What exactly are John Kerry and Barack Obama trying to accomplish with the new round of “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs – an event that has been put together with chewing gum and baling wire, and that won’t produce squat in terms of agreements, because no one has any incentive to negotiate?
It’s interesting to try to account for the urgent – even unseemly – push for talks, given the absence of realistic objectives for or benefits from them. I include in the latter any potential benefits for Obama’s political standing at home, and specifically the chances for Democrats in the 2014 election. No matter what happens between now and November 2014 – and I mean no matter what – the progress of the Israeli-Arab “peace process” will have no effect on the mid-term election.
Nor, taking a general view, will it affect Obama’s political reputation. He could preside over the most epically comprehensive final-status agreement ever conceived, complete with Time-cover-ready photo op, and it wouldn’t affect his foreign policy street cred.
“Israel-Palestine” is a sideshow in the Middle East now, further than it has ever been from functioning as the linchpin of regional peace. The most incendiary force in the region today is Islamism, and the most important dynamic is the post-Arab Spring turmoil, in which the relative political stability that came with the old-style despots has been shattered. A new accord between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs would address exactly none of the region’s most pressing security issues.
If we should have learned anything since January 2011, it’s that Middle Eastern unrest is growing because of a good half a dozen really important things other than “Israel.” Creating a Palestinian state is not the key to organizing the Middle East; it offers no prospect of larger benefits for regional stability. No outcome we desire in the region is tethered to it, and the obviousness of that has grown exponentially in the last two years. Will al Qaeda stop fighting if the Palestinian Arabs get a state? Will Egypt’s internal squabble be easier to sort out? Will the Syrian civil war get resolved? Will Team Erdogan desist from the neo-Ottoman zingers and stop imprisoning journalists? Will Iraq quiet down and be stable and prosperous, already?
Of course not. Viewed from the big picture, the obsession with “Palestine” looks misplaced, overtaken by events, determinedly ideological – an instance of the shrill, wearying parlor radicalism of the Western left. The Obama-Kerry push for new peace talks comes off as the hapless product of that holdover-leftism phenomenon.
If today’s minds remembered anything about the 1960s, Obama would be justly famous for his bitter clinging to that decade’s superannuated radicalism. No matter how much things change, for the superannuated radical, it’s still 1964, in terms of civil rights and race relations. It’s still 1968, in terms of national politics and foreign policy. And it’s still 1967, in terms of Israel and the Arab Middle East.
This sense, which derives from the ideologue’s inability to adapt, is what is driving the Obama administration’s heedless urgency for talks that aren’t going to go anywhere. It’s quite possible that Team Obama imagines a world on tenterhooks, waiting to hail our president for arranging another moment of eventhood like Camp David or Oslo. (That each of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton managed to put such a moment together probably figures in the Obama hunt as well.)
There is no such world, of course, and there hasn’t been one for as much as a decade. But Team Obama sees a lot of things that aren’t really there.
The peace talk moment, this time around, has exacted a high price from Israel: the release of more than 100 of the worst terrorists (some of them Israeli citizens) serving sentences in Israeli prisons. Israelis are justifiably asking why the Netanyahu government would do this – under any circumstances, but particularly given that the talks won’t produce anything Israel can benefit from. (Israelis aren’t the only ones asking. Jonathan Tobin asks at Commentary whether Americans would agree to something like this for the terrorists we have in our prisons.)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has understood that their complete release is the key for restarting peace talks, and this is what he promised to Abbas, a PLO official said.
Sweetening the pot to get the Palestinian Authority to the table, the Obama administration just issued another waiver of restrictions imposed by Congress on funding to the PA (a patented Friday-afternoon move, incidentally). The enthusiasm of Team Obama for the talks is unmistakable.
Why is Netanyahu going along with it, when agreeing to the terms negotiated by the United States is bound to be politically damaging for him? I believe he is taking a long view of the hazardous world we will all enter, on the day Barack Obama’s United States is shown up as a self-created weakling, unable to exert influence even on our own allies. He is paying a high price for shoring up the status quo – the only thing he can conceivably accomplish by participating in the “peace talks” – but the alternative of exposing the soft underbelly of a failing status quo might well be worse.
It’s really quite obvious at this point that the U.S. won’t exert a meaningful influence on the Middle East in the near future: that the Pax Americana is no longer being enforced, and requires only a push to crumble. In going along with the Obama-Kerry drive for “peace talks,” Netanyahu is fighting a rearguard action, and what he hopes to get out of it is what a strategist usually hopes to get out of a rearguard action: time.
Bibi will not be the U.S. ally to prove our impotence by ignoring us. He won’t be the one to expose our inutility to the region by overtly rejecting our proposals. Israel won’t give the defunct Pax Americana that fatal push.
He’s not home free with the terrorist prisoner release, of course. Israel has to get through the talks, guarding her irreducible security requirements while avoiding, if possible, an open breach with the U.S. “mediator.” (As much as I deplore the overuse of scare quotes, there’s no way to reflect as an honest mediator a party that made prejudicial promises about what one side would concede before the talks even started.)
But the thing to remember is that Netanyahu is doing this for Israel. He’s not doing it for America. Israel’s security environment is already in an uproar, and the one thing that can cause it to deteriorate even faster than an Iranian bomb is a wholesale loss of respect in the region for the United States. Not because Israel is our ally, but because that respect has been the only thing keeping a lid on the Middle East. Once the reflexive habits born of that respect are abandoned, there aren’t enough clichés to describe how bad it could get for many of the nations and peoples of the region.
It’s safe to say that no one out there – other than Islamist radicals preparing for the Mahdi – sees any kind of big “settlement” on the horizon, for any of the world’s known political disputes, from Russia, China, and Japan to the nations of Africa and the Americas. The future looks uncertain, open-ended; no one knows where things are going to go. The Pax Americana has been a landing spot of sorts, lasting nearly three-score years and ten, but Obama and the trends of his time are casting off our moorings from it. Netanyahu is paying a high price to buy time for the status quo, as it affects Israel, but under today’s conditions, it’s probably the best he can do.
It’s possible that Israel may be put on the spot to make a bad agreement in these talks. But frankly, I doubt it. The Palestinian Arabs sent the usual suspects to “negotiate” – and in any case, regardless of the pressure brought to bear by the United States, they will be as anxious as anyone else to wait and see if they can get something better down the road. In the emerging world without a global leader, that will be the new normal, at least for now.