Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, March 22, 2013

Obama's Jerusalem Speech: Just Another Pretty Speech?

It appears that Obama's trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan was very carefully prepared and scripted. In Israel Obama went to all the right places to both show his support for peace and to flatter the Israelis. In his Jerusalem speech to students he said many things to both flatter and reassure Israelis as well as to challenge them. In the beginning of the speech he sounded like a typical American politician trolling for Jewish votes (something that he has had much practice in during his many years in Chicago and twice running for the presidency). Later during the end part of the speech in which he spoke about Israel's technological achievements and the economic miracle that Israel could provide to the Middle East he sounded much like President Shimon Peres. If you had an actor read the text of the final part of the speech with a Polish accent you would swear it was Peres.

In the middle part of the speech, which can be viewed on C-Span, he challenged Israelis by speaking about the aspirations of Palestinians as well as their rights and needs, much as he had challenged Arabs in his Cairo speech by talking about the Holocaust and about terrorism. He challenged the students to confront their own government and pressure it to make peace. This gives him a way out of having to pressure Israel himself and make peace--he can always say the students didn't pressure hard enough. Middle East peacemaking is like the drug war: both sides expect the other party to do the critical heavy work. The supplier countries in Latin America want the American public to stop using drugs and American law enforcement and the families of drug users expect political pressure and the DEA to cut off the supply of drugs. The Middle East version of this is the Israeli Left expecting that Washington will somehow force Jerusalem to give up the territories and make peace while Washington expects the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace on their own without any real pressure.

In late 2008 I predicted on another blog (Dan Fleshler's Realistic Dove) that Obama's plate would be two full with two foreign wars and the Great Recession for him to be able to make peace in the Middle East. In early 2009 I appeared to be wrong: on his second day in office he appointed George Mitchell, the maker of the Belfast miracle in 1998-99, to be his special peace envoy to the region, then he made his Cairo speech and then he put pressure on Netanyahu for a settlement freeze. Netanyahu agreed to a ten-month freeze that was largely circumvented by speeding up construction before and after the freeze and by ruling Jerusalem out of the freeze and allowing for construction in existing settlements. But then Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel because Jerusalem was not included in the freeze. And Netanyahu refused to renew the freeze despite being offered overly-generous bribes by Obama to do so. So Obama gave up and said he would renew the push in his second term.

What has changed since then? The Iraq war is over (at least as far as the U.S. is concerned if not quite for the Iraqis), America is on its way out of Afghanistan, and Bin Laden is dead. But North Korea has just conducted a third nuclear test and may be sharing nuclear technology with Iran. Iran continues to enrich uranium to a 20 percent level and is stalling in negotiations, the Arab Spring has put a Muslim Brother into the presidential palace in Cairo, and Syria is involved in a very bloody civil war with no end in sight. Europe hovers on the brink of economic collapse in the Euro zone. So Obama still has plenty of challenges in the region and across the globe. What is his domestic situation? Health-care reform passed Congress and the Supreme Court and some financial reforms were enacted for Wall Street. But the unemployment rate is still well over seven percent, and Obama wants to enact the most substantial gun control in a half century and is facing stiff resistance from the NRA. And the Republicans still control the House.

The only major advances in peacemaking in the Middle East came when the situation was ripe (Kissinger, Baker) or when a president was obsessed by it and made it a priority (Carter, Clinton). And even then success is not guaranteed. Kissinger and Carter were successful both due to ripeness and obsession--and skill. Baker declared a peace process but not peace. Clinton was not obsessed and by 2000 the situation was no longer ripe. Obama does not appear to be obsessed and the situation is not ripe. The Palestinians are still divided and Netanyahu's third government is even more nationalist and settler oriented than his second.

Find my general conclusion echoed in these pieces by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi, by former American peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, and by Alon Pinkas at the Israel Policy Forum.

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