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Obama rethinks Middle East plans

Commentary, 2 October 2009
Americas, Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
Barack Obama must dial up the diplomacy and provide more policy detail if he is to make progress on peace in the Middle East

The meeting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders with US President Barak Obama in New York on 22 September resulted in limited success in achieving peace between the two states.  Barack Obama must dial up the diplomacy and provide more policy detail if he is to make progress on peace in the Middle East.

Obama and Israel

By Nancy Seni for RUSI.org

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with US President Barak Obama for the first time in New York on 22 September 2009. Although all three sides downplayed expectations in the lead up to the mini-summit, it was hoped that the meeting might lead to the re-launch of bilateral negotiations. Instead, it failed to yield anything other than a begrudging handshake between the President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In light of the Obama administration's failure to attain concrete results over the Middle East peace process, the President should re-evaluate his approach to resolving this long- standing dispute. 

The first step which President Obama should take is to reveal his cards and be open about his plans for peace in the Middle East. The White House needs to focus attention away from Israel's settlements in the West Bank in the debate over restarting peace negotiations. The settlements issue is of course vital to any Middle East peace discussions, but the White House has gambled too much by placing it at the centre of the debate. Historically, Palestinian leaders have accused Israeli Prime Ministers of double dealing: negotiating peace while continuing to approve settlement plans. Successive US Presidents acting as mediators have tacitly approved of Israel's settlement policy in the past, but President Obama appears to be less lenient. As early as May 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton articulated the White House's unambiguous demand that Israel stop all settlement activity - 'not some settlements, not outposts, not "natural growth" exceptions'. This request was obviously supported by President Abbas, who views a settlement freeze as a precondition to final status negotiations. The Obama administration followed up its demand for settlement cessation with diplomatic pressure on Netanyahu. Initially, Netanyahu refused to capitulate. Eventually however, while not prepared to agree to a moratorium on settlements, Netanyahu did offer a freeze in construction for several months. He also provided details of all construction projects to the US, which Israel has never done before. At the same time, this temporary freeze would not cover East Jerusalem or previously approved settlement projects. At the moment, it appears that Netanyahu has successfully resisted US pressure and that President Obama is backing down. In New York, the President called for Israeli restraint in building homes, rather than a freeze.

Incentives and bargaining chips

The difficulty in making settlement cessation a precondition to final status negotiations is that it places the entire onus on Israel to act in order for talks to resume. This is compounded by the fact that the White House has not clarified what incentives it is offering Israel to give up this bargaining chip. As far as the Israeli public is concerned, Prime Minister Netanyahu is being asked to make a concrete concession without receiving much in return. The only incentives on offer from the Palestinians are stronger security measures, but Israelis expect this without the need to capitulate on the settlement issue. There are some reports that Netanyahu is being enticed into negotiating because the White House is offering a broader comprehensive peace package based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Initiative provides for normal relations with the twenty two states of the Arab League in return for Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The problem, however, is that the content of the White House's proposals are as yet unknown. The specifics of Obama's long awaited peace plan have yet to be announced.  This may be an indication that the Obama administration is having difficulty convincing the Arab states to cooperate in the initiative. In fact, Obama's call for Arab states to improve relations and to take confidence-building measures (such as agreeing to visas and trade relations as well as participating in cultural exchanges and reaching over-flight agreements) has fallen on deaf ears. Thus far, both Jordan and Saudi Arabia have refused to be swayed. In the meantime, the Israeli public feels increasingly ostracised by Obama.  His approval ratings in Israel have dropped to single digits: Israelis do not believe he is operating in their best interests. Historically, Israelis do not tolerate schisms between their government and the US, but Obama has alienated the Israeli public because he has pressed Netanyahu too hard on settlements. Netanyahu now finds himself in a stronger position because his constituents believe that he has stood up to the US President and won the battle over settlement freezing. The White House should consider courting the Israeli public, revealing at the very least some of the incentives on offer, to persuade the public of the benefits of a peace initiative. As it stands now, Israelis are not in the mood for concessions and Netanyahu is not under any domestic pressure to implement a peaceful resolution.

High-profile negotiators

Another alternative which the Obama administration should consider when rethinking its current approach to Middle East peace is co-opting additional actors to take part in diplomatic initiatives. George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, has been the key player engaged in diplomacy throughout the region over the past few months. This should remain the case, but it would be beneficial for higher profile individuals to be involved in the negotiations. This would signal that resolving the conflict remains on the Obama administration's foreign policy priority list. For example, Secretary of State Clinton should play a more visible role in the negotiations. Even an intermittent engagement would strengthen Obama's cause. Obama has indicated that he may do just that; by announcing that Clinton, and not Mitchell, will be providing him with a progress report in mid-October.  Such efforts to have the Secretary of State involved in the Middle East peace process should continue.

In addition to the Secretary of State, the White House should enlist the help of its fellow Middle East Quartet members and in particular their Special Envoy, Tony Blair. The Quartet was established in Madrid in 2002 as a result of escalating violence between Israel and Palestinian groups. It brings together the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States, who all share a common goal of finding a comprehensive resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather than acting unilaterally, Obama should capitalise on the support of the other Quartet members and secure the support of Tony Blair, who could work alongside George Mitchell to assist with re-launching direct bilateral negotiations. As a former British Prime Minister, Blair has a high international profile and greater political clout, which he may be able to employ to convince the parties to sit down together. The Obama administration will remain the driving force behind the strategy but such cooperation between the two envoys would signal that the US and the Quartet members are united not only in words but in actions. It will prove to Israelis and Palestinians that the US and the international community are willing to exert the pressure and devote the resources necessary to achieving a fair two-state solution.

Tackling 'deeply rooted and historically complex conflict'

Commentators point out that previous US Presidents with greater foreign policy experience have tried and failed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, that Obama is too inexperienced to successfully tackle such a deeply rooted and historically complex conflict, and that he is over optimistic about his chances of success. In response, during his speech at the United Nations,  President Obama let his detractors know that he is not naïve and that he understands the difficulties in achieving peace. He called on the Israelis and Palestinians to act with urgency in restarting the negotiations. Undoubtedly, President Obama has stumbled at the first hurdle in his Middle East peace plans, but it is too early to dismiss his chances just yet. Unlike many of his predecessors, he has tackled the Arab-Israeli conflict so early in his administration that he has time on his side.  What he needs to do is ensure that he does not run out of political capital before he can get serious talks up and running.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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