Prelude to an Obama Peace Plan

“I hope that in the coming months we will see negotiations launched on all fronts as result of a regional peace initiative by President Obama, with the Palestinian issue at its core…. In my opinion, Israel should enthusiastically join the initiative.”

—Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, August 3, 2009

LONG-TIME OBSERVERS OF THE MIDDLE EAST will note the sound of silence. In fact, the sound of two related and almost harmonious silences. Most mainstream Israel supporters in the United States have been silent about the Obama administration’s obduracy towards the Netanyahu administration, while the Obama administration has been completely silent about international law and United Nations decisions regarding the settlements and the Occupied Territories.

It’s a bit like the episode of the John Cleese TV show, Fawlty Towers, where his mantra “Don’t mention the War!” prompts Freudian slips galore to a party of German guests. U.N. resolutions, from the 1947 partition onwards, are at the core of the Middle Eastern situation, quoted and defied by all parties, yet central to any solution. It is very hard not to mention them.

Instead of invoking the U.N.’s decisions, the Obama administration has been rigid and repetitive regarding Israel’s own previous commitments to stop the growth of settlements on land recognized as a future Palestinian state.

President Obama and his team have maintained tight discipline, as the vice president, the secretary of state, Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and others have held the line. They have reiterated to their Israeli counterparts that Israel and all the parties in the “Quartet,” including the U.S., accepted the 2003 Road Map to peace, which mandates a two-state solution and an end to settlement building.

For example, when Israel evicted two families from their homes of fifty years in East Jerusalem this July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully condemned the act as “not in ?keeping with Israeli obligations.” She did not mention the Geneva Conventions, or the U.N. resolutions deeming East Jerusalem occupied territory.

In contrast, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert H. Serry declared, “These actions are contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory.” The Swedish Presidency of the European Union condemned them even more categorically: “House demolitions, evictions and settlement activities in East Jerusalem are illegal under international law.”

Diehards on the left and the right assail the Obama policy as unprincipled. It is in fact very astute. By framing its demands around the Israeli government’s previous commitments, and in terms of policy accepted by almost all pro-Israeli legislators—and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the White House has negated opposition to its Middle Eastern policy and also headed off attempts by single-issue lobbyists to ransom its domestic agenda.

The success of this strategy is evident in a July 24 headline in the Jewish weekly, Forward: “Jewish Leaders Give Obama No Push-Back on Settlement Freeze.” American Jews voted for Obama, and those who did not are almost certainly supporters of the coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu and his right-wing Likud Party.

In the past, “official” representatives of the American Jewish community uncritically supported Israeli government decisions—whatever the government and whatever the decision. Their support was unwavering even as proportional representation in Israeli elections has given zealous minorities, including the settlers, disproportionate power in the motley coalitions that have run the country for decades.In effect the U.S. Israel lobby lent proxy support to the settlers, which influenced official U.S. statements. Washington moved from outright denunciation of settlements as illegal, to describing them as obstacles to peace, and finally under former President George W. Bush to acceptably created facts on the ground.

However, it is worthwhile to recall the Israeli government’s covert position on the settlements and “illegal” outposts. In January, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz published the contents of a secret Israeli Defense Ministry report. According to Ha’aretz “in the vast majority of the settlements—about 75 percent—construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued…. [I]n more than thirty settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) had been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.” Three years earlier, Talia Sasson, from the Israeli State Attorney’s office, reported that the outposts, like the settlements, had water, electricity, education and security provided by government agencies—even as governments pledged to stop them.

Recently, the settlers’ own behavior has done much to alienate many Israelis and many of Israel’s friends abroad. Similarly, the American peace lobby’s work was made easier by the election of the abrasive Netanyahu. The inclusion of the overtly racist Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister has handicapped any public diplomacy, not least with the overwhelmingly liberal majority of American Jews.

The minority Likudnik wing of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. fervently supported the Republicans in last year’s U.S. elections, while 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama. A new generation of American Jewish organizations lobbying for peace and implementation of the Road Map —such as the rapidly growing J Street, and Peace Now—not only gained influence with the election of “their” candidate, they now have access to the administration while the Likudniks do not.

Most genuine friends of Israel, those who want the state to survive in peace as a democracy, long ago accepted the “two-state solution” broadly based on the 1967 boundaries, with some form of shared authority over Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut offered normalization of relations with Israel in return for it. In effect, the Arabs—while still thinking that Israel should never have been created at the expense of the Palestinians—reluctantly came to accept the reality of Israel within its 1967 boundaries and were prepared to recognize Israel if it reciprocated with acceptance of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have indicated flexibility about negotiating changes in the precise boundary and even about the actual exercise of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

This basis for negotiation now has broad support among supporters of Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet Netanyahu and Co. have continued to overestimate their political standing in Washington, pushing for war on Iran instead of peace with Palestine. Wrestling with the most serious economic crisis in eighty years, healthcare reform, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has shown an ability to chew gum and walk at the same time. It recognizes that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian issue is a catalyst for unending conflict and American unpopularity in much of the world. In the fever dreams of the Neocons, a democratic Arab world would immediately kiss and make up with Israel. In the real world, the plight of the Palestinians is a popular concern for a majority across the Arab world.

Obama astutely reached out to the Muslim and Arab world, with visits to Turkey and Cairo. Many Arabs are suspicious of Americans bearing gifts, and what Obama said would have been unexceptional had any other Western leader said it. But for an American president to attempt such outreach, and to visit the Muslim world before the obligatory pilgrimage to Israel, was a clear signal to many Israelis.

The White House may entertain some hopes that Netanyahu will be pragmatic enough to take the necessary steps for peace. After all, it was Likud premier Menachem Begin who was dragged to Camp David to make peace with Egypt and to withdraw from Sinai. Obama must know that this is a not a high probability, and that Netanyahu does not really want peace, but a big piece, ideally all, of the West Bank.

So one must presume that there is a fall-back plan, which has to involve the Likud-led coalition’s loss of electoral support in Israel for alienating the U.S. Peacenik Israeli novelist David Grossman recently commented in an interview how difficult it is for outsiders to understand Israel’s vulnerability. He may exaggerate—much of the Western world has factored that in for decades. But he is probably accurate about the state of mind of Israeli Jews, even as Israel enjoys the automatic support of the world’s superpower.

The Israeli leader who puts that safety net at risk is unlikely to remain long in office. In the same interview, Grossman pointed out the solution: “We need a mediator from the outside. I think Obama is much better equipped than his predecessor, George W. Bush, because of his multi-focal look at reality. I wish Obama would stand up for his vision. I wish he would impose on us the solution that we all know it is inevitable.”

That solution, as the Obama administration has hinted, is based on the Beirut plan steered through the Arab League by Saudi Arabia, which in turn is based upon the U.N. resolutions: accepting as the basis for negotiations the U.N. resolutions which call for a return of the border to the pre-1967 “Green Line.” It would be better received from Obama than from the U.N. But no matter who addresses the envelope, the contents are the same.

The sedulous care with which Obama has marshaled domestic and international support indicates that he does have a clear strategy, which is probably not dissimilar to what EU foreign minister Javier Solana explicitly, and Grossman implicitly, call for: the imposition of a U.N.-mandated solution on both parties if they can’t come to an agreement.

Negotiators on both sides are vulnerable to stabs in the back by zealots accusing them of selling out. The big advantage of a U.S. intervention is that it alone can guarantee a solution, whether implementation of the U.N. resolutions or any adaptation of them. That is why, even when the U.S.—under Presidents Clinton and Bush pretending be an honest broker—acted like surrogate negotiators for the Israelis, the Palestinians wanted the Americans on board. They trusted a U.S. signature much more than an Israeli one.

Unless the Israeli electorate is auditioning for a replay of Masada, an offer of secure borders and peace with an explicit security pledge from the United States is as good as it gets. New U.N. resolutions would give the state legal, internationally recognized boundaries for the first time—and the U.S. could legitimately guarantee them.

For the Palestinians, as long as the plan does not go further than their negotiators were prepared to go, it is likely to be acceptable—the Green Line with compensation in land for any adjustments and a presence, whether shared or not, in Jerusalem—even if they have to abandon their understandable longings for their original homeland.

Ian Williams is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, and a columnist for the Guardian USA online.