Israel-Palestine – can Obama’s errors be rectified?

Bradley Burston, an American-born Israeli journalist, is a regular columnist for the influential daily, Ha’aretz. In today’s edition (21 December), he produces a brilliant analysis of the mistakes President Obama has perpetrated in his Middle East strategy.  He weighs the effectiveness of Obama’s strategy against Sun Tzu’s ancient The Art of War.

He starts by quoting two of Sun Tzu’s basic principles:

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.

He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

Burston points out how very effectively Obama followed these principles in much of his domestic policy, and how abysmally he failed to do so in respect of his approach to the Middle East.  Burston reckons the President should have taken more fully into account the inherently hardline background and beliefs of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the instability of Netanyahu’s coalition foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the former nightclub bouncer determined to bar entry to any peace progress; and should have made a realistic assessment of the chance of a working rapprochement between Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas in Gaza.

The last point is worth emphasising, for of what value would a peace accord be between Israel and a Palestinian Authority whose writ ran only in the West Bank?  The past year has shown that every attempt to broker an understanding between Hamas and Fatah – the party of President Mahmoud Abbas – has failed.  Hamas are irretrievably rejectionist – not only of any sort of peace accord with Israel, but of any rapprochement with the PA.  They seized power in Gaza in a bloody coup d’état, and their aim clearly is to extend their power over the rest of the Palestinian body politic, converting it to their extreme Islamist ideology.

“A lack of movement in any one of these three elements alone,” writes Burston, “would have been sufficient to impede Washington’s peace overtures. Together, they guaranteed defeat. But,” he adds, “that was just the beginning.”

To illustrate Obama’s failure in respect of his settlement policy, he quotes another of Sun Tzus’s principles: The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him. Burston asserts, not without reason, that Obama’s demand for a freeze on building in the West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem played into the hands of the pro-settlement right (for to the fury of many in Israeli politics, and not only  those on the right, Washington persisted in including East Jerusalem in the demand for a construction freeze).

“Had more groundwork been laid,” asserts Burston, “the administration might have concluded, correctly, that the demand for a settlement freeze would have done more harm than good. As it was, the freeze made Washington look bad for no gain and considerable pain.”

Burston asserts that if the administration had taken more time and care, it might have realized in advance that the original 9-month building freeze would not in itself be enough to bring the PA back to negotiations. In fact, once the freeze had run its course, the subsequent high-profile dispute over continued Israeli construction both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem brought the first phase of the peace process to a shuddering halt.

Even more to the point – something Burston does not touch on – the moment that Washington made public its view that all construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem was unacceptable and should be halted (and this it did quite early on and reiterated more than once), the US administration had effectively backed Mahmoud Abbas into a corner from which there was no escape.  Without so clear-cut an opinion from America, Abbas could have brokered a deal with Netanyhau, an understanding of the sort that has existed for many years.  Construction in the West Bank has never inhibited previous attempts by Israel and the Palestinians at talking about the issues.  It has proved an insurmountable stumbling block this time simply because the US has made it so – and in the process has strengthened the hands of Obama’s pro-settlement, anti-peace process opponents in Israel and the United States.

Then there was the matter of Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim and Arab world in June 2009. “The intention was good,” wrote commentator Nahum Barnea, visiting Chicago this month to interview Rahm Emanuel for Israel’s leading Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. “The result was destructive.”  Obama sought to turn a new leaf with Arabs and Islamic peoples, wrote Barnea, but in the wake of the speech, “the Muslims, he failed to gain, and the Israelis, he lost.”

According to Barnea, “Obama’s path in the twists and turns of the Mideast has been paved with errors.” Barnea’s list:

Mistake A: Obama was convinced that the Palestinian issue was first on the order of priorities of pro-American Arab leaders, and that a working peace process would win their gratitude.  But given Wikileaks, what the Arab leaders really wanted was for the U.S. “to annihilate Iran for them.”

Mistake B: Turning the peace process into “a hostage of the settlement freeze.”

Mistake C: Thinking that the Israeli Labour leader, Ehud Barak, a conviction dove on the peace process, could effectively influence Netanyahu.

Mistake D: Making the same error with Israel that he had with the Arabs, that is, thinking that there was a connection between what Netanyahu said in public, and what he did in practice.

The end result?  A foundering of the first phase of the peace process that had been so painstakingly brokered by Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and finally brought to the point of direct face-to-face talks at the end of August.

Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again?  Well, in the nursery rhyme all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t achieve it – but in international politics anything is possible.  Nil desperandum, as the Roman poet Horace has it – “Don’t despair.”

For two senior US officials arrived in Israel on Sunday (19 December) to continue discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officials, as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to revive the diplomatic process between the two sides. Dan Shapiro, Director of the US National Security Council, and David Hale, deputy to US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, are set to meet with senior prime ministerial aides Isaac Molho, Ron Dermer and Uzi Arad. They will also meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

Also on Sunday, a group of over 100 Israeli politicians and activists from across the political spectrum visited PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, under the auspices of the Geneva Initiative. The delegation was led by former Labour Chairman Amram Mitzna. It included members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, from the centrist Kadima and left-leaning Labour and Meretz parties, as well as activists from the centre-right Likud party and ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Abbas told the gathering that he had reached understandings with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on security issues during talks in 2008, and rejected accusations that he had failed to respond to Olmert’s peace proposal.

With many in Israel sceptical about the chances of a breakthrough in final status talks, there are various voices calling for an alternative approach, including the opposition Kadima party’s deputy leader and former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz.  Ideas include some form of interim agreement, as opposed to a final status accord, which would give the Palestinians greater control over the West Bank, whilst deferring for now the final status issues.

All of which are straws in the wind, indicating ways in which peace process might indeed be revived, and Phase Two launched, in 2011.  “A consummation,” as Shakespeare so felicitously puts it, “devoutly to be wished.”

Neville Teller

Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016” (2016), and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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