The more energetically the new Obama administration enters into Israel-Arab peace process issues, the more fragmented appear the leaderships on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. The inevitable conclusion is that even a massive American effort to advance a Palestinian solution will have to factor in the divisiveness within both camps and suffice with a gradual and partial peace process.
The composition of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem presents three distinct approaches to Israeli-Palestinian peace. PM Binyamin Netanyahu claims he does not believe a viable process is in the offing, hence wants to begin "from the bottom up" with an "economic peace" that strengthens the Palestinian Authority and West Bank society in general. In so doing, he ignores the abject failure of economic initiatives, whether incentives to development or sanctions as in the Gaza Strip over the past two years, which have been directed at the Palestinians for the past 42 years. To argue that the key to a solution for this political conflict is economic is to ignore all the lessons we have learned.
Moreover, Netanyahu has no workable plan for a territorial solution in the West Bank. His claim that he is free to expand settlements gives away the game: he really has little to offer even the most moderate Palestinians. Yet experience has taught him that he must find a way to accommodate President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their emissary, George Mitchell, if he wants to survive politically in Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues for "rebranding" the Israel-Arab peace process within some sort of "regional initiative". This ostensibly reflects a correct understanding of both President Barack Obama’s integrative regional approach and of the links binding the Iran, Iraq, Syria-Lebanon and Israel-Arab issues. But assuming the idea is to respond in kind to the Arab Peace Initiative, Barak chooses to ignore the most fundamental reality of the API and of the emerging Obama-Clinton approach: regional cooperation has to be primed by decisive progress toward bilateral Israel-Arab peace agreements.
Finally, FM Avigdor Lieberman is busy firing off newspaper interviews in which he casts doubt on American determination, seeks to reorient Israel’s foreign policy in the direction of Russia, rejects the principle of Israeli concessions and lays down impossible terms for a process with Syria. Yet in his own idiosyncratic and insulting style, Lieberman seemingly leaves open the door for a roadmap-based Israeli-Palestinian process.
In view of this disturbing lack of coherence and logic in the Netanyahu government’s peace policies, it is hard to view it as a serious candidate for a viable process with the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian side, the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain divided politically between Fateh and Hamas. Egypt’s recent attempts to bring the two movements back into a unity government appear to have failed. Yet even this division is not stable: opinion polls show that Fateh is more popular than Hamas in Gaza and Hamas more popular in the West Bank, thereby rendering highly problematic any near-term attempt to hold elections in either of these territories. Nor should we soon expect an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange that would release Marwan Barghouthi and thereby perhaps inject new life into West Bank politics.
Way back in Zionist history, before the state of Israel was established, a delegation came to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and complained about the incompetent and primitive level of his emissaries and representatives. "Those are the Jews I have," the future first president of Israel replied. To borrow from history, Obama and his administration have to recognize that these are the sorry Israeli and Palestinian leaders we have to offer. The nature of the process under Obama has to be adapted to them, and not vice-versa.
For starters, the Obama team should reevaluate the failed policy toward Hamas adopted by Israel and the Quartet two years ago and acknowledge, as a prelude to examining new policy options, that both economic warfare and military warfare have failed. In the West Bank it must also reevaluate failed American policies and make zero-settlement construction, together with the dismantling of "illegal" outposts, its first and most basic demand of Israel. And it should seek to genuinely expand full Palestinian self-rule throughout the northern West Bank where a revived US-sponsored Palestinian security scheme has succeeded and should be reinforced. That means dismantling checkpoints and eventually removing settlements there as well. All these steps can be paralleled by peace negotiations and economic benefits, but without illusions that in the short term this is anything more than a means of improving life and providing future hope. I believe the Netanyahu government could survive this set of demands politically.
Secondly, the Obama administration should upgrade the Israel-Syria track to primacy in its efforts to achieve quick progress toward real Arab-Israel peace. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s repeated calls to renew negotiations should be put to the test against the requirement that he distance himself from Iran and other Islamist radicals as part of the payoff for Israel withdrawing from the Golan. Netanyahu and Barak, if not Lieberman, should be more willing to invest their political capital in this peace route than in doubtful all-out negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And there is a sizeable and more immediate regional reward here for the US, Israel and the moderate Arab states.
Israel’s war in Gaza last January forced the Israeli-Palestinian issue upon the nascent Obama administration even as its heavier Middle East priorities lay in Af-Pak, Iran and Iraq. The clock cannot be turned back, and Israel has to do all in its power to facilitate the Obama/Clinton/Mitchell efforts in the Israel-Arab sphere. But given the composition of the Israeli government and the schism within the Palestinian polity, that power is limited.