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.