Speculation about the Obama administration’s preparations to launch its own Israel-Arab peace plan began on April 7 with an op-ed article by David Ignatius in the Washington Post and a similar New York Times web-post by Helene Cooper. Both articles cited discussions led by National Security Advisor James Jones with a gallery of his predecessors in which President Barack Obama himself recently participated. Those discussions appear to have taken as their point of departure the well-founded assessment that US peace efforts thus far have gotten nowhere and that renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, direct or indirect, are almost certain to fail.
Both articles were probably the result of calculated administration leaks destined to test the wind regarding the US peace plan idea. And test they should, because jumping from the current stalemate to the idea of dropping an American peace plan on the parties is a dangerous presumption. This fallacy was perhaps best expressed in a confident quote from the Ignatius article: "’Everyone knows the basic outlines of a peace deal,’ said one of the senior officials, citing the agreement that was nearly reached at Camp David in 2000 and in subsequent negotiations."
In fact, no one knows the basic outlines of a peace deal concerning the refugee and Jerusalem Holy Basin issues. On these core or existential issues, Israelis and Palestinians remain as far apart as ever. The views expressed over the years on these issues by both Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are blatantly contradictory. Abortive final status negotiations undertaken on these issues in 2000 and 2008 merely highlighted the gaps. An attempt by an American plan to bridge these gaps would be artificial and would provoke angry rejection by both parties.
Further, an American peace plan, to be in any way effective, would have to encounter Israeli and Palestinian leaders strong enough politically not only to negotiate but to make deals. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu meets this criterion.
Discussion of a last-resort American plan seemingly implies that all avenues for negotiated Middle East peace have been exhausted. In fact, this is not the case. Rather, the administration has wasted more than a year on a settlement freeze as a prelude to renewed (and almost certainly fruitless) Israel-PLO negotiations while ignoring or under-valuing parallel opportunities that could reinforce Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. One of these is Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Another is the need to reassess failed strategies regarding Hamas in Gaza and look for better ways to stabilize the situation there–a sine qua non for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Then, too, there is the Fayyad plan for Palestinian state-building.
The Fayyad plan brings us full circle back to the question of a unilateral American diplomatic initiative. Clearly the Obama administration, like its predecessors, needs to be seen to be advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, if only to maintain a degree of regional stability and advance US strategic agendas in AfPak, Iran and Iraq. This is the immediate political meaning of the recent Petraeus statement linking a failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process to American difficulties elsewhere in the region. And clearly, too, Israelis and Palestinians are not up to the task.
Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayyad intends to complete his state-building initiative by August 2011 and present the international community with the fait accompli of a Palestinian state apparatus capable of delivering on security, law and order and economic development but devoid of control over sufficient territory to be viable. Assuming (a safe assumption under current circumstances) that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have still made little or no progress, this will then–as it is today–be the only successful game in town. Note that a solution to the refugee and Holy Basin issues is not part of the Fayyad plan, which deals with the territorial and sovereignty questions.
If the Obama administration is going to take an initiative that has any chance of success, this would be the time and these would be the circumstances: sponsor UN Security Council recognition of this Palestinian achievement, anchor it in the 1967 borders (with appropriate land swaps) and invite Israel and the new Palestinian state, with the support of the Arab Peace Initiative, to negotiate the territorial modalities.
This notion of where the American contribution might lie is not divorced from current thinking in Washington. On April 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace that "the United States supports two tracks in the Middle East–negotiations between the parties aimed at reaching a two-state solution and also institution building that lays the necessary foundation for a future state." If Clinton can put the two tracks on a par, and in view of the obvious chasm separating Fayyad’s success thus far from the abject failure of Mitchell-Netanyahu-Abbas, then the Palestinian state-building project is where an American initiative should plan to focus.