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April 21, 2009

Potential Traps for George Mitchell

This piece appears as a web exclusive for Foreign Policy

President Obama's special peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is just wrapping up his latest visit to the Middle East. It's his third trip since being appointed and this time in addition to Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt, included Saudi Arabia and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria), with an emphasis on a comprehensive regional peace, building on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. (Mitchell has yet to visit Damascus or Beirut, something unlikely to take place until after June's parliamentary elections in Lebanon.)

In meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mitchell continued to reiterate U.S. support for a two-state solution, although the emphasis of the visit, perhaps understandably, still seems to be the listening tour aspect, including the first meetings since Israel's new government took office.

Some reports on these latest meetings portray PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas as carrying a message of hope and peace in the face of a rejectionist Israeli premier. Others depict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being seized by the more urgent calling of the Iranian threat, and showing a willingness to make progress on practical issues with the Palestinians, such as the economy, while avoiding a possibly dangerous and premature effort to address the political differences -- especially given the enfeebled nature of the Palestinian counterpart.

Both views are wrong.

The sad truth is that neither leader has a meaningful strategy for creating a new equilibrium for resolving this conflict. Despite all their differences (and there are many), Netanyahu and Abbas are similar in two major respects: Both stand atop deeply dysfunctional political systems that eschew bold decision-making. And both are focused on short-term political survival, an understandable instinct and one certainly not unique to the Levant, but also woefully inadequate given the challenges faced by their respective peoples.

So, due to both circumstance and a generous dose of intentional design, Senator Mitchell's Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors are busy preparing sugar-coated traps and distractions. The Mitchell team should be well prepared to recognize the pitch of a snake- oil salesman when they hear one.

On the Israel interlocutor side, here are the main traps Mitchell should look out for:

1) The ‘Say the Magic Words' Game. Thus far, Netanyahu is refusing to explicitly endorse the two-state formula. This is being nicely set up to become a rather large red herring, whereby diplomatic attention becomes focused on teasing out a linguistic formula to claim that Israel's premier is indeed a "two-stater." Last Friday's headline in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv even suggests that Netanyahu is planning for a dramatic climb- down gesture during his first visit with U.S. President Barack Obama (now postponed from early May to possibly later in the month), during which he would declare acceptance of the two states position. What a colossal distraction and waste of time.

To paraphrase what always used to be said of former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat --what matters are his actions, not his words. Saying the magic words is of minor import. Ending the occupation and actually delivering on a two-state solution is what should matter to the Mitchell team. The latest ruse to apparently come out of the Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting was an Israeli demand that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state (something that neither Egypt, nor Jordan, did in their respective peace treaties with Israel) -- a meaningless diversionary tactic.

2) It's not the economy, stupid. Netanyahu advocates focusing first on what he calls "economic peace" -- developing the Palestinian economy as a prerequisite for two states. Indeed, economic improvement would be welcome, and no one should oppose moves such as ending the closures, removing the 600-plus obstacles to freedom of Palestinian movement in the West Bank (that dovetail with the map of settlements and settler road use arrangements), lifting the siege on Gaza, etc. However, by now the secret may be out that developing the Palestinian economy in order to make the Palestinians a peace-loving people, while maintaining the Israeli occupation and the settlements, is precisely what's been tried for the last 15 years -- with dismal results. The Palestinians won't be bought off; this is a political conflict requiring political solutions. Economic improvements are important as a support ballast, not as a central plank.

3) "You go first; no you go first." If Netanyahu is smart (as I consider him to be), then he is likely to spot a tantalizing diversionary opportunity in the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan, initiated by the Saudis and adopted by the Arab League in 2002, and reissued in 2007, calls for recognition, security, and normal relations between all the Arab states and Israel in exchange for a comprehensive agreement between Israel and its immediate neighbors, based on land-for-peace, two-states, and U.N. resolutions. It's a potential game-changer, and the Obama administration (unlike its predecessor, which ignored the initiative) is apparently keen on using the initiative as a framing principle for its peace efforts. Its beauty is in its simplicity and in its comprehensive nature: everything for everything.

The lurking danger would lie be if Netanyahu attempts to break the initiative down into gradual, sequential, bite-size mini-steps that each side would be expected to take. For instance, Israel says the words "two states" or returns to negotiations, or freezes settlements in return for partial normalization from the Arab side. This may sound nice, but beware: In practice, it will prove to be a recipe for an endless, fruitless, and oxygen-sucking debate on the sequencing -- "you go first; no you go first" -- reminiscent of an Alphonse and Gaston routine, minus the exaggerated politeness.

All this even before Netanyahu gets out his bag of Iran party tricks and distractions. So much for the Israeli side. On to the Palestinians, who talk a good game and often sound eminently reasonable, but are equally infatuated with distraction promotion. (Here, it's important to remember that Mitchell's interlocutor is not the "Palestinians"; it is a political leadership with political calculations and a well-developed fear of change.) So what cards might they be expected to play?

1) Cheering on a fight. Judging by reports from Friday's meetings, the focus in Ramallah right now seems to be egging on a fight between Israel and America. Such a spat would undoubtedly create a fleeting, feel-good factor, but then what? While it's nice to sound good on CNNi, to play the blame game, and to appear closer to Washington's talking points, winning the media war is hardly a strategy for national liberation.

If Israel and America are at some point to publicly disagree, then it should be about something meaningful, such as an actual plan for implementing two states, rather than, for instance, over terminology or a dozen out of more than 600 obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement. Often, the PLO leadership seems interested in spectacle for its own sake rather than real results. Bottom line: the U.S.-Israeli spat is a distraction.

2) Cross-dressing on preconditions. Ever since the first Palestinian national unity government was formed in 2007, bringing together the electorally victorious Hamas, and the ousted Fatah, Israel, America and the Quartet demanded that any Palestinian government meet three preconditions (recognize Israel, accept past agreements, and renounce terrorism). Since the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the PLO leadership has adopted this same mantra: In order for negotiations to continue, the Israeli government must accept two states, abide by previous agreements, and freeze settlements.

Preconditions were a mistake when applied to the Palestinians, and will be equally mistaken if applied to the Israelis. (And in fact, this is much more about domestic Palestinian politics than Israel-Palestinian affairs and it's being used by Fatah in its struggle with Hamas.) Most troubling, this approach could hamper an especially urgent issue: reopening Gaza and allowing a regular flow of goods and materials, including those desperately needed for reconstruction following Israel's Operation Cast Lead.

3) Nostalgia for Bush and Annapolis. Palestinian leaders never had very many good things to say about the Bush administration, so it's ironic that they are advocating a return and adherence to the Roadmap and the Annapolis process. Again, don't be fooled. The latter is little more than a pushback against the Israeli government's apparent rejection of Annapolis as explicitly stated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Plus, as with so much of the Bush legacy in the Middle East, Annapolis was a failure and structurally flawed, relying on bilateral negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships with no U.S. presence, and making Palestinian performance a prerequisite for ending the occupation.

Just as there have been policy reviews and significant course corrections on Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Mitchell team should apply the same principle of a rethink on the Israeli-Arab track. The United States should not be maneuvered back to the flawed Annapolis design, whether in response to a Palestinian bear hug or an Israeli pushback.

Indeed, there seems little value then in recycling that approach. A moment has presented itself where there is a new U.S. administration, a new Israeli government, and a chance to devise a new way of finally achieving -- and not just talking about - two states living side by side in security and dignity. These new circumstances can be seen more as an opportunity than a crisis. The Mitchell team would do well to avoid the distractions and traps on offer, whether from Israelis or Palestinians, and take its time in devising an American plan that delivers on the American interest in resolving the conflict. It's time for the United States to step up.

April 14, 2009

No Sphinx, but a Peace Challenge from Damascus

Israel's preeminent Syria expert, Moshe Ma'oz, famously dubbed that country's former leader Hafaz al-Assad "the Sphinx of Damascus" in his political biography of that title, an inscrutable man, impossible to decipher. Almost ten years into office, his son and successor Bashar al-Assad has yet to have collected too many nick-names but his ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was anything but sphinx-like in openly embracing the peace process and setting forth a challenge to both the new Israeli and America governments on Fareed Zakaria's GPS show yesterday. Zakaria's hour of thoughtful policy discourse on CNN has become for me one of the few things worth watching on a Sunday.

Ambassador Moustapha surprised many yesterday and made headlines in Israel when he countered Fareed Zakaria's skepticism that progress on peace would be possible given the new Likud-Lieberman government in Jerusalem by suggesting that, "It's better to deal with someone like Lieberman than someone like Livni - Lieberman is candid and says what he believes," which he contrasted to Livni and colleagues talking peace while making war, notably in Gaza. This is an interesting position to take not least from a senior Syrian representative and contrasts to what many others in the Arab world have been arguing - it also seems to me more realistic and constructive especially given the lead peacemaking role that Moustapha penciled in for the Obama administration. Perhaps even subconsciously, Syria seems to be sending the message - you want to make peace, deal with the bad guys, whichever side they are on (and that might as much be a self-reflective comment as it is a critique of Israel's new leadership).

Ambassador Moustapha did not have an easy time in Washington for the last years of the Bush administration. He would sometimes joke that he was the closest thing DC had to an ambassador of the Axis of Evil and was treated as such. But he stuck around and reached out to whoever was willing to listen, notably to some of the key players in Congress on both the Democrat and Republican sides, a number of whom visited Damascus in recent years. Judging by his performance yesterday, Moustapha seems to be suggesting that now is the time to shift Syrian public diplomacy toward the US up by several gears. In responding to Zakaria's question about the Obama election victory and how it was received in Syria, the ambassador stressed that, "America has vindicated herself... after eight terrible years," describing how the ordinary Syrian was, "overjoyed."

The ambassador's headline-generating readiness, even eagerness, to negotiate peace with a Likud-Lieberman government and his preference for them as a negotiating partner over Livni and co. is something that one can understand and even partially agree with. Again, the implicit message at least is almost to be saying - 'everyone always criticizes our regime, while the Israeli side are no teddy bears now either, so let's just get over it, take a hard look at everyone's key interests, including America's, and get on with the serious business of getting a deal.

Indeed, Avigdor Lieberman and what he represents is not really Syria's problem or even America's - he is primarily Israel's problem (although given that the America-Israel relationship is to some degree based on shared values, a Lieberman reality in Israel is not a simple or comfortable thing). There is of course also the argument that Netanyahu is in a stronger position to deliver on a deal than the center-left would be and as PM in the late-90's, sent his personal envoy (former US ambassador Ronald Lauder) to convey messages to the Syrians of Bibi's willingness to withdraw from the Golan. Imad Moustapha told Zakaria that Syria would be ready for a similar peace deal that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan (i.e. land for security and cold peace) but would prefer for a comprehensive peace to prevail, in other words, for the Palestinian track to also be addressed thereby creating new dynamics and opportunities for relations in the region.

This contrasts with the positions that have begun to be articulated by some of the PA leadership in Ramallah and other US allies including Egypt. In public statements and op-eds, some of the Fatah-PA seems to be delighting in appearing to be the reasonable party set along-side the recalcitrant new bosses in Israel. They are suggesting that Israel meet preconditions (acknowledge two states and past agreements, freeze settlements) before negotiations can resume, and they are egging on a fight between Washington and Jerusalem.

While all that may sound fun, have a self-righteousness to it, and play well on CNN, I fail to see how it actually helps accomplish anything or how it advances an end of occupation and peace and security for both peoples. The last Israeli government continued building settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and maintained checkpoints and closures but that did not stop the Palestinians from negotiating. And even if Netanyahu, or even Lieberman for that matter, were to say those magic words - "two states" - as their predecessors have done, then would it actually bring such a reality any closer?

We seem then to be in a situation where both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships' strategies lead to a dead-end. The PA-Ramallah leadership appears eager to score points, avoid internal reconciliation, and to get back to the meaningless roadmap and Annapolis process - a path to nowhere if ever there was one. The Likud-Lieberman government thinks that economic projects can deliver a happy occupied people and be a substitute for getting to grips with the basic political realities of territory and occupation - as if this approach has not been tried and stunningly failed for the last fifteen years.

The Syrian Ambassador, and here I agree with him, seems to be suggesting something very different - no preconditions, don't be squeamish about who you talk to, a comprehensive regional peace, and most of all, get the Americans to lead and drive the process (as he put it, "a vigorous, creative role in brokering peace between Arabs and Israelis... Israel will be very careful not to say no to the American president").

This won't be easy but it seems like the right way to go given the current constellation of actors and our historical experience of the failed previous efforts that were over-reliant on bilateral negotiations. Rather than expend political capital on an argument with Netanyahu over the words "two states" or over a settlement developments in far flung corners of the West Bank, the Obama capital would be better invested in driving home a plan for peace. The US should also allow for constructive progress in the US-Syria bilateral relation even if the Israel-Syria track is in question, and that might already be happening given the visit of senior officials Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro to Damascus (even the US-Syria track will not be simple, not least given the Hariri tribunal as Jay Solomon points out but Syrian cooperation is important for American efforts in the region and there is always the Libya compromise precedent).

Two camps seem to be emerging. One is spoiling for a public spat between the new Israeli government and the Obama administration. The other is urging the Obama administration to act early and decisively to deliver a new land-for-peace deal and equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab arena that will be essential for broader regional stability. The former might tickle some people's fancy but it's the latter that is needed.

April 9, 2009

Turkey, the Obama Visit, and the Middle East

My Bloggingheads discussion with Nuh Yilmaz of the SETA Foundation is now up. Among other things, we discussed how the Turkish mediation role in the Middle East has successfully combined an official policy that is simultaneously critical of the Israeli occupation and committed to a continued strategic relationship, and the likely impact that Obama's recent trip will have on Turkish-U.S. relations and common interests in the region.