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Obama, Netanyahu and the Peace Process

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Guyana Journal, June 2009
By Mohamed El-Khawas

President Obama is different from his predecessor because he does not play games. Unlike G.W. Bush, he does not say something in public and do something contrary in private. He clearly articulates his position for all to know and works hard to achieve it. He has committed himself to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Bush had neglected out of fear of failure. He supports a two-state solution and makes the establishment of a Palestinian state the cornerstone of his broader regional policy to build bridges between the Arabs and the Israelis. This is a heavy agenda to undertake at the beginning of his presidency, especially when he is already dealing with economic meltdown and global recession triggered by the near collapse of the U.S. banking system.

George J. Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East, is well respected by both the Israelis and the Palestinians because of his neutrality and evenhandedness. Toward the end of Bill Clinton's second term, Mitchell headed a high-level commission on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When its work was completed in 2001, he submitted the report to George W. Bush who did nothing with it. Under Obama, Mitchell has now been dispatched to the region to revive the dormant peace process. He has held separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials to pave the way to a resumption of talks. His mission was complicated by the Israeli February elections, which showed a decisive shift to the right by voters.

The New Prime Minister of the Likud Party, Binyamin Netanyahu, is known for his opposition to exchanging land for peace. He has no interest in restarting talks about Palestinian statehood until progress is made to stop Iran's uranium enrichment and to curb its growing influence in the region. This is a major shift from the positions of previous Israeli governments, which had endorsed a two-states solution. Netanyahu's new approach to the Palestinian issue will complicate Obama's push to make quick progress on establishing a Palestinian state.

In a meeting with Mitchell on April 16, Netanyahu voiced misgivings about establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank out of fear that it would be taken over by Hamas, as occurred Gaza. Netanyahu said that he intended to focus on helping improve the Palestinian economy. Mitchell then met with President Mahmoud Abbas who expressed concerns over Netanyahu's maneuver to delay indefinitely the establishment of a Palestinian state. Delay gives the Israeli government more time to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to alter conditions on the ground to undercut the makeup of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians favor dealing with their issue separately from Iran's nuclear controversy. As Saeb Erekat, chief peace negotiator, put it, "Our issue is an issue on its own."

American officials do not wish to see any delay on the Palestinian issue. They argue that now is the time to mount serious diplomatic efforts to reach a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to end the cycle of violence and decades of war. Abandoning the peace process will anger Arab governments, which are pressing for progress on the Palestinian front. This was the message that Jordan's King Abdullah II personally delivered to Obama in April. Failure to move swiftly on a peace plan would provide al-Qaeda with an effective propaganda tool for recruitment by pointing out that the Obama administration is no different from its predecessor. For these reasons, American officials hope to make progress in the peace talks as a way to curb Iranian influence, which has been on the rise because of its support for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They point out that Arab states share Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear threat. However, they cautioned that the Arabs would not support Israel's position on Iran unless there were visible efforts to establish a Palestinian state.

In May, Netanyahu came to Washington to talk about the Iranians, not the Palestinians. He argued that Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to his country, more important than the dormant peace talks, which he considers a waste of time. Obama agrees that Iran should not have nuclear weapons and assured the Israeli leader that all options are open but he wants to wait until the end of the year to find out if current diplomatic efforts will produce results. However, Obama does not want to delay the peace efforts. He believes that some movement toward establishing a Palestinian state will help efforts to curb Iranian influence in the region. Secretary Hillary Clinton pointed out that if Israel wants strong support for its position on Iran, "it cannot stay on the sideline with respect to the Palestinian and the peace efforts." She added, the two issues "go hand-in-hand" and must be dealt with simultaneously on parallel tracks. She argued that Arab officials would like "very much to support the strongest possible policy toward Iran" but they believe that restarting negotiations with the Palestinian Authority would enable them to deal with Iran. The U.S. plan is "to coordinate the Arab and Israeli positions so the unusual dynamic of unity on Iran could be exploited."

In Washington, Netanyahu avoided any mention of statehood for Palestinians. Unlike Obama's support for a two-state solution, the Israeli prime minister has always opposed giving Palestinians statehood with full sovereignty, which will enable them to have an army, control airspace, and make treaties. Instead, he favors only giving Palestinians a limited form of self-government. The Palestinian Authority has rejected this option on the ground that Netanyahu is turning his back on Bush's Roadmap which had been endorsed by previous Israeli governments. Palestine's chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat questioned how the Palestinians could govern themselves "when roadblocks are suffocating us in towns and refugee camps? When the army makes incursions wherever they want? When the demolition of homes continues?" He warned that if Netanyahu "stays on this course, then he is closing the door and pushing the region towards bin Laden."

Another contentious issue is the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu does not want to deal with this issue out of fear that it might threaten his fragile right-leaning coalition and lead his ultra orthodox partners to quit the cabinet. In Washington, he did not mention the settlements in his comments. Obama however brought it up and stressed that settlement activities in the West Bank "have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." He does not want the Israelis to build new settlements or expand the existing one under the guise of "natural growth". Obama indicates that he will not abide by Bush's secret letter to Ariel Sharon about settlement expansion in the occupied territory. Netanyahu rejects Obama's position on settlements but offers to dismantle small Jewish outposts that have been built on Palestinian land without the government's permission. This is unacceptable to Washington. It is clear that the Israeli leader has no intention of moving quickly on Palestinian statehood-a position that will put him on a collision course with the U.S.

Despite the fact that many hurdles standing in the way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Obama administration is committed to achieving "a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and we will pursue it on many fronts," as Clinton has said. The U.S. plans to involve Arab states and other powers, including the European Union and Russia, and maybe the United Nations in future talks. This approach was tried by the first President Bush, and was unsuccessful. Bringing many players to the table, with different and conflicting agendas, will complicate the process and might delay the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. A better strategy is that of President Jimmy Carter who successfully concluded the first peace accords between Israel and an Arab state. His approach of limiting talks to the concerned parties was more conducive to favorable outcomes. President Bill Clinton used the same method and came very close to reaching an agreement. But he ran out of time due to a late start at the end of his second term.

It is strongly recommended that Obama should limit the talks to the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the U.S. acting as go-between. American officials should use quiet diplomacy to prepare the ground for such a Camp David summit. Obama could use his skills to bridge the gap between the adversaries. It will take time and patience to resolve the long-standing Middle East conflict. With persistence and hard work a breakthrough might be possible.


Washington, D.C.
June 09, 2009
Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.

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