracks simultaneously. Asad will be quite prepared to enable Hamas (its external headquarters is in Damascus) and Hezbollah (which Syria is equipping with increasingly sophisticated weapons) to disrupt the negotiations on the Palestinian track if he feels his interests are being ignored. Obama needs to maintain contact with Asad directly, and through envoys like John Kerry and George Mitchell, to prepare the ground for eventual Israeli-Syrian negotiations; the Senate should do its part by confirming the U.S. ambassador to Damascus.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, on the other hand, could do much to signal Israelis that his offer of peace with the entire Arab world is still on the table but his skepticism and caution is likely to deter overt Saudi involvement until the deal is done. Nevertheless, Obama should try to persuade him to bless the resurrection of the multilateral negotiations that would enable Arab officials—including Saudis—to engage with their Israeli counterparts on regional issues (e.g. water, the environment, economic development, regional security frameworks).

Watch out for the Iranians.

Progress in these peace negotiations will begin to resolve a conflict that provides Iran with a ready means for promoting its influence in the Arab world. This will enhance the already growing international pressure to curb Iran’s nuclear aspirations. As in the past, the Iranian regime may respond by pursuing a breakout strategy that could turn the tables on the United States. The best available tool for doing that is Hezbollah—with its 40,000 rockets and its own need for a distraction from the likely indictment of its operatives for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Provoking a conflict with Israel on the Lebanese border will enable Iran to claim it is defending Arabs against an Israeli onslaught, while the United States will have no choice but to support Israel’s right to defend itself. All the more reason for Obama to work with Syria to restrain Hezbollah.

Don’t ignore public opinion.

Public opinion on both sides of this conflict supports a two-state solution but doesn’t believe the other side wants it. Moreover, neither public has been adequately prepared for the significant concessions they will have to support. President Obama needs to enlist all the leaders he will host tonight in a campaign to convince the Arab and Israeli public that peace really is possible although it will involve painful compromises.

Obama showed a mistaken disregard for Israeli public opinion in the lead up to this day. He seemed to think he could curry favor in the Arab world by distancing the United States from Israel and that would encourage Arab leaders to be more responsive. The failure of this approach is surely evident now since it managed to drive down the president’s popularity on both sides of the conflict—among Israelis of all political views because they felt he didn’t like them, and in the Arab world because he raised expectations that he would deliver Israel and then failed to do so.

The president needs to reach out to the Israeli public on a sustained basis, including making a visit there soon and appointing an ambassador who can speak for him. If Obama demonstrates that he understands Israeli fears and will be in the trenches with them when the chips are down, he might just be able to rebuild his standing there. That will increase his leverage on Netanyahu who knows the Israeli public will not reward him for mishandling relations with a friendly president. And if that in turn produces progress in the negotiations, Obama will restore his credibility in the Arab world.

Beware the Palestinian “no.”

The Palestinians are the weak player in this negotiation. Since Israel controls the territory—including Jerusalem—on which a deal will have to be made, it necessarily holds all the high cards. Moreover, the Palestinians have little domestic support in the United States, unlike Israel, and little leverage with which to extract Israeli conditions. This makes them heavily dependent on the president and therefore a tempting target for pressure when the going gets tough. Indeed, after trying and failing to muscle Netanyahu into a settlements freeze, Obama has now dragged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into the negotiations without any agreed terms of reference, forcing him to accept Netanyahu’s demand that there be “no preconditions.” But it would be a mistake for the president to assume that he can repeat this exercise in the negotiations themselves, even though that is what Netanyahu will naturally urge him to do.

The only real card Abu Mazen (Abbas) wields is his ability to refuse a deal that does not serve the interests of his people. If he says no, he may harm his relationship with the United States but he will always gain credit back home and in the Arab world as the underdog who resisted a bad deal (just like Arafat did after Camp David). In these circumstances, no Arab leader will stand with the president against the popular support Abu Mazen can engender. That means Obama needs to listen carefully and make a fair assessment of each side’s minimum requirements before putting forward American bridging proposals. An imposed settlement will fail, whether the president tries to impose it on Israel or the Palestinians.