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February 27, 2009

Livni needs a game-changer

 This piece also appears on Ha'aretz.

A sense of the absurd hovers over the current negotiations to form a new governing coalition in Israel. After previously serving in governments together, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are belatedly discovering that they might just be incompatible. Having secured a clear mandate for a government composed of right, ultra-right and religious-right partners, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be distinctly unenthusiastic about such a prospect. While Tzipi Livni's principal stance seems principled rather than absurd, it too contains an element of the unreal.

Livni is demanding that Netanyahu affirm the "two states for two peoples" approach as a prerequisite for Kadima joining the coalition. Netanyahu's response has been to suggest that the Likud and Kadima negotiating teams convene around a blank sheet of paper and draw up the coalition guidelines together. Translation: What's important is that we can agree to a formula on paper; what happens in the real world after that is something we can argue about for the next four years. After all, paper can absorb anything. Indeed, a special place really should be preserved in Israel's national pantheon for the wordsmiths of coalition guidelines throughout the ages.

So even if Netanyahu were to find a formula regarding two states that would satisfy Livni, would it really matter? Would two states really come into existence? This is not to suggest that Livni is insincere in her support for this position. Far from it. She pursues the issue with the true zeal of a convert, which is exactly what she is when it comes to the question of Palestinian statehood. After all, a mere declaration of intent to achieve two states would not satisfy the driving force behind Livni's conversion in the first place. Urgency was the key then: She adopted the two-state formula out of a sense of urgency, perceiving that, as the occupation struck ever deeper roots, time was working against Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. And if immediacy is the litmus test, then a linguistic formula without any practical teeth is of little use.

I would hold that the demographic argument both misses the point (the other ramifications of the occupation for Israel and its democracy are far more dramatic) and can be co-opted by Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk (as it has been already), if one does not at the same time stake out a more inclusive vision of Israeliness, especially with regard to Israel's Arab-Palestinian minority. But we are discussing Livni's logic here, not mine.

For the Kadima head's demand to receive greater weight and seriousness, it needs to include a more tangible and concrete yardstick. Here, Livni is in something of a bind. She could call for a settlement freeze, but that would ring rather hollow, given the record of expansion during the term of the outgoing government in which she was a senior partner. The same "gotcha" problem would exist if she were to make an issue of outpost removal. Livni could insist that the new government continue negotiations with PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but those talks look more like a recipe for avoiding decisions than reaching them.

No, if Livni wants her vision of two states to be both credible and meaningful, she needs to come up with a game-changer. Agreeing that Israel will define its permanent borders with the Palestinians by the end of the new government's term of office would meet that test. One path to achieving that goal could be the traditional one, via negotiations with an empowered and domestically legitimized Palestinian leadership, but this need not be the only option.

Israel's interlocutor might be the United States or the Quartet, either of which could conduct back-to-back talks with relevant Palestinian and Arab decision-makers. Alternately, Israel might negotiate indirectly, in the context of the Arab peace plan, with Arab states, which would in turn consult with the relevant Palestinians, thereby guaranteeing the necessary Palestinian buy-in and representation. Once a border is defined, this would of course have to be followed in short order by a withdrawal of the Israeli occupation to that line.

It is true that such a position was not part of the Kadima electoral platform; then again, neither was the veritable love-in between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu seen in the days following the ballot.

At first glance, such an agenda would appear to be anathema to Netanyahu. It could, though, be linked to additional innovations, such as the establishment of an interim international trusteeship over the de-occupied area, thereby allowing him to avoid being directly responsible for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Perhaps this is what Netanyahu meant when he suggested to Livni that there might be another formula for defining the political approach to the Palestinian issue.

Certainly, the debate sparked by such a proposal would be a clarifying moment, and would move us beyond the yawn-inducing re-incantation of the "two-state" mantra. If it is accepted, then glory be. If not, then Livni has a real agenda with which to lead the opposition, and the public will finally be presented with real choices.

February 13, 2009

The Israel of the Three Likudniks

The elections were a clarifying moment for Israel and the Palestinians, but what about the Obama administration?

This piece also appears on Foreign Policy.


With the final results now in, the horse trading over forming a new government in Israel is very much underway after Tuesday’s elections seemed to produce the messiest of political outcomes – anything but clarity.

Two narratives regarding the voters choice are currently competing with each other; Livni and Kadima are claiming a mandate for a centrist government, being the largest party while Netanyahu and Likud argue that a shift to the right has occurred producing a mandate for the right to govern (the right-wing bloc has taken 65 seats in the 120 member Knesset). Some time next week in accordance with the Israeli rules of the game, President Shimon Peres will call on either Netanyahu or Livni (and most money is on the former) to form a governing coalition within 28 days with a possible extension of 14 more days. The coalition bargaining in the weeks ahead will suggest that everything is up for grabs. Yet in more ways than may seem immediately apparent, Tuesday’s results have added a degree of clarity to where Israel is at.

Some ways in which this is true are obvious. The structure of the Israeli system has, for instance, been definitively exposed as broken. It endemically produces dysfunctional governments by way of fragile, fractured, and survival-obsessed coalitions. Again, the largest single faction in the Knesset will constitute less than a quarter of the members of parliament. The system seems designed to avoid making hard choices given the permanent preponderance of either hybrid governing coalitions or reliance on small niche parties, or both. That is exacerbated by the way in which Israel’s relationship with its principal sponsor and ally, the United States, plays out. America’s coddling and often irresponsible indulgence of specific Israeli policies that work against America’s own national interest and often contribute to undermining Israel itself further exacerbate this tendency toward decision avoidance. Not surprisingly then, Israel is abuzz right now with discussion of the need for electoral reform and reevaluating governance system.

Israelis also witnessed during this election the stunning paucity of any meaningful public policy debate. One could search far and wide for a meaningful plan on the economy, on health care, on education policy, let alone realistic or detailed proposals regarding the security and regional challenges Israel faces. There is a degree of illiteracy clouding the election debate in Israel and surrounding the Israeli media coverage of issues that would be difficult for Americans to comprehend and indeed, Israel’s voters deserve better.

But the real clarifying moment in this election was a swing to the right that has at least made the Jewish part of the Israeli conversation into something resembling a family argument within the Likud household. What happened in this election is that the breakdown between the blocs went from being 70-50 in favor of the center-left to 65-55 for the right, ultra-right, and religious-right (although even these numbers are a little misleading, as the ten or so members of non-Zionist and ostensibly Arab parties are not considered to be potential coalition allies by the Zionist center-left). In simplified terms, there was a 15 seat swing from center-left to right which can be largely explained as eight seats lost by Labor and Meretz along with all seven seats of the imploded Pensioners party having mostly gone to Kadima, while about an equivalent number migrated from Kadima to Likud.

Always expect the unexpected in Israeli politics. At this stage, a Netanyahu-led government, with both Lieberman, religious parties, and Kadima, seems most likely. While a rotation of government between Netanyahu and Livni (as Israel experienced in the 1980’s) is possible, a Livni-led coalition is rather a stretch but not totally inconceivable.

Livni’s last minute message of hope for a non-Netanyahu-led government swallowed up much of the Zionist-left of Labor and Meretz. In one encouraging sign, Israeli voters, especially women, seemed to respond positively when Livni played up the change she represented as being a woman candidate, and they rejected some of the more chauvinist sloganeering of the Likud and Labor leaders.

So here we are in the Israel of the three Likudniks. Allow me to explain: Israel’s three largest parties (together accounting for about 75 of the 110 mandates decided by the Jewish vote) are now all led by Likudniks and by a Likud-derived outlook - albeit of slightly different emphases.  Kadima was of course birthed by the Likud, its founding father is none other than Ariel Sharon; its current leader Tzipi Livni was a former stalwart Likudnik; and its number two joined the Likud following a career in the military (Shaul Mofaz). Let’s call this Likud-lite. Then one has the brand name version of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Let’s call this traditional Likud. Finally, there is Yisrael Beiteinu (or Israel Our Homeland) led by longtime Likud party functionary and the party’s former director-general, Avigdor Lieberman. His number two, Uzi Landau, was a 22-year Likud Knesset member and led the so-called Likud rebel faction during Sharon’s Gaza disengagement. Lieberman rebranded the Likud for a Russian audience and gave it a nasty and overtly racist edge. Let’s call this Likud gone wild.

The power that has now been accrued by Lieberman’s party is one of Tuesday’s most stunning outcomes – he appears to be the king or queen-maker. What is more sinister and disturbing is how muted a political effort there has been to draw a red line in front of Lieberman’s racist rhetoric and policies and to place him beyond the coalition pale (for an excellent discussion of the Lieberman phenomenon, see Gershom Gorenberg’s piece at The American Prospect). Yisrael Beiteinu ran on a platform that would have Israeli Arabs needing to pass a loyalty test to Israel in order for their citizenship not to be rescinded. Lieberman is an almost bizarre Israeli twist on the European model of the populist, ethnonationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant parties that have done so well in France (Le Pen’s Front National), Austria (Heider’s Freedom Party), Belgium (Vlaams Blok), Switzerland (Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party), and elsewhere. Why the Israeli case is so special does not concern the level support for Lieberman or how hard-line he is but rather lies in the following two aspects: In Lieberman’s case, he himself is an immigrant (hailing from Moldova), and the targets of his invective are the Arab inhabitants whose presence here long preceded his. More importantly, in most other instances, a cordon sanitaire has effectively been erected around the racist right to exclude them from governing coalitions. In Israel, the opposite path is being pursued with Livni and Netanyahu both wooing Lieberman as a potential coalition ally. It’s still possible that Lieberman may be excluded from the coalition and he may even overplay his hand, though it is unlikely.

In a sense, something deeper might be at work here. Israel describes itself as a Jewish democratic state, and the Lieberman phenomenon in part may represent the extent to which Israel in practice has emphasized the Jewish part of that definition over the democratic part. The Israeli political establishment, notably including the Zionist left, has failed to create a more inclusive notion of Israeli-ness or even a political system that confers a real sense of democratic belonging on its non-Jewish, Arab minority. In very real and important ways, the challenge of marrying Jewish and democratic has not been addressed whether that be in terms of budgetary allocations, equality of opportunity, or in Israel’s national narrative. When the peace camp tried to win Jewish majority support for the idea of two states and an end of occupation, it focused on the demographic argument (Israel will only remain Jewish if it leaves the territories). It is not such a long journey from that line of logic to Liebermanism. In this moment of clarity, Israel will then have to decide whether Liebermanism is the Zionist end-game or whether a more inclusive and democratic Israel can flourish. I think Israelis can rise to the challenge and create a more open vision for Israeli society, and that will certainly be one of the issues to address for what is left of the left in Labor and Meretz. The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel and its leaders also need itself to think through how to best contribute to a more inclusivist vision of the future.

For the good of Israel’s democracy, Labor must now build a strong and alternative agenda to appeal to Israelis that is outside of the Likud family. That requires Labor to resist the temptation of government and instead lead the opposition by building a program around a social-democratic economic agenda, a civil rights agenda, a new narrative of national inclusivity agenda and an end to occupation agenda.  Indeed the balance of power within Labor strongly suggests that it would not join a Netanyahu government and is headed for opposition.

All this does not mean that one should give up on a government of the national right-wing camp when it comes to the issues of territories, peace and security. In fact an opportunity has been created to test whether having the hardliners in government in Israel can produce a game-changing moment of realism. If he is to be prime minister again, it is unlikely that Netanyahu wants to have another abrupt and inglorious term. Greatness tends to ultimately only be achieved by those Israeli leaders who deliver on the peace agenda. So a Netanyahu government could spend its time attempting to destroy Hamas, expanding settlements, and demonstrating its fealty to greater Israel (while very likely, coming to realize the limitations of military power), while, the international community could spends its time containing the violence and the damage. Alternatively, one could try to tempt Netanyahu with a very different option. That possibility will be greatly influenced by the postures adopted by the various external actors, principally the Palestinians, Arab states, the Obama administration, and the Quartet.

For the Palestinians too, this should act as something of a clarifying moment. President Abbas’s response to the Israeli elections, namely that the international community should only work with the new Israeli government if it meets the same criteria applied to Hamas (i.e. accept a Palestinian state, continue the peace process, and the equivalent of nonviolence, which in this case would be no settlement expansion) seems on the face of it not unreasonable. But Abbas’s admonition might make more sense in reverse; in other words, the international community should work with whatever government Israel elects to advance a two-state solution just as they should have worked with whatever government the Palestinians elected. If there were ever a time for a more serious effort toward Palestinian internal reconciliation, this is surely it. Indeed, were Abbas able to deliver a unity government now and an arrangement with Hamas, then it would be difficult for the international community to continue to apply the existing and unreasonable conditions for working with such a government. This may not be the first choice for President Abbas but after last Tuesday, the other options make even less sense, especially with Hamas gaining in popularity.

The entire Fatah political platform has been predicated on Palestinian independence and de-occupation being achieved exclusively via the negotiations with Israel– an already discredited and now desperately  implausible premise. The Palestinian false binary choice of only negotiations or only armed resistance needs to be refreshed as the attempt at rebuilding a national movement, including the reform of the PLO, goes forward. There are also more urgent reasons to advance the Palestinian unity agenda, notably the immediate challenges posed by the destruction in Gaza and the need for an address for the international community in pursuing reconstruction efforts there. The forthcoming Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March should be seen as a target date for a breakthrough on Palestinian reconciliation efforts. That will require a team of Arab mediators, including but not restricted to the Qatari host and encompassing supporters of both the so-called moderate and resistance camps (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and almost certainly Turkey as well). A quiet and discrete clarification by the US and Europe that they are encouraging such efforts might be crucial. If the Palestinians do take this as a clarifying moment then it could also create a more constructive backdrop against which the new Israeli government will have to make its decisions on whether to move forward toward confrontation or to pursue a somewhat unexpected but certainly more promising track. And that brings us to the key and perhaps defining role that the new Obama administration will have to think long and hard about.

The Obama administration has proposed an ambitious agenda for the Middle East and notably for resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has appointed Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to lead that effort. President Obama defined the attainment of a two-state solution in terms of America’s own national security interests. If that is the case - and there is a powerful and compelling argument to be made for it - then one should not be too deterred by internal domestic political developments on either the Palestinian or Israeli sides. Of course both the Israelis and the Palestinians have their own responsibilities and interests that cannot be ignored nor can they be left entirely to their own devices. The Obama administration can choose to spend its time in office preventing further deterioration, limiting damage, and improving aspects of Palestinian economic and security capacities, and it might find itself having to do some of those things anyway.

However, such an approach will not get to grips with the core of the conflict or its ramifications for America in the region. In fact, US power and prestige might again be deployed in an exercise best described as death not so much by a thousand cuts as by a thousand checkpoints. The question then becomes whether the new political realities in Israel will also act as a clarifying moment for American involvement. The peace process as it was already structured, in Oslo and then again in Annapolis, was not delivering. There are structural flaws – not least, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot negotiate the core issues alone and need an outside broker and that Palestinian statehood cannot be incubated under Israeli occupation. The very structure of the peace process has become a disincentive for peace itself. There now exists an opportunity to do away with the illusion, even if the danger also exists that events may take a more violent, confrontational and bloody turn.

A different approach would require the US conducting back-to-back talks with the Israeli side and with a Palestinian (or Palestinian plus Arab states) interlocutor, in which one attempts to address the key legitimate needs and concerns of each party. It will be the role of the US and international partners to produce a proposal and implementation plan. One should take a leaf from the pages of Don Corleone, and make them an offer they can’t refuse, and do not then get sidetracked by conversations about industrial parks in Nablus or Jenin.

Naturally, one does not only have to contend with the Israeli/Palestinian track, and there is some value to the adage that one way to get out of an intractable problem is to expand it. In other words, work on a comprehensive peace effort that involves Syria and the Arab states as well and that seeks to put into effect the Arab Peace Initiative that would give Israel peaceful and normal relations with the entire Arab world. A sincere good-will effort should be made with Israel’s next prime minister, particularly if it is Mr. Netanyahu, to propose an eminently reasonably plan for Israel’s future peace and security that is also predicated on ending the occupation. Iran too will have to feature, as Israel’s concerns on this front will need to be allayed without resorting to military action. A trade-off is imaginable in which the US is given space to pursue the engagement option with Iran while the US gives Israel cover as increased calls are heard for a WMD-free Middle East, also probably providing Israel with a broader set of security guarantees. If Mr. Netanyahu or any Israeli leader is finally put in the position of having to make real choices, then don’t be too surprised if they choose well.

 

February 2, 2009

President Obama, the United States and the Middle East

This piece appears in the current edition of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs – a publication of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress. Here is their website and the current edition is not there yet but will be in the near future. 

At the time of writing this piece, events in Gaza and the Israeli operation are still unfolding. While the outcome is unclear, what is known is that there has been a terrible toll on the civilian population, that passions in the entire region are again inflamed and that peace is certainly no closer. When the fighting halts and a ceasefire is achieved, the same problems will still be there confronting Israel, its neighbors and the new Obama administration—though perhaps with an added sense of urgency. What the latest Gaza crisis has again shown, if indeed further evidence were necessary, is just how iconic an issue the unresolved Palestinian grievance is for the region and beyond, and how this issue has a capacity to generate crises that also affect the United States and its interests.

On several occasions during the presidential campaign and transition, Barack Obama suggested that he was well aware of the centrality of this issue and would move swiftly to address it. When introducing his national security team to the world on December 1, he explicitly referred to Israeli–Palestinian peace as one of only three items that were highlighted. During the campaign, in a particularly compelling interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the then-senator from Illinois noted that “what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Of course, there will be a multitude of demands on the new president’s time, not least an almost-unprecedented economic crisis and two wars. But he seems to be exhibiting a clear intention to take on the Israeli–Arab conflict (unlike his predecessor). The key question then becomes less whether or when the Obama administration will pursue a peace process, but rather how and with which toolbox?

The temptation will be to pick up the existing Annapolis process initiated under President Bush in November 2007 and to run with it. It is a temptation that should be resisted. The failure of Annapolis is about more than bad luck and bad timing. It is a structurally flawed process that embraced all of the shortcomings of the earlier Oslo efforts and then added some more of its own (gradualism, excessive reliance on bilateral negotiations, exacerbating Palestinian divisions).

The Middle East that President Obama inherits will be a very different one from that which Bill Clinton bequeathed to George W. Bush. The policy instruments deployed under Clinton (successful compared to the Bush years, but that is a very relative yardstick) require retooling in light of the new regional realities.

“Birth pangs of a new Middle East” was the unfortunate and now infamous phrase used by Secretary Rice during the 2006 Lebanon crisis to explain America’s insistence on delaying early ceasefire efforts in order to pursue this more far-reaching change via military means. President Obama will indeed, in many respects, face a new Middle East, but not necessarily the one that Secretary Rice was hoping to birth. Regional divisions and rivalries have intensified to breaking point. The image of two camps competing regionally, moderates and extremists, is an incomplete one—the so-called moderates often do not seem that way to their own domestic opponents, while the so-called extremists often include in their coalition popular, secular and democratic reformers. And it is this so-called moderate camp that is very much on the defensive against a narrative that has an increasingly broad popular appeal in the region. They tend to also suffer from a democracy and legitimacy deficit. Simply put, America’s allies are not on the winning side.

Within this mix, ironically, Iran has been much empowered by the policies of the Bush years. With America having generously neutralized its neighborhood rivals (the Baathists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan), Iran has been able to increase its regional focus and influence.

The experiment with Islamist political inclusion in Palestinian democracy and the subsequent election victory of Hamas was woefully mismanaged by the West (including Israel), helping to produce a violently divided Palestinian house—an edifice upon which it will be almost impossible to construct Palestinian statehood. Israel, too, albeit in less dramatic ways, appears to be in a period of deeply entrenched political dysfunction, and any peace process ignores this factor at its peril. Even the outgoing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who was probably bolder than any of his predecessors in articulating how existential and urgent a need it is for Israel for there to be a viable Palestinian state, will leave office having presided not over peace and de-occupation, but rather over two wars and further settlement expansion.

When President Obama turns to the Middle East, he will discover a region in which America’s credibility and standing have been painfully sapped. This is a result of not only war, but also of perceived American indifference to legitimate regional grievances, most notably the Palestinian issue. This, of course, has enhanced an environment ripe for exploitation by the most extreme salafi jihadist forces of al-Qa’ida and its ilk. Into this fray will enter an America that is stretched both economically and militarily. It is also an America that has limited the number of actors, including key actors, with whom it is engaging in the region. The Bush administration frequently indulged in self-marginalization.

The vacuum created has been partly filled by others. Turkey, for instance, has been mediating proximity peace talks between Israel and Syria. Qatar brokered the arrangement for internal Lebanese political reconciliation. The Saudis managed to create a Palestinian national reconciliation and unity government in Mecca in 2007, and the Egyptians were the mediators for June 2008 ceasefire arrangements between Israel and Hamas (efforts undermined by the Bush administration). On occasion, America’s diplomatic downsizing in the region has created new openings for Europe—the EU 3 talks with Iran, French outreach toward Syria and in the latest Gaza crisis and the Italian efforts during the Lebanon 2006 war are examples. Russia, too, has reasserted itself as a regional player, and while China continues to tread only gently in regional affairs, it will not have escaped anyone’s attention that China dispatched its first foreign naval expedition since the fifteenth century when it joined international patrolling efforts off the coast of Somalia to prevent piracy in late 2008.

Yet the US remains an indispensable player. The efforts of others at mediation in the absence of American support or follow-up, more often than not, will fall short. This was the experience in Lebanon 2006, and on the issues of Iran, the Israel–Syria peace talks, Palestinian division and elsewhere, and is playing out in Gaza as these words are written. To restabilize the Middle East, achieve a new equilibrium and advance the peace process, America will very much be needed at the table, and often in a leading role.

Against this gloomy backdrop, there are at least two pieces of good news for the incoming US president. Firstly, there is an increasing consensus within the US regarding the failures of Bush Middle East policies and the need to chart a new course. Crucially, this includes an acknowledgement that a restabilized Middle East and an effective peace process are important American national security interests. Already in December of 2006, the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group report, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, expressed at length the connection between America’s prospects in Iraq and the need to create a new regional environment principally via reengagement on Arab–Israeli peace. A report published in December by two of the most establishment US think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, entitled “Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President,” is further evidence of how mainstream and consensus this trend of thinking has become. The bottom line—if the US wants to reestablish its standing, re-empower its allies, create a conducive regional climate for troop withdrawals in Iraq, push back against salafists and decrease Iranian leverage, then it has to deliver a credible peace process and especially progress on the Palestinian front.

Secondly, the Middle East is ready to look again at an America led by Barack Hussein Obama, and eager to turn a new page. The hope that is manifest in so much of the world, a world that is not anti-American but has been concerned by American policies, has not passed the Middle East by. President Obama is popular and has a new opportunity. It should not be squandered.

How, then, might the Obama administration use this moment to its advantage? Here are seven suggestions for a new approach:

1. Count to Ten and Rethink

Once the Gaza crisis is over, there will be pressure to dive headfirst into the Israeli–Palestinian issue, to relaunch the Annapolis talks and to use the channeling of donor assistance for Gazan reconstruction as a way to continue playing internal Palestinian politics and accentuate division. Don’t do it (well, do the reconstruction, but deploy the aid wisely). Take a long, hard look at why Annapolis failed to deliver. Can the Palestinian economy be rebuilt under a system of closures and checkpoints that themselves are the product of the basic unresolved conflict and ongoing reality of an occupation duty bound to protect a civilian settler population? Are Israeli security concerns going to be sufficiently addressed by building Palestinian security forces that are likely over time to lack credibility with their own public and come under intense pressure to turn their guns on the IDF and/or settlers? When it comes to the thorniest issues on the two state agenda, can the parties alone in bilateral negotiations resolve these issues? Will a leadership on the Palestinian side that presides over a geographically and politically divided Palestinian movement and that is increasingly lacking public support be in a position to close an historic and difficult deal? And after all of the past failures and public cynicism, will Israel close a deal without a significant incentives package, Arab support and security guarantees and, on the other hand, real disincentives for not doing so? I would suggest that all the answers to those questions are negative and that the first challenge is to undertake a serious policy rethink.

2. Find a New Language

It is not only policy on the Middle East that must change, but also the vocabulary. No one in the Middle East is expecting America to drop its Israeli ally, nor should this happen. The US will, and should, remain staunchly and unswervingly committed to Israel’s security. But it needs to find a way of doing so while at the same time articulating genuine and convincing understanding for the Palestinian predicament. It is possible. No president could be better placed than Barack Obama to find such a vocabulary. It will be a question more of nuance than of absolutes. And the new administration will be judged from the very first words it utters.

3. Get America’s Regional and International Allies on Board

Before embarking on a new policy, the Obama administration should conduct a round of frank discussions with its allies in the region and beyond. Friends in the Arab world will need to be told that America is now in the business of calming and resolving, rather than exacerbating, regional tensions. It will do so by being inclusive in whom it talks to and whom it encourages others to talk to. It will continue to promote democracy, but focus on building the software—rule of law, various freedoms in civil society—rather than an obsession with the hardware of elections.

The US will expect significant Arab support in advancing peace with Israel and will seek to build on the Arab peace initiative. Ultimately, in ratcheting down tensions and reconciling intra-Arab conflicts, the US will begin to develop an inclusive regional security architecture.

A similar conversation should take place with Israel, its main predicate being that the US is interested in a peace outcome more than a peace process, and will walk in lockstep with Israel on all of its key legitimate concerns (on security, finality of borders and their recognition/legitimacy), while making clear that it wants to get this done, to see de-occupation and Palestinian statehood. Finally, the US should articulate this new approach to the Quartet, particularly its European partners, and expect strong European support—diplomatic, financial and otherwise—in moving forward.

4. Apply the Rethink to Israel–Palestine

In seeking to address the key concerns of the respective Israeli and Palestinian sides, the US should rely less upon and defer less to bilateral negotiations, and should advance its own solutions, where relevant, finding international, regional and multilateral substitutes for issues on which the parties are in bilateral deadlock. This could include proposals for solutions on key issues. Security arrangements could emphasize, initially at least, an international role (i.e., NATO forces to guarantee that there is no vacuum or anarchy for a period of time post occupation), Arab guarantees for the finality of claims and recognition of Israel and its new borders, and an international mechanism for rehabilitating Palestinian refugees, including an acknowledgement of the historic injustice.

To this would be added a package of benefits and incentives that an international alliance would be in a position to confer. Finally, the US should encourage internal Palestinian reconciliation and create a division of labor whereby regional parties and certain Europeans (rather than America itself) work to motivate and test Hamas to clearly move away from armed resistance toward an exclusively political focus.

5. Re-engage with Syria

The US has not had an ambassador in Syria since February 2005. The US should rebuild its own relationship with Syria, and directly involve itself with Israeli–Syrian talks, something it has avoided since the re-launching of those talks via Turkey. An Israeli–Syrian agreement would be needed in the context of a comprehensive Israeli–Arab peace and normalization as per the Arab peace initiative, and is almost certainly a prerequisite for an Israel–Lebanon deal. In addition, there is strongly emerging support in the Israeli security establishment for a deal with Syria, including all that it would entail regarding Golan withdrawal, largely because of the positive regional implications from such a deal for Israel (regarding Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah, etc.).

A deal will not be easy and has floundered in the past on details or on Israeli political and coalition concerns. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to consider that at this stage a broad package on the Palestinian, Syrian and pan-Arab front would make more sense, be more attainable, and even more marketable in Israel than a piecemeal process, especially if the incentives are well calibrated and sufficiently attractive. Even absent a breakthrough with Israel, the US should work on its bilateral relations with Syria, in concert with the Europeans, in attempting to maximize the prospects of Syria playing a constructive regional role.

6. Lock in the Political Process in Lebanon

In working to avoid a return to violent internal conflict in Lebanon, efforts should be enhanced to strengthen the current political process, notably in advance of elections this June. All sides should be encouraged to be invested in that process, and part of that process will be the signals that other regional actors are sending. The US should discourage its allies and others that it will now reach out to (such as Syria) from pursuing proxy conflicts in Lebanon. It should also seek to remove as many as possible of the outstanding issues with Israel that can be exploited to trigger tension—such as the Rajah and Shebaa Farms territorial issues and Israeli air force over-flights. Efforts should also be made to strengthen the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the demilitarization of Lebanon (notably of Hizbullah). It is interesting to note that as of this writing, Hizbullah has not opened up a second front against Israel during the current Gaza crisis, which suggests that incentives can be created that can significantly and even decisively influence the calculations and actions of parties like Hizbullah.

7. Face the Challenge of Iran Policy

The dramatic recent decline in oil prices has had more of an impact on the Iranian economy and Iranian decision making than years of sanctions. Taking the steps outlined in 1 through 6 above would be the diplomatic parallel of the oil price plummet. In other words, Iran’s regional political leverage would be significantly reduced if these steps were to be taken. Iran, after all, is able to use and feed off the unresolved Palestinian issue, Palestinian division, crises within Lebanon and overall regional tensions, including the existing Syria policy. As the US seeks to enhance its leverage in advance of, and as part of, negotiations with Iran, it would do well to consider utilizing these aspects of regional policy as more effective tools than the issuing of further threats.

Direct US engagement with Iran is now almost inevitable. Indeed, it already exists to an extent on the Iraq issue (with the previous ambassadorial meetings in Baghdad) and in Undersecretary William Burns having joined the recent P5+1 in Geneva. In moving forward on such engagement, the US might consider these five suggestions:

  • be willing to engage in the broad range of issues of mutual concern, not just issues of US interest;
  • try to build on areas of agreement—Afghanistan might be one, certain Iraq-related questions another;
  • display a degree of patience—there is a long history here, and while negotiations cannot be used as a time waster by Iran, they should also not be conducted with a stopwatch in hand;
  • maintain the international alliance moving forward; and
  • be creative on solutions that accord Iran its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program while insisting on the maximum safeguards to guarantee and verify non-militarization.

Of course, this might not work, and one might have to return to the exclusive path of sanctions and containment. But the regional dynamic will always be crucial, and there seems little reason to continue to empower Iran regionally.

In fact, this might be the central message for an Obama administration—to face the region holistically and to appreciate the connections that intertwine the various issues. The Bush administration connected the Middle East dots in a way that left a very ugly mess. The Obama administration does not have the luxury of a blank page, a clean slate. But it does have a new opportunity, and that is a rare and precious thing that if thoughtfully nurtured can indeed help create a livable equilibrium in this most troubled of regions.