Failed Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks May Sink Obama’s Middle East Strategy

President Obama’s failure to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has severely diminished his administration’s hopes of achieving a Two-State Solution. Persuading Israel and the Palestinians to reach an accord lay at the center of President Obama’s strategy to renew American power in the Middle East. By removing the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the destabilizing accelerant fueling anti-American sentiment, radical sympathies with salafi causes and potential wars between Israel, Lebanon and Syria, President Obama sought to usher in a political re-alignment in the region. Obama’s “New Middle East” envisaged in his Cairo speech embodied the majority of Sunni Arab governments accepting a Two-State Solution, recognizing Israel’s right to exist and working in partnership with the U.S. to curb Iranian influence.

President Obama’s plan hinged on securing two critical concessions; first Israel would be convinced to freeze settlements in the “occupied territories;” then Saudi King Abdullah would be persuaded to support the talks and win approval from the Arab world to bring the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. But President Obama miscalculated badly. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement activity King Abdullah was forced to reject Obama’s request to support the talks and “normalize” relations with Israel. Left out in the cold, Mahmoud Abbas announced his resignation as Palestinian Authority President. A mere ten months after taking office, President Obama’s Middle East initiative had crashed and burned.    

Since early November the Obama administration has scrambled to revive the peace process with little success. Secretary of State Clinton announced that talks between Israel and the Palestinians could resume as soon as possible without preconditions. But the Palestinian Authority’s immediate rejection of Secretary Clinton’s offer underscores how wide the chasm has grown in the search for peace. Israeli support for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position to expand settlements in the West Bank has increased. Israeli jets continue to bomb targets in Gaza suspected of being transit points for weapons smuggling and his center-right coalition with Avigdor Lieberman has grown stronger.

On the other side of the divide, the Palestinian Authority is in disarray. Having demanded a total ban on Israel settlements as a condition to resume talks, Mahmoud Abbas is in no position to offer more concessions. Many speculate that Abbas’s threat to resign as Palestinian Authority President is a bluff to force the U.S. to adopt a firmer position with Israel on the settlement issue. But Secretary Clinton’s November endorsement of Netanyahu’s offer to restrict settlement activities with exemptions for Jerusalem and the 3,000 settlement projects already under construction could hardly be considered getting tough with Israel.       

Increasingly, Mahmoud Abbas is viewed throughout the Palestinian Diaspora as a spent force. Abbas and the Fatah’s corruption, inability to deliver vital social services to its constituents and the failure to win anything meaningful after five years of negotiations with Israel and the U.S. has led to the P. A.’s disintegration on the West Bank. Notwithstanding his threats to resign, Mahmoud Abbas will likely cancel the January elections and remain the PA President by default. Calls by Egyptian President Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussien II, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and President Shimon Peres for Abbas to remain as President reflect growing concerns that the absence of a credible “moderate” PA President will result in the West Bank falling under HAMAS’s control. Nor can the prospects of another destructive civil war between Fatah and HAMAS be ruled out.  

Irrespective of whatever short-term maneuvers Mahmoud Abbas makes, momentum in the West Bank is passing over to HAMAS and more radical Palestinian forces. Similarly, Iran’s influence in the West Bank is likely to grow, even if Abbas maintains some semblance of power with the Palestinian Authority. With Israel moving further to the right and tension mounting in Gaza and the West Bank the prospects for renewed violence may be greater than the prospects of restarting peace talks.

Many will question why President Obama demanded that Israel halt settlement activities as a condition to open talks with the Palestinian Authority when it wasn’t necessary. That the President made such a demand without thoroughly discussing the issue with the Israelis first is even more baffling, as was his expectation that Saudi King Abdullah would support renewed peace talks with no commitment from Israel to stop settlement construction.  Whether President Obama was misled by Tel Aviv, underestimated the Israelis and the Saudis or overestimated his ability to transfer his substantial popularity into a foreign policy breakthrough remains unclear.  What we do know is that President Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian gambit failed miserably, and failure has consequences. President Obama is not the first, nor is he likely to be the last American president to be seduced by the dream of forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In the end, peace can only be made when the warring parties are ready for peace. Unfortunately, that day is still a long way off.

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