Obama Wades Back Into the Mideast Peace Process With Little Chance of Success

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It might have once seemed safe to assume that facing a difficult reelection year, President Barack Obama would avoid any temptation to wade back into the perilous business of Middle East peacemaking. After all, his previous effort was blown out of the water by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to yield on the question of settlements. And conventional wisdom in U.S. domestic politics counsels against putting any pressure on Israel in an election year. Yet, the signals are clear that Obama plans to announce a new peace effort, in a speech expected in the coming weeks.

But there’s little risk of alienating the Israelis — or their supporters in Washington and among donors whose support will be essential to Obama’s reelection prospects — this time. On the contrary, the Israelis now need the Obama Administration to signal renewed belief in the prospects of a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in fact, is working on a speech of his own, to be presented in Washington in May, in which he’s expected to offer new gestures, such as withdrawing troops from some parts of the West Bank, and dismantling some settlement outposts built in violation of Israel’s own laws, but not the settlements themselves (which, according to the U.N. Security Council, are in violation of international law).

The smart money says Netanyahu won’t offer enough to get Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, although he’ll hope that rejection would paint the Palestinian leader in Western eyes as the obstacle to progress. Obama might ask or promise more in his own speech, but there are no signs that such a speech might be accompanied by any actions that go further than the bouts of photo-opportunity diplomacy tried during his first two years in office.

The underlying game in the anticipated speeches by both Netanyahu and Obama is not grounded in any reason to expect progress in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Their purpose is to head off what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the “diplomatic tsunami” heading Israel’s way in September, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the U.N. General Assembly to seek recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over a putative state based on the 1967 lines.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry earlier this week made clear that the purpose of a new Obama initiative is to head off what he called “the dangers of September.” Kerry predicted the Administration would make “a genuine effort to try to avoid things that you’re not initiating and controlling yourself,” meaning the U.N. vote to set the parameters of a two-state solution.

If such a resolution was put to the General Assembly, it would be expected to be easily carried. And unlike the 15-member Security Council, no country has veto power in the General Assembly, which includes all member states. So, the only way the U.S. can prevent U.N. recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is by convincing — or strong-arming — the Palestinians into holding back their bid for recognition. Where once it was a safe bet that President Mahmoud Abbas would not, in the final instance, put at risk the U.S. patronage on which his entire political strategy depended by defying the wishes of the White House, that’s no longer a certainty. Just last February, Abbas bucked U.S. pressure to withdraw a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a halt to all Israeli settlement activity on territories conquered in 1967. The U.S. used its Security Council veto to block that resolution, but Washington was entirely isolated — all of its European allies voted in favor of the resolution, sending a message that international patience with the U.S. approach has worn thin.

The argument used by the Administration — and the Israelis — in February’s settlement fight was that no good can come of going to the U.N. and that only U.S.-led negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can result in the creation of a Palestinian state. But that argument has lost credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian leadership after two decades of U.S.-sponsored talks on the issue have failed to produce an agreement.

The difference between Washington and the Europeans was highlighted again, this week, when the Obama Administration canceled a planned meeting of the Middle East Quartet — a contact group combining the U.S., the EU, Russia and the U.N. — where Britain, France and Germany had hoped to lay down parameters for a two-state solution, particularly the international consensus that it be based on the 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps, and with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The Europeans, too, have lost faith in the ability of the U.S. to broker a credible two-state agreement; they’ve come around to the belief that the imbalance of power between the two sides means that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks under U.S. auspices won’t produce a credible agreement. Instead, they believe, the international consensus on the parameters of a two-state solution will have to be put on the table.

For the Palestinians, international recognition of the principle that a two-state solution be based on the 1967 borders partly compensates for the limited leverage they bring to the negotiating table: The current balance of power between the two sides so heavily favors Israel that it has little incentive to yield any territory it prefers to keep, particularly in light of strong domestic pressure from Israelis opposed to giving up occupied territory to which they lay Biblical claim.

The Palestinians know that U.N. recognition of a state won’t end the Israeli occupation or bring such an entity into being, but it establishes the principle that the legitimacy of any future Israeli presence on land outside of its 1967 boundaries is contingent on Palestinian agreement achieved via land-swaps or other concessions.

For the same reason, of course, the Israelis are working furiously to avoid either the U.N. or the Quartet declaring the 1967 principle as the basis for an agreement. To the extent that they can keep matters entirely in the hands of a process, to borrow Kerry’s terms, “initiated and controlled” by the U.S., the Israelis are confident they can largely set the terms of a two-state agreement.

The real purpose of President Obama’s forthcoming speech, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s, may be to restore the idea — or illusion, as the case may be — that there is, in fact, a “peace process” still underway that would somehow be complicated by a UN General Assembly recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines.

But the idea that speeches by Obama or Netanyahu are going to somehow mollify the Palestinians and the international community may be more than a little fanciful, and the bottom lines demanded by each side for an agreement are so far apart that its unlikely that even any concrete steps the Israeli leader could be expected to announce would persuade Abbas that he can get a deal from Netanyahu that he’d be able to accept.

Palestinian thinking may have reached the point where negotiations are seen as more likely to bear fruit — from their point of view — if they come to the table armed with global recognition of their claim to statehood on the 1967 lines, than if they come bearing a copy of another stirring speech by President Obama.