It’s time to just say it. The obsession of Barack Obama and John Kerry with forcing along a discredited and unproductive “peace process” involving the Palestinian Arabs and Israel is weird – even creepy.
Notice I didn’t say “peace process between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel.” There’s nothing “between” about it. At this point, the Obama-Kerry show seems to involve the Palestinian Arabs and Israel only tangentially. All the action is in Washington, D.C., and it’s all one-sided.
When we left our drama last week, Mahmoud Abbas had just delivered “three ‘no’s’” to the White House on this freighted topic: no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; no relinquishment of a so-called “right of return”; and no commitment to honoring a pact with Israel as an “end of conflict” between the two.
There’s nothing for Israel in this deal, in other words. Abbas won’t sign up to anything that would make Israeli commitments or concessions worthwhile. He’s very explicit about that. His ruling cabal in the West Bank in fact organized rent-a-crowds for a show of public support for his position, in advance of his visit to Washington – and was primed to run a victory lap celebrating his intransigence immediately afterward. Abbas couldn’t be more categorical about his refusal to engage with John Kerry’s negotiating framework; not if he spelled it out in six-foot neon letters.
As Jonathan Tobin points out, however, Israel has agreed to Kerry’s proposed framework for talks going forward, although with reservations. It’s Abbas who won’t come to the table. He won’t agree to even talk about finding common ground.
Seems like we’ve been here before, of course. But there are reasons for the current impasse, beyond the Palestinian Arabs’ longstanding pattern of refusals. The Quartet-brokered, Oslo-based peace process is a dead letter, and I think everyone outside Washington and Brussels can sense that. Oslo was born out of a moment that has passed: a moment of unchallenged American supremacy and the illusion of unforced global stasis. That moment is gone. The rise of a more territorial, geographically oriented Islamism, coupled with the Arab Spring, and now Putin’s invasion of Crimea, have demonstrated that too much of our current reality has changed.
It would be foolish of Abbas to make commitments at this point; foolish of Arabs throughout the region, and Islamists of all stripes. Too many opportunities are now possible. The last thing anyone wants to do is make commitments that will leave him out of position to profit from the coming instability.
Multinational observers or peacekeeping forces may be highly exploitable, as they have been in southern Lebanon, but their utility depends on an excruciatingly slow, indirect approach to undermining Israel. They could be a serious inconvenience for a quicker-acting approach, if such multinational forces took up a position – through some agreement along the lines of the Kerry proposal – in the Jordan Valley.
Abbas has excellent strategic reasons to reject the idea of a U.S.-brokered multinational force in the Jordan Valley. So do his various patrons. Now isn’t the time to commit to deals. Not with the status quo about to bust wide open.
The Obama administration hasn’t realized it’s 2014, largely because its members haven’t even realized it’s no longer 1968. That’s another story, but it’s central to the failing dynamic of the Middle East peace process. The context in which the Oslo framework was the best or only option is simply gone.
Under these emerging conditions, Israel’s continued cooperation has a twofold purpose, I believe: first, to show good faith in general – a willingness to negotiate to settle the Palestinian problem – and second, to maintain her good relations with the United States.
Netanyahu knows how far he will go, and he doesn’t plan to sell out Israel’s national interests. But one of Israel’s interests is the perception that U.S. power matters to the region and is a force friendly to Israel. That perception is broadly stabilizing: it’s good for everyone who wants peace and a continuation of the post-1945 international norms. If a day comes when it literally is not in Israel’s interest to support that perception of “stabilizing American power,” and of Israel aligned with it, the ensuing chaos will be catastrophic for far more governments and peoples than Israel’s.
Regrettably, the Obama-Kerry obsession with obtaining a “peace” deal on the Oslo premise, when the basis for it no longer exists, is itself a trend that undercuts stability. It just adds to the U.S. administration’s image of cluelessness – or even psychosis.
The latest example is the apparent deployment of the “Pollard card” to keep alive a scheduled release of jailed terrorists – a release that some Israeli politicians are now laying their bodies across the train tracks to stop, because it’s clear that nothing will ever come of the concession of releasing convicted, murderous terrorists to Abbas. Unrest in Netanyahu’s governing coalition could generate a crisis of government for him if he goes forward with the release. The Obama administration, by “not ruling out” a release of Jonathan Pollard, is dangling that as a last-ditch enticement for going ahead with the release of the terrorists.
But no matter what else Abbas says or does now, he has made it clear that he won’t negotiate on any basis that would make it worthwhile for Israel. Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel won’t sign on to a bad agreement – even if she sits down to discuss one. It’s the U.S. that would be the chump at the other end of this, having carried Abbas’s water without getting anything in return. Indeed, if we did release Pollard, that action would look as pointless and weak-handed as any gratuitous concession ever has. Regardless of whether we hold the card for a righteous reason, dealing it away for nothing just looks desperate and witless.
Unfortunately, even pretending to play it looks that way too. The rest of the world, outside of the haunts of Western liberalism, has many flaws and drawbacks, but it has one big advantage over the West right now. Its leaders don’t operate in a geopolitical echo chamber. Weakness is what it looks like, for the rest of the world, and the Oslo-based peace process is collateral damage in the collapse of the Pax Americana.