A US Middle East peace plan in theory and practice

A few days ago a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post introduced a new Obama administration concept in the standoff with PM Netanyahu: the idea that the United States might develop and begin promoting its own specified plan for a Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In effect, this plays on Israel’s deep concern about a settlement that is “imposed” by outside powers rather than one that is negotiated with the Palestinians. They fear this would deprive them of the leverage that comes from the asymmetry of power between the occupier and the occupied, and mean in effect negotiating with the United States rather than the Palestinians and suddenly being the weaker party in a new asymmetry of power. Ignatius accurately recounted that at the most recent of a series of meetings National Security Advisor James Jones has been holding with six of his predecessors, Pres. Obama dropped by for 10 minutes and asked directly about the prospects of such a move. Apparently first Brent Scowcroft and then Zbigniew Brzezinski strongly endorsed the idea, followed by others, and no one objected. The President apparently did not either welcome or dismiss this response, but listened and left. Ignatius quoted two unnamed senior administration officials endorsing the idea, creating the impression that this is a real and imminent possibility.

I think it’s impossible to read this as, at this stage at least, anything other than a trial balloon largely designed to pressure Netanyahu and his colleagues. Translated into English, the rhetoric first floated in the Ignatius column says to Bibi: “we haven’t heard back from you since the Shepherd Hotel fiasco and the insult to the President, and you have to come up with something quickly. The special relationship does not give you license to push us around, and you need to know we are going to be the winners in this confrontation. We are not going to accept a stalemate, and if you don’t come up with something acceptable, you’re going to force us to begin to move in this direction eventually. We have options. Don’t make us use them.” One should quickly point out that anyone rejoicing that the United States is seriously considering drafting its own peace plan and then trying to impose it on the parties should drink a big glass of water and breathe deeply. No doubt it’s true that there are many people in the foreign policy establishment who think it would be a good idea, and a faction within the administration that is pushing for it, obviously led by Gen. Jones. However, for many reasons it’s also obvious that the administration is quite a long way off from doing this, if it ever would.

At some point the United States will clearly have to fight with both Israel and the Palestinians, and possibly the Arab states as well, over substantive issues in order to midwife a workable negotiated peace agreement. This might involve a comprehensive American plan rather than bridging proposals. But for this to be productive, the fight needs to come at a time when it has a real chance of producing serious diplomatic benefits. It’s important to understand that this administration wasn’t looking for a fight with Israel now. Netanyahu, and much more specifically whoever decided to announce the Ramat Shlomo settlement expansion during the Biden visit and then the Shepherd Hotel expansion on the same day as Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, have forced the issue in a reckless and bizarre manner. The administration is rightly determined not to be seen as backing down, and not to take these slights and defiance with equanimity. But the administration’s goal is to get the two parties back into talks, with the hope that negotiations will begin to produce their own dynamic that can move away from bilateral US-Israel discussions about settlements in Jerusalem to Palestinian-Israel discussions about final status issues.

The problem is, of course, it’s not evident that the administration has either a clear sense of what to do once the negotiations begin, or a plan b if they continue to be frustrated by the recalcitrance of one or both of the parties. This is where the Jones-Ignatius trial balloon comes in. It serves two purposes. First, for the faction within the administration that wants the United States to intervene forcefully with its own proposals, it advances their idea in the context of a breakdown in political relations with the Israeli government. It offers a critique of “incrementalism” in this context and proposes a solution of bold gestures on the biggest issues. For the administration in general, and Pres. Obama in particular, this trial balloon more immediately and importantly serves the purpose of turning up the heat under Netanyahu, and sending the message I outlined above. Whether or not it’s the subject of any serious consideration within the administration, it underscores American determination and frustration with Israeli ambiguity on peace and defiance of reasonable US demands.

So, at the moment, this idea really operates at the level of a threat to Netanyahu, and an idea about having an idea if all else fails. Yesterday, Gen. Jones told reporters that “no decision” has been made about whether to begin drafting a plan or not, which is both clearly true and also not intended to be reassuring to Netanyahu (reassurance would have been in the form of “no intention” or “no plans” to do any such thing, which is certainly nothing like what he said). However, it is possible to imagine a scenario in the coming months and years in which mounting American frustration with the parties, especially Israel, transforms this trial balloon into a real strategic program for want of any better options. Israeli media have been expressing considerable anxiety about an “imposed” settlement, and that anxiety is not entirely misplaced. The reality is that, for reasons I’ve been explaining on the Ibishblog and in over 25 university lectures in the past few weeks, the Obama administration and more broadly the foreign policy establishment in Washington now sees an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a strategic imperative for the United States. So, this is more than just a squabble between politicians, or even a policy dispute, it’s about a newly perceived and fundamental contradiction between the vital national interests of the United States and policies to which the right-wing Israeli government are committed. If Israel simply will not play ball, they might leave the United States only two options: walk away, with disastrous consequences for US interests throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, or choose the right time and method to actually try to coerce or impose a settlement on all parties, including Israel.

The substance of such a plan is easy to anticipate, since there isn’t much wiggle room within the minimum national requirements for both Israelis and Palestinians. As Helene Cooper outlined in the New York Times, it’s going look a lot like the Clinton parameters and other familiar formulae. What’s more difficult to conceptualize is what it would take to drive an administration to actually place such a high-stakes wager, and how they could keep support of Congress in the process. And, what is almost impossible to imagine is how precisely the United States could “impose” such an agreement on the parties, especially an Israeli government right wing enough (as the current one seems to be) to be opposed to key elements of any reasonable agreement, especially regarding Jerusalem. Because it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to talk about in theory and very difficult to imagine working well in practice, it’s the sort of idea that’s well-suited for a trial balloon but less attractive as a policy.

There is also an important contextual contradiction between what might prompt the United States to publicly issue its own plan and the conditions that might make it an effective gesture. Frustration with the parties, especially Israel, is what really drives this idea, and has given it its present momentum. However, that frustration is produced by the kind of recalcitrance that would ensure maximal resistance to key elements of the plan by Israel and possibly others as well. In other words, the conditions that would give rise to it are the very same ones that would probably kill it. An administration facing an Israeli government willing to play ball on peace enough to make a plan workable would probably not feel the need to take this drastic step.

And, timing is everything. An American proposal issued at the wrong moment, such as the present one for example, might well prompt an even deeper bilateral crisis with the Israelis, but it would probably be rejected with such unanimity that it would die an epic death. Obviously, that might do far more harm to the cause of peace than good. And ill-chosen timing would also risk the administration losing support in Congress, which is crucial. At present, the Obama administration has very much the upper hand with Netanyahu because it has held key support in Congress, including from a number of extremely well-placed pro-Israel Jewish Democrats. It’s obvious that the Israelis were counting on countering administration pressure with congressional support, but for once they have not been able to muster it, at least so far. It’s obvious they didn’t have a plan b either.

If Netanyahu thought he might be the recipient of some serious congressional support, he might have braved the trip to Washington that he canceled mere hours after the Ignatius piece was published. But it’s clear Washington at the moment is largely hostile territory for him because he hasn’t been able to produce anything to defuse the crisis with the Americans. The idea that he suddenly realized that Muslims might make an issue out of Israel’s nuclear arsenal or, in the other explanation the Israeli government has offered, that they suddenly remembered the prime minister has to be around for Holocaust Memorial Day are both completely absurd. The Ignatius article and other administration comments both on and off the record about considering a US peace plan were the last straw, and he canceled his trip because he has nothing constructive to tell Americans both in the administration and in Congress who are expecting a reasonable response.

So to a very large extent the name of the game at this point is for the President to keep hold of congressional support. As long as he has it, the onus is very much on Netanyahu who is simply going to have to come up with something sooner rather than later because he is dealing with a united US government and has been unable to play off one branch against another. Any gesture to issue a US peace plan would have to be done and, crucially, timed in a manner that ensures congressional support, or at least non-opposition. For that to happen, either the atmospherics regarding the likelihood of an agreement would have to be very different than they are at present, or the level of frustration with Israel in Congress has to be a lot deeper than it is now, and in either case a considerable amount of political groundwork that has not been done would be required.

In spite of all of these serious pitfalls, the present line of thinking contains a great many positive elements. It continues the ongoing process of distinguishing between US and Israeli positions and interests in a very healthy way when too often for the past 20 years the default has simply been for the United States to support Israel in all things, no matter what. It reflects salutary administration determination and an unwillingness to be stymied by Israeli stonewalling or strategic ambiguity. And it shows the administration is seriously examining what its options might be. All of these are important developments that need to be encouraged.

Moreover, it really is important for the United States to have a clear understanding of exactly where it wants to go with the peace process. Right now, the US is committed to a negotiated agreement that involves the creation of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state and a resolution of the other final status issues, and that leads to normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. This is incredibly vague. The only deeper specificity thus far from the Obama administration has been some clarity on what the permanent status issues are — borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem — and an insistence that they all must be on the table in either direct or proximity talks. Again, that leaves far too much up to two parties that are defined by an extraordinary asymmetry of power and who have demonstrated for a long time that left to their own devices they are not capable of reaching a reasonable agreement. Therefore, it is actually important for the administration to seriously work on formulating a more detailed outline of what it thinks a workable agreement would look like, in order to ensure that everyone in the administration is really working for the same goals and in order to craft policies that advance the realization of such an agenda.

How you actually get to such a desired outcome is less important. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s the result of an announced US overall peace plan that is “imposed” in some very difficult to imagine manner, or if it is the product of another process such as negotiations between the parties aided by US bridging proposals, assurances, inducements and so forth. But it is important to know precisely where you want to go. So, rather than having this idea remain simply a trial balloon designed to send a strong message to the Israelis, or having it all just go away and returning to approaches that have not yet yielded significant results, a measured way forward might involve seriously working on more specific outlines of what precisely the United States believes would constitute a workable and achievable agreement that would advance its interests in the region but not making this public or presenting it to the parties for the foreseeable future. This would allow the United States to operate with greater clarity and focus, but would avoid the pitfalls of a premature and ill-timed announcement of a US agenda that under the present circumstances would probably be rejected by Israel out of hand and possibly even also by the Palestinians and/or the Arab states, and might break key Congressional support for Pres. Obama.

This would ensure that the United States is ready with a proposal if it comes to feel it has no other choice but to present one, or otherwise finds it an attractive prospect. And, it might help end or at least reduce public squabbling between administration factions and personalities. The question is: could one really keep it off the public radar? I suppose a disciplined administration might be able to, and there is always the ability to simply deny any leaks emphatically even if they’re accurate. It’s well worth the risk in my view. Whether the trial balloon dies or grows into a real agenda, and whether or not the United States ever feels the need to publicly issue a comprehensive Middle East peace plan, a clearer sense within the administration of what precisely our country is trying to promote and achieve between Israel and the Palestinians is an extremely good idea.