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After Obama

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Mideast messes for the next US president 

 

Robert Satloff

 

Even God, it seems, is tired of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - and the never-ending standoff between US President Barack Obama and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu.

When a third intifada threatened to erupt recently following Israel's temporary closure of Muslim prayer at the al-Aqsa Mosque in response to stone-throwing against Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below, Palestinian leaders called for a "day of rage," and Israel dispatched more than 1,000 riot police to prepare for the worst.

Commentators across the political spectrum competed with "I-told-you-so" predictions about the start of another Palestinian uprising. 

And then it poured. A torrential, almost biblical rain kept Palestinian crowds down and Israel's powder dry - for the moment, at least.

It will likely take an even more dramatic brand of divine intervention to prevent a slew of worsening Mideast problems - renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Islamic terrorism, Iranian nukes and so on - from landing squarely on the desk of the next US president, whether it's Hillary Clinton or anyone else.

All indications are that President Obama is going to try to make a difference in his last two years, especially in securing what he reportedly believes could be a transformative nuclear agreement with Iran. But the overwhelming odds are that most of these problems will still be unresolved by the next inauguration - and that the 45th US president's tenure will be as engulfed by the Middle East as Obama's has been.

The al-Aqsa episode occurred in the wake of the latest in a series of mini-crises between Washington and Jerusalem that have also raised the odds against a breakthrough. Most recently it was the "chickenshit" fracas, when journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a senior US official - almost surely reflecting the view of the President himself, given Goldberg's record of access to the Oval Office - had used this unusual epithet in response to Netanyahu's alleged preference to prioritise political survival over risk-taking for peace.

That in turn came on the heels of another mini-crisis, when the White House refused to grant a meeting to visiting Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had previously insulted US Secretary of State John Kerry's "messianic" badgering about peacemaking.

Squeezed in between was a mini-crisis (or two) about Washington's denunciation of Israeli building projects in contested areas in and near Jerusalem, which the State Department said called into question Israel's commitment to peace.

All of this followed a more serious crisis during the 50-day Hamas war, when the White House - irate, if not well-informed, about Israeli fire-control policy against rockets launched from Gaza urban areas - placed temporary administrative impediments to the standard release to Israel of Hellfire missiles from prepositioned stocks. In doing so, Obama shook what he likes to term the "unshakable" US-Israeli defence cooperation relationship.

That added up to no fewer than four US-Israel spats in just three months. Throw in the fact that Israel was on the receiving end of nearly 4,000 Hamas rockets over the summer and that, in September, Obama effectively declared war on the murderous Islamic State, also known as ISIL, the aspiring caliphate that has gobbled up large chunks of Iraq and Syria and now has Israel (along with peace partner Jordan and other Sunni Arab allies) in its sights, and this pattern of crisis seems especially abnormal for allies as close as the United States and Israel.

And we haven't even talked about Iran yet. Israelis and their friends on Capitol Hill - not to mention Mitt Romney - were outraged by Obama's not-so-secret missive to Iran's Supreme Leader, sensing another concession from Washington with the approaching November 24 deadline for the nuclear talks. Ayatollah Khamenei responded not with a letter of his own, but with a nine-point "how-to" plan for the destruction of Israel.

The question is, what now? On one hand, with midterm elections having produced a more Republican, Israel-friendly (and Netanyahu-admiring) Congress, and with Barack Obama now a lame duck, Jerusalem has reason to think that the worst is now over.

Indeed, it may be a good time for the President to decide to avoid head-on collisions with Israel and focus the last quarter of his presidency instead on the long list of common challenges the two countries face.

On the other hand, if Obama is a lame duck, he's also a free bird. With two years remaining in office and no elections left to contest, the President now has the latitude to pursue relations on issues relevant to Israel without regard to the domestic political fallout - or concerns about further riling Bibi. Lame-duck presidents have legacy on their mind.

There is little doubt that the game-changing breakthrough the President seeks most is a nuclear deal with Iran. Testing the possibility of turning a new leaf with the ayatollahs has been a constant of Obama's foreign policy; it explains his reluctance to aid the Green Revolution in 2009, his refusal to retaliate for Iranian troublemaking in Iraq prior to the US withdrawal, and his willingness to face down senators from his own party who wanted to tighten sanctions in the wake of the interim nuclear deal last year. The president might now believe that there is an added bonus to a nuclear breakthrough with Iran in the form of cooperation against the Islamic State.

Although Jerusalem frequently praised the President for artfully arranging tight international sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table, the Israelis don't trust Washington's promises on the content of a putative deal. That's both because the Administration has periodically surprised Israel on key issues, such as the secret talks in Iran that launched the current negotiations, and staked out tough positions to win political points only to dial them back when they proved diplomatically inconvenient.

When, for example, the Israelis buckled under intense White House pressure and opted not to launch military action against Iran's nuclear program in autumn 2012, they were soon buoyed by the President's comments in his third debate with Romney that the goal of US policy was to seek Iran's implementation of UN resolutions. At that critical moment in the election campaign, the President had effectively endorsed Israel's long-sought demand for Iran's full suspension of nuclear enrichment. But a few months after his re-election, the President's chief Iran negotiator dismissed that same stance as "maximalist" and equated it with Iran's own extreme bargaining position. With that comment, it was clear that the Persian bazaar was open and no one - certainly no Israeli - could be sure where the deal would be struck.

On the other enduring US-Israel quagmire - the Middle East peace process - the President is reportedly weighing four options for his last hurrah: launching one more Sisyphean effort to reach a breakthrough accord between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas; issuing a sort of "last will and testament" on peacemaking, laying out an American plan that Obama would bequeath to his successor; abstaining on, rather than vetoing, a Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN Security Council whose wording would be drawn heavily from the President's past pronouncements; and fighting a guns-a-blazing final shootout with Jerusalem over Israel's settlement policy, the item that the President and his advisers consider the most serious obstacle to diplomatic progress.

Each approach has its appeal and, at a different time with a different president, some of these ideas might even be constructive steps toward peace. But in the current environment - when a dithering Abbas still hasn't answered Obama's questions from the last go-round at peacemaking in March; when the President looks like he might end up as politically radioactive to his successor as George W. Bush was to his; when a volte-face at the Security Council would probably trigger a Republican effort to defund the entire UN infrastructure; and when the only two beneficiaries of a no-holds-barred face-off on settlements are likely to be Hamas and Israel's hard right - all these ideas would pave a road to diplomatic hell, good intentions notwithstanding. None would achieve its objectives, and each would instead underscore either Washington's insanity, its irrelevance or its incompetence.

A more modest approach could still yield important dividends. A real effort to work with Netanyahu and Abbas to scale back tensions in Jerusalem, create visible economic improvement for Palestinians, shore up vital Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that miraculously still survives, inject some common sense into US-Israel dynamics on construction for Jewish housing in Jerusalem and nearby communities and, through that process, begin to restore political appeal to the possibility of peace among both communities would be a legacy the President's successor might be able to parlay into diplomatic progress. A key component here would be to capitalise on changed regional dynamics, especially the growing entente between Israel and Sunni Arab states and the Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati-led counter-revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood (including its local version, Hamas).

With its emphasis on practical cooperation over high-profile breakthroughs, such a strategy would not win any Nobel Peace prizes. It would, however, go far toward preventing the unwelcome distraction of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation at a time when the Administration should be focused on achieving results in the fight against ISIL.

Regrettably, however, chances are slim that the President will pursue this approach. Incrementalism, step-by-step, bottom-up - these conflict-management ideas have all been dirty words in an Administration that committed itself, from its earliest days, to the mission of conflict resolution.

Despite all the headaches the Middle East has provided him, Obama might see the region not as a vast expanse of quicksand that could smother what's left of his ambition but as fertile territory for legacy-building in the final years of his administration. By all accounts, a strategic breakthrough with Iran would meet that test. But even with his best efforts - in the form of concessions in key areas of negotiations and willingness to cede considerable regional influence to Teheran - the President might not be able to secure the Supreme Leader's agreement to a deal. Indeed, there are many possible reasons Iran might just not take yes for an answer. In that case, Washington almost surely would prefer a face-saving extension of the existing interim agreement rather than a total collapse of talks that could trigger a spiral of sanctions and retribution whose end cannot be infallibly foreseen.

In the current environment, Israel prefers an extension of the interim deal to either of the two other options - a comprehensive agreement, whose terms will almost surely include far more Western concessions than even many dovish Israelis can accept, or diplomatic breakdown, which could very well end international sanctions on Iran and open the path toward nuclear breakout. As the clock ticks toward the November 24 deadline for these talks, however, Israel's ability to affect the outcome is limited. That is the reality encapsulated so eloquently in the "chickenshit" interview.

In terms of peacemaking, the President faces a dilemma. When he came to office nearly six years ago, he declared this a top foreign policy priority and appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his special envoy. He could leave office with a concerted push to make his lasting legacy some form of progress here. This could either be trilaterally, as midwife to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; internationally, at the United Nations; or bilaterally, via a clarifying face-off on settlements between Washington and Jerusalem. But two major US diplomatic efforts have already come a cropper - the 10-month settlement freeze that led to just two weeks of negotiations in 2010 and Secretary of State Kerry's dogged if quixotic peace effort in 2013 and 2014 - and Obama probably doesn't want to emulate Bill Clinton, who devoted the last year of his presidency pursuing what proved to be an impossible peace dream.

But in the upwelling of more and more bad news, there could be a remarkable silver lining. The emergence of a new Middle East crisis unconnected to the Arab-Israel conflict - the rise of the Islamic State - might have the perverse effect of convincing regional players themselves to work together and, in the process, advance a long-sought US policy objective.

Sunni Arabs and Israel have built their own quiet set of strategic understandings in recent years, based in large part on shared disappointment with Washington and fuelled by a common sense of threat from both Sunni and Shi'ite extremists. While this has so far been muted and under the table, it is not crazy to imagine this carrying over into peace diplomacy.

Thus, if Obama presses forward with a bold new peacemaking effort that proves nettlesome to Israel and a distraction to the Arabs, he might be confronted with what Jimmy Carter faced in 1977. That is the year Arabs and Israelis - in that case, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin - came together to thwart Carter's ill-conceived idea of a joint US-Soviet international peace conference by pursuing an initiative on peacemaking on their own, Sadat's journey to Jerusalem. Today, one should not discount Arab and Israeli leaders reacting with shared revulsion at ham-fisted diplomacy by the White House to create their own platform for regional peacemaking.

Imagine that: Arabs and Israelis coming together in unprecedented fashion to talk peace not because of a presidential initiative but to spite a presidential initiative. Now, that's a legacy.

Dr. Robert Satloff is Executive Director of The Washington Institute.

 

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