More Than Just a Photo-Op

Barack Obama’s handshake meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu is not getting nearly the credit it deserves. In fact, Obama’s Mideast peace strategy is far more sophisticated than most observers realize.


This piece also appeared in Foreign Policy

Headlines are now being prepared following U.S. President Barack Obama’s convening of a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-American peace summit today in New York. Many will seek to belittle the president’s efforts thus far. The summit was being dismissed as a photo-op before it even happened.

The right, in the United States and in Israel, will spin this meeting as further proof of the young president’s foreign policy naïveté. Prioritizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, creating expectations in the Arab world, and publicly disagreeing with Israel, on settlements for instance, are all exhibits in the right’s case against the new administration (Steven Rosen here on provided a boiler-plate incantation of this hawkish line).

The spin from the left, in the United States and in the Arab world, is just as predictable. The president blinked on settlements when Israel said boo, the Palestinians have been thrown under a bus, and the U.S. is pursuing more of the same failed incrementalist policies.

In large measure, both of these views are wrong. The contours of a strategic methodical Obama approach to achieving the comprehensive Mideast peace of which he speaks are starting to become visible.

The way in which today’s trilateral was announced is in itself instructive. Special Envoy George Mitchell was getting played by the parties last week as they tried to leverage America’s desire to see the three-way meeting take place. Sometimes that is the lot of an envoy. It is also an advantage of having an envoy, allowing the president to step in, cut to the chase, and simply announce where and when the parties were expected to report for a meeting with him. The Americans decided that this week’s news cycle would not be dominated by the vagaries of Middle Eastern leaders’ mood swings or the potentially embarrassing ‘will they-won’t they’ speculation about an Abbas-Netanyahu meet. Obama decided. The trilateral happened. It’s over on Tuesday, now move on to climate change and nonproliferation.

While some on the Israeli side (with many Arab commentators agreeing) will be portraying this as an Israeli win, with Obama weakened and Abbas squaring up to a large helping of humble pie, I think that’s a misreading of the current state of play.

Let’s take the issue that has received most attention – settlements. Analysts will jump on the fact that a meaningful settlement freeze has not been achieved and that President Obama called today to “restrain” such activity, a seeming climb-down from his previous statements. While it is certainly true that some of the newfound Middle Eastern goodwill toward the U.S. has been squandered by the American inability to deliver a freeze and a price has been paid in America’s standing and credibility, something else has also been happening that is likely to prove more significant over time.

By holding Israel’s feet to the fire over settlements for a sustained period, America may actually have achieved a great deal in strategically advancing the two-state goal. The most significant effect may be this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred approach was to focus on interim issues and confidence-building measures (CBMs) and to avoid negotiating the core issues (territories, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.) on which his positions are the most unreasonable. In particular, Netanyahu has attempted to advance an economic peace agenda, with his supporters feverishly spinning the idea that the West Bank is becoming an economic paradise. The Obama team has staked out a clear position – items number 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the interim/CBM agenda are entitled “settlement freeze.” They have been giving short shrift, including today, to the economic peace narrative (they acknowledge the desirability of progress on the economy and freedom of movement, and should even congratulate themselves that the partial progress made is mainly a result of the heat Israel feels on settlements).

The result: The settlement freeze focus has made Netanyahu’s natural comfort zone — the interim/CBM world — a prohibitively uncomfortable place to inhabit. So paradoxically, it is Netanyahu who now feels compelled to embrace and prefer negotiations on permanent status end-game issues. That is no small achievement.

In addition, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history is, in practical terms, limiting its pro-settlements proclivities, and a tantalizing pivot has been established: namely, that having failed to reach acceptable arrangements on a settlements freeze, the best and obvious alternative is to proceed now to delineate borders. In other words, the territory — the border component of the two-state deal — becomes the default solution to what the Americans have established, possibly in a premeditated way, as the never-ending settlement freeze saga.

The cherry on the icing emerged today when the president notably and crucially failed to give a formal blessing to continued construction in East Jerusalem and in almost 3,000 settlement units as an “agreed exemption clause.” By not providing this kosher stamp, by calling for restraint, actions not just words, America (just) retained its credibility on the settlements issue. So the settlements focus can best be understood as an important exercise in setting down a marker, even though it is also an important issue in its own right.

This is also the best way to understand the Mitchell team’s several months’ worth of investment in obtaining Arab gestures toward early normalization with Israel. The point here was not necessarily the immediate deliverables, which may be meager, but rather to create an expectation. This administration is serious about comprehensive peace, and the Arab states will need to be serious about making good on their full normalization pledge, which is part of the Arab Peace Initiative. Mitchell has begun to seriously have that conversation and to get people’s heads in the Arab world around the idea of what normalization really means.

What we have been witnessing thus far, including today, has been a table-setting exercise. President Obama’s message today continued to emphasize key themes — the urgency of achieving a two-state solution, his personal engagement and commitment, and why this is an American national interest. Starting on day one, as Obama did, rather than in year seven as his predecessor did, has its advantages. It allows one to invest several months and even to reach an impasse in order to make a point. I would argue that this administration is determinedly and inexorably moving this process toward a moment of truth that may take another several months or more to arrive, but arrive it will.

The straw-man argument that a focus on CBMs and economic peace can substitute for end-game negotiations has been defenestrated. A settlement freeze will continue to be pursued but will now be delinked from these permanent status negotiations, which will be launched in parallel, and the Palestinians will be walked back from their preconditions. Israelis and Palestinians will be brought together to negotiate directly but with an ongoing American presence and guiding hand.

More than that, in fact, one can expect the existing modus operandi to continue, with most of the serious talks and negotiations taking place on three parallel axes of dialogue: American-Israeli, American-Palestinian, and American-Arab states. Most of that will be via the continuous shuttling of Mitchell and his team, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is more keenly involved in Middle East peace efforts than is often acknowledged) and President Obama being deployed as and when necessary.

Over time, one imagines that those key issues that have been addressed only tentatively thus far, or that have even remained taboo, will also be taken on. Syria, for instance, will at the appropriate moment need to shift from the orbit of hesitantly engaged outlier, to being a centerpiece in a comprehensive peace effort. A way will also need to be found to deal with the Hamas “untouchables.” Ultimately, that might mean an indirect engagement via a consortium of regional and other actors (such as the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and others, including but not exclusively Egypt) or by actively encouraging and accepting internal Palestinian political reconciliation.

If there is indeed a strategy here, and I at least think one can be discerned, then it is heading towards the presentation and active promotion, at the appropriate moment, of an American plan for implementing a comprehensive peace. America will have to recognize that it is dealing on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, for all their differences, with two deeply dysfunctional polities. The parties simply cannot do this of their own volition, and this is too important for them and for America for it to be left to the mercy of the vicissitudes of their respective domestic politics. America will have to create the incentives and also the disincentives.

It is not a question of wanting this more or less than the parties themselves. It is about who is best placed to carry this effort over the finishing line — and only determined American leadership with international support can achieve that. Senator Mitchell frequently talks about his 700 days of frustration in Northern Ireland and one day of decisive, break-through success.

Today’s trilateral may register on the frustrating side of the ledger, but President Obama has set off on a path that can lead to that one game-changing day of peace-making. Given the urgency, as acknowledged again by the president today, let’s hope he dramatically trims down that 700 number.