How can President Obama drag the Middle East peace wagon out of the mud? He can’t—at least not until the region’s leaders feel enough of a sense of urgency to take the risks necessary to achieve breakthroughs. Right now, Arab and Israeli leaders are convinced that Obama is in more of a hurry than they are, so they are content to have him do the heavy lifting.
Some counsel that Obama should leave Arabs and Israelis to stew in their own juices until they realize the situation is critical. The problem with that approach is that nature, especially in the Middle East, abhors a vacuum. Already, the American failure to move the parties back to the negotiating table has led the French to call for an international conference, the Palestinians to seek a U.N. Security Council vote on statehood, and others to argue for an imposed solution. Those ideas can’t go anywhere without American leadership, but they might well box in the United States and make it even more difficult for Obama to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Worse, Hamas is just waiting to fill the vacuum that will be left if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resigns in despair at not having accomplished a negotiated solution. Hamas’ bid would be assisted by a looming Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap and rising tension over Jerusalem—the very kind of issues that sparked the second intifada.
If walking away is therefore irresponsible, what is the best way forward? At this stage it would be wise to lower expectations and focus on achieving tangible short-term results. This would require working with leaders who feel some urgency. Currently, there are two likely candidates: Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For some time, Fayyad has operated on the assumption that Palestinians must demonstrate their reliability as peace partners before Israel will negotiate in good faith. Instead of playing the victim, Fayyad has worked to build a Palestinian state from the bottom up.
Already, he has had considerable success. Palestinian police have restored order in all of the West Bank’s main cities and are now ready to extend their control to all of the territory formally ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords but reoccupied by the Israel Defense Forces during the intifada. Fayyad also has instituted transparent and accountable systems of governance, particularly in the financial arena. Despite the worldwide economic crisis, the West Bank expects to see double-digit annual growth by the end of the first quarter of 2010.
But if Abbas resigns—or if peace negotiations do not resume—Fayyad will be left without political cover. That’s what drives his sense of urgency. He needs to show that his way can produce tangible progress toward achieving statehood. Without that, his security forces soon will be labeled “Israel’s policemen.”
At the same time, Netanyahu is beginning to feel heat — and not just from Washington. His defense and security advisors are warning him that Israel is approaching a moment of truth. They have succeeded in combating Hamas militarily, but only a political move can save the Palestinian Authority.
Pressure on Netanyahu was intensified by the U.N.’s Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict, which called into question Israel’s use of force and could lead to indictments for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. His best defense at this point would be a credible effort to help build a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has been distracted in recent months by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But for the moment, he can be content to let an increasingly united world coalition fight the battle to constrain Iran. Netanyahu’s security advisors are telling him that Israel’s strategic situation is favorable but will not remain so unless he moves on peacemaking.
And although his recently announced settlements moratorium was judged inadequate by the Palestinians, it demonstrated that he has the political ability, as a right-wing leader, to bring his hard-line coalition around to support hitherto unthinkable concessions to the Palestinians.
How can Obama take advantage of Fayyad’s and Netanyahu’s sense of urgency? The vehicle already exists in agreements the Israelis and Palestinians have previously signed. Phase One of the so-called road map calls for the Israeli army to withdraw to pre-intifada lines as the Palestinian Authority restores order and dismantles the infrastructure of terror in the West Bank. Restoring Palestinian Authority control over these Oslo accord-designated “A and B” areas, where 90% of West Bank Palestinians live, would allow Fayyad to demonstrate that he has made progress in liberating Palestinian territory. Once that is successfully achieved, negotiations can begin at the security level on removing the Israeli army from parts of the remaining West Bank territory (the “C” areas) as provided for by the Oslo accords. This would extend the Palestinian Authority’s writ to land that it has never previously controlled.
None of this can substitute for final status negotiations, so George J. Mitchell needs to continue to prod both sides toward the negotiating table with his brand of skillful determination. But this complementary process would build on previous small steps, including Netanyahu’s settlements moratorium and a growing trust between the Palestinian security forces and the IDF. Buttressed by rapid economic growth, the actions would instill hope that Palestinians are on the road to freedom and independence, where at the moment there is despair. It would build confidence where there is mistrust. And that would surely help facilitate the resumption of the negotiations necessary to ending the conflict.