Israel and Palestine: Obama Commits the US

by Robert E. Hunter

To say that President Barack Obama’s visit this spring to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan is the proverbial gamble is an understatement. He may end up (rightly) congratulating himself on his wisdom and courage in taking this step and doing so at this time — and being thus recognized as a truly valid recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize conferred on him 3 years ago. Or, he may deeply regret venturing into such troubled waters and ending up, like so many of his predecessors, with not much to show for his pains in trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In any event, he has now embarked on a course that he must see through to the end or risk making matters worse, possibly for the regional parties and certainly for the reputation of the United States. Yet if he is prepared to do so — with demands that will match anything else in foreign policy that he has done in his presidency — the payoff will be immense, not just in the Levant but throughout the Middle East.

The lack of success in creating a viable Palestinian state, at peace with Israel and with both peoples living in mutual security, is not from a lack of effort from many senior, talented and dedicated people in the 34 years since President Jimmy Carter’s summit at Camp David with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin launched what were then called Autonomy Talks for the Palestinian territories.

Nor is the lack of success in producing what is known as the “two-state solution” a failure of ideas. These have been fussed over for decades, but have come down pretty much to a consensus on a few cardinal points, looking toward “Final Status.” These were best put in a brief statement by President Bill Clinton in December 2000, following the abortive Second Camp David Summit and a scant four weeks before he left office. They can be found here.

In brief, they propose a swap of land between Israel and the West Bank, so that about 80 percent of Jewish settlers on the West Bank would be incorporated into Israel; the state of Palestine would have contiguity (which implies some link to Gaza); Israel could keep troops in the Jordan Valley for a 3-year transitional period, plus long-term warning stations; arrangements would be made for Jerusalem that boil down to there being two capitals in one city with respect for everyone’s religious sites; there could be any one of five Clinton-suggested approaches to dealing with Palestinian refugees, with at least some being admitted into Israel proper; and Palestine would be a “non-militarized state” with an “international force for border security and deterrent purposes.” With a colleague, I later proposed that this “international force” be NATO, and that idea has gained currency.

Compared with the reams of negotiating documents and the years of talk, this is a simple formulation. It is also recognized by almost everyone who has actually been engaged in these negotiations — as I have — as probably the best that can be achieved and a balanced approach from which all can gain and that could, finally, bring the conflict to an end.

These Clinton Parameters, the obvious solution, were advanced 12 years ago, yet the conflict continues. The reason is manifold: part has been a general lack of political will to move forward, especially with the complex — if not tortured — politics in both Israeli and Palestinian societies; part is the natural human difficulty of taking a leap in the dark after decades of stasis; and part is what else has been happening. And it is this “what else has been happening” that Obama cannot avoid addressing during his visit and that will still be there when he departs, no doubt after applying his well-honed skills of inspiration, intelligence, and honest application to tough problems. This will be so even though opinion polling has long shown that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want the conflict to be over and done with.

Obama will no doubt reassure all parties of US commitment to be engaged until the job is done — and if he is not prepared to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”, he should stay home — ; to provide reassurances to Israel about its security and to Palestinians about the importance of what they call justice; and to call on peoples and political leaders to seize this particular moment. This should include a major address to the Knesset and some form of symbolic (as well as substantive) encounter with the Palestinians.

Then to the “what else is happening.” On the Palestinian side, Hamas’ control of Gaza and the on-again, off-again nature of its relations with the Palestinian Authority led by Mohammed Abbas on the West Bank are far from propitious, if not now impossible to resolve. Abbas will also insist, once again, that the US president get the Israelis to stop settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to ease significantly the isolation of Gaza.

On the Israeli side, current preoccupation is not with Palestine peacemaking, but with a trifecta of Iran, Syria and Egypt, all of which involve real or potential Security with a capital “S.” In Israel, Obama will no doubt be pressed, and pressed again, to confirm that “containment” of an Iranian nuclear capability is unacceptable to the United States and that all options — including the use of military force — are “on the table.” That will certainly not make negotiations any easier with the Iranians, in whatever form and whatever timing they take, and it will be even more difficult for Obama to change the US negotiating position to something that might have a chance of working — e.g., by recognizing that US, Israeli, and Iranian security concerns must all be accounted for. Prime Minister Netanyahu will also underscore Israel’s continuing concerns with attacks coming from Gaza and Iranian support for Hezbollah. And he will want the US strategic commitment to Israel to be further bolstered in concrete military terms.

Israel is also deeply concerned by the civil war in Syria, which, depending on what happens when President Assad departs (assuming that that will happen,) could turn that country into what Lebanon has so often been — a haven for attacks by Hezbollah and maybe others on Israel. President Obama can offer reassuring words, but the US may have little to offer, including in forestalling a larger, slow-burning civil war between the region’s Sunnis and Shi’ites, a byproduct of the misguided US invasion of Iraq a decade ago. And Israel is meanwhile very carefully watching what is happening in Egypt, where the 1979 peace treaty has been the bedrock of Israel’s strategic confidence ever since.

Nothing that President Obama says or does on his trip to the region will change fundamentally any of these factors. And, as usually happens when any positive possibility seems to be emerging in Arab-Israeli relations, a terrorist incident during the president’s trip is highly likely, further stimulating the fears of all those who would like to move forward, and undercutting moderate politics.

All this is the bad news. The good news — or at least potentially hopeful news — is that for the US to become again engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is an essential ingredient: despite talk over the years that “we Americans can’t want peace more than the parties,” it has been proved repeatedly that only the US can press the parties forward. (That statement includes whatever other members of the so-called Quartet that the US fostered in 2002 — the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia — will try to do but where they have no capacity to be of much consequence.) It is also true that, when the US commits its prestige and that of its president, “things happen.” This effort is also coming at the start of Obama’s second term, whereas Bill Clinton got engaged seriously only when he was about to leave office — and thus was in no position to put US political muscle behind any forward progress.

Experience also confirms that serious negotiations on Final Status can only truly begin when the US plunks down for consideration the draft text of a complete treaty, perhaps for presentation purposes doing it jointly with the other three Quartet members. At the very least, President Obama needs to outline parameters for a settlement during this trip — whether he just calls them “Clinton” or a more proprietary “Obama” Parameters. He will need to paint himself into a corner in terms of his own personal commitment to success, however long and hard the slog may be.

There is some other news regarding Obama’s spring trip, the impact of which has yet to be proved; it raises questions about why he is acting so soon, other than to splash a big rock in the pool and thereby get everyone’s attention that “the US is back.” Happily, he has appointed a Secretary of State, John Kerry, who is deeply committed to success on this issue, calling failure a “catastrophe.” Yet, by the time Obama goes to the region, Kerry will not have had time to even put his State Department Middle East team together and get his key officials confirmed by the Senate. The NSC staff in the White House will have had to be beefed up with top-notch people in this area; and the nominated Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who will need to offer strong backing — especially to reassure Israel of US strategic and military engagement — is not yet even in office. There is also precious little time before the president leaves for the Near East, for the White House to do the essential prior consultations with the Congress and key US constituencies, especially leadership of the Jewish community, if his trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan is to be – as it must now be – about substance and not just symbols.

For Obama to offer more than his own commitment and symbolism of “being there,” he must be ready to take one further step, if Kerry is to be spared having to spend a massive amount of his time and energy on the Middle East account, which regularly eclipses other priorities. That is to appoint a senior-level negotiator who will do what it takes for as long as it takes. The one person with experience who could also provide the necessary political clout as Obama’s personal emissary is obvious: former President Bill Clinton.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.