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Idea Lab

DLC | E-newsletter | August 6, 2010
Reset in the Middle East

A series of presidents have taken on the troubles of the Middle East; most have left office disappointed and disillusioned. Is the Obama administration simply the latest in the series? Veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron Miller's glum April article The False Religion of Middle East Peace thinks it is:

"Obama, burdened by two wars elsewhere and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, came out louder, harder, and faster on the Arab-Israeli issue than any of his predecessors," ... "hit the Arab media running as a kind of empathizer-in-chief even as Israelis increasingly found him tone-deaf to their needs," and then "having pushed the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Palestinians to get negotiations going," found itself "rebuffed by all three."

Miller suggests simply leaving the topic alone for a while. We're less convinced. Just as the region's troubles often get worse when left alone, well-designed American policies can ease the pressures and dangers even when they fall short of a full solution. We see the administration's policy reset, based on an effort to organize global sanctions on Iran -- still in its early stages -- and a largely successful rebuilding of relations with the Israeli government with a summit meeting last month, as a good start. Three keys to a successful second act after a frustrating first year:

First, focus on the Israeli public's confidence as well as on "president to prime minister" relations. The governments of the United States and Israel can in good faith reach different judgments on particular issues. That need not be shocking, and need not shake the larger relationship -- unless they damage the Israeli public's faith that the United States is a friend which takes their concerns seriously. Some of the administration's early steps -- perhaps in particular a decision to allot prized presidential visits to Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia but not Israel -- did leave this faith in question and it needs to be re-established.

In policy terms, the Iranian nuclear issue is the central matter and one that fits American priorities. Israel's concern over Iranian nuclear ambitions is matched by similar concern among moderate Arab states, and by the world's need for a credible non-proliferation system capable of keeping the most dangerous materials and technologies away from rogue states. At a less existential level, we have other options as well; most recently, DLC President Ed Gresser has suggested some ways to upgrade the aging U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

There is also a political issue that the administration should undertake. The past decade brought campaigns from glitterati and campus-left organizations for sanctions on Israel, constant denunciations from U.N. offices and "Special Rapporteurs," and virulent accusations from odd corners of the blogosphere that Israel is an "apartheid state." Such statements, intended to demonize and delegitimize Israel, are repugnant and false and the administration should take them on directly.

Israel is a long-time ally and a decent society, whose people and governments face challenges well beyond those Americans must grapple with, and often must choose among bad options. For decades, they have argued out these issues and sorted out their choices through the democratic process -- and done reasonably well with it. Abroad, they have secured durable peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt and made them work. At home, they have built a remarkably successful multiracial society, fusing disparate streams of Jewish emigrants from Western Europe, Ethiopia, post-Soviet Russia, India, Iran, and the Arab states into a single nation. In economics, Israel -- a new OECD member this year -- offers a model for development as successful as those of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, based on education, research, and integration with the world economy rather than nationalism and resource wealth. This is a good story worth telling in its own right, but particularly important for the administration to tell now.

Remember that there are two Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, not one. The Gaza Strip is conflict between Israel and Hamas, a fundamentalist organization -- part militia, part political party, part terrorist conspiracy and Iran proxy, part social-service provider. In 2005, Israel unilaterally left the Gaza Strip and dismantled settlements in it. Two years later, the Hamas movement's Gaza wing launched a coup d'etat against its secular Fatah rivals. It has run the territory without opposition since -- mixing identities as militia, political party, religious authority, terrorist conspiracy and social-service provider. Its actions have been consistent with its charter, which says among much else that:

"There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

This is the root of the problem in the Gaza Strip: Its government is a fundamentalist militant organization which believes the solution to the Middle East problem is war and elimination of Israel. The periodic crises and violence in Gaza flow from this fact. These began with rocket launches across the border into Israeli towns, and could escalate any time Hamas decides that it (a) wishes to start attacks again, and (b) has the weapons it needs to do so. In these circumstances, Israelis are perfectly right to prevent shipments of weapons to Gaza, and in particular -- to choose the most dramatic of recent events -- to stop and inspect incoming "relief" ships which could carry heavy weapons and short-range missiles. To the extent possible, this blockade should allow humanitarian goods in, but the reason for it is clear and compelling.

The character of the West Bank's government is rather different. Now capably led by Salam Fayyad as prime minister, the Palestinian Authority has developed economic policies, is trying to create a modern court and legal system, and has improved security. Palestinian Authority police officials have worked with American Gen. Keith Dayton and the Jordanian army to create a professional Palestinian security force and been largely successful in preventing the organization of terrorist militias and recruitment of suicide bombers.

This, along with the building of the West Bank security fence, has reduced the need for Israeli checkpoints and patrols. Since then life has gotten better as travel has eased and businesses have revived. The West Bank economy is growing at about 10 percent annually -- one of the fastest rates in the world, though from a low base -- and World Bank data show West Bank life expectancy higher and infant mortality lower than in the Middle East generally. The focus on development and security is thus paying off, and offers the people on the West Bank the hope of creating not only a Palestinian state but a viable and decent state.

Don't Raise Hopes -- But Don't Lose Hope: Finally, be careful to avoid raising hopes too high.

The list of issues such a settlement would cover is well known: Palestinian statehood, borders, security for Israel, the fate of settlements, the status of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, Jerusalem generally, and the Holy Places in particular. It is relatively easy for outsiders to suggest the outlines of an agreement on these topics. But it is difficult for the actual participants to agree. This is because the issues have always been emotional as well as complex. It is also because the publics behind them, particularly in Israel, are powerfully and reasonably affected by recent history. The legacy of the second intifada -- when Yasser Arafat's PA responded to groundbreaking Israeli offers at Camp David and Taba in 2000 with a wave of suicide bombings at pizza parlors, wedding parties, and beachfront bars -- has had a powerful effect on Israeli opinion. So have more recent withdrawals from territory: The evacuations of south Lebanon in 2000, as well as of Gaza in 2005, brought not peace and an end of claims, but the advance fundamentalist militias to Israeli borders, followed by cross-border rocket attacks, kidnappings, and finally shooting wars.

A Palestinian leader agreeing to a reasonable settlement of these issues would need to face down Hamas and its gunmen. For their part, Israelis would need to make a leap of faith, accepting not just that today's Palestinian Authority is a reliable partner, but that future Palestinian governments of all kinds will remain in compliance, that Arab governments will do the same, and that -- in the end -- a departure from the West Bank will bring results like those the agreements with Egypt and Jordan achieved, rather than those of the more recent withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza. Israelis debate this intensely -- and should do so, because they are the people who take the risk. They have reasons to be careful, and the experience of the last decade has made these reasons more salient rather than less. If they need persuasion, it is less by well-meaning (but far away) Americans than by the Palestinians, and the Arab governments beyond them, who will have to abide by its terms.

This brings us back to where we began. The issues of the Middle East are hard. It was not wrong for the administration to start its term with high hopes and ambitions for settling them -- and Miller is right to remind us that such hopes and ambitions often end in frustration. But it would be a mistake for the administration to give them up today. At minimum, it can arrest a global trend of attacks on Israel and support the Palestinians trying to create a decent life on the West Bank; at best, if much that is outside our control goes well, it can achieve much more.


Miller's False Religion of Mideast Peace, in Foreign Policy magazine: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/19/

Secretary of State Clinton on the administration's policy:

From the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, a brief fact sheet on West Bank aid programs:

The DLC's Ed Gresser on the U.S.-Israel FTA:

The Israeli Embassy:

The Palestinian Authority's Finance Ministry -- (English-language version needs some updates):

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee looks at Hezbollah:

The Hamas Charter: