Middle East leaders’ undignified behavior

In the context of the Obama administration’s strong push for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the frankly undignified and needlessly complicating behavior of almost all the national leaderships in the Middle East has never been more apparent. Arab and Israeli leaders alike are not being honest with their publics about decisions they know full well they’re going to have to take because the United States is insisting on them based on the national security priority the Obama administration places the achievement of a negotiated agreement and its single-minded policy of arranging direct negotiations before the end of the month.

The most obvious recent example of this unfortunate tendency was the Arab League decision last week to approve direct negotiations with some very vague conditions and essentially leaving it up to Pres. Abbas to decide when and where they will commence. The Arab states have known for many months that the United States was going to insist on direct negotiations no matter what and that the Palestinians would be asking for their approval and that therefore they had, as a practical matter, no choice but to take the decision they did. However, in the weeks and months leading up to the unanimous decision, many of the 14 governments on the relevant Arab League committee pledged they would never do any such thing and demanded all kinds of preconditions, and it’s not clear how much, if any, of any of them have been met. To be sure the Obama administration has provided some kind of written assurances to the Palestinians and the Arabs, but their public reaction strongly suggests they are at best not fully satisfied with this response. The Arab states essentially did the minimum necessary, in many cases reversing their previous positions, and at the same time punted the ball to the Palestinians.

Let me be clear: the Arab League committee vote was the correct one both strategically and politically (indeed, it was unavoidable), and the move to cede real decision-making on this issue back to the Palestinians is in many ways a helpful one as it recognizes the primacy if not the exclusivity of Palestinian decision-making on these issues (exclusivity would be best, but primacy is better than nothing). What is striking and unfortunate is that these governments knew full well they were going to make this decision for quite some time and many of them were simply not honest about what they knew very well they would have to do, leading to what appeared to too many people to be an undignified reversal. The real indignity was not the decision itself or the recognition of American power and influence in the region, which is simply a fact, but the sometimes shameless posturing that led up to it. The most striking example was the attitude of Syria, which not only strongly opposed the idea of the resolution but actually denounced the decision of the committee on which it serves in the immediate aftermath of the meeting, although it’s not at all clear that actually voted against the resolution or did anything to really try to stop it.

Much the same can be said for the present behavior of Pres. Abbas, who knows two things by now: 1) he’s gotten just about all the assurances he is going to get (whatever they may be) from the Obama administration for the time being and 2) he has no choice strategically but to agree to enter into direct negotiations sometime in the next few weeks under the conditions that exist now. Palestinians have been looking for clear and specific terms of reference (and they’re not satisfied, apparently, with whatever has been arrived at thus far), benchmarks, timetables and a third-party (i.e. American) mechanism for holding parties accountable for fulfilling their agreements. I think it’s clear that neither the Israelis nor the Americans are terribly interested in benchmarks, and the Israelis are dead set, and have always been, against timetables. But I do think for negotiations to succeed in the long run at some point the Israelis and Americans have to agree to clear and specific terms of reference and, above all, a means of holding the parties accountable for fulfilling their obligations. As I wrote in a recent Ibishblog posting, the Catch-22 for the Palestinians is that if they’re not satisfied with what they have thus far received from the United States on these two fronts, they probably cannot get much more without entering into direct negotiations first, which relieves pressure on Israel in a certain sense. Of course, if they play their cards right, direct talks could be as much of a trap for PM Netanyahu as they are for the Palestinians, because everyone will have to then put their cards on the table. And, it should always be remembered that the Palestinians have both the most to lose and the most to gain from diplomacy, and that they have the least options and are most vulnerable to American pressure, especially compared to states like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line is that Abbas is going to have to go back into direct negotiations because the United States is insisting on them and the only real leverage the Palestinians have available at the moment at the highest diplomatic levels vis-à-vis Israel is to leverage the American national security priority in ending the conflict to their own advantage. At some fundamental level, the Obama administration and the PLO share a core goal of ending the conflict through a negotiated agreement that also ends the occupation and establishes a Palestinian state. It’s not at all clear that this is something the present Israeli government either wants or could agree to, and they haven’t been tested yet because of the lack of direct negotiations. Netanyahu has been able to maintain a degree of ambiguity on his attitude towards a real two state solution that has minimally satisfied both his right-wing coalition partners and the Obama administration, but this will be much more difficult as direct talks proceed if the Palestinians play their cards right. So while many people warn that direct talks can be a trap for the Palestinians, and they certainly could be, they can also be a trap for Netanyahu, or at least a real test of his willingness to go along with an agenda the United States considers imperative for its own national interest.

The problem at the moment is that Abbas and other PLO leaders, although not all of them, are continuing to speak in terms of more conditions and cast doubt on whether or not they may agree to the direct negotiations when they know very well they’re going to have to. One could argue that this is Negotiating 101 and that you always hold out for more even when you know you’re going to have to accept less. I think there’s obviously some truth to that dictum, but there’s also the question of diminishing returns. It’s not just a question of alienating the United States and losing the prospect of leveraging the American national interest in the Palestinian favor, it’s also a question of preparing the ground politically for what is the inevitable policy decision. My ATFP colleagues and I have said many times that the underlying problem preventing the realization of a peace agreement in the Middle East is the gap between politics and policy here in the United States, among the Arabs and the Palestinians and, of course, in Israel. At a certain point it becomes necessary to subordinate domestic politics to the policies of national interest.

The same critique applies, very much, to Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues on the question of settlements. The partial, temporary moratorium proved fraudulent since there was at least as much building in the West Bank during its 10 months as there was in the year before. In a sense, the United States has moved past the question of settlements, realizing it’s a dead end with the Israelis especially when they were able to maneuver the question into an argument about the status of Jerusalem rather than more land expropriations in the West Bank. The Obama administration has made it clear it doesn’t want to fight with Israel over formalized settlement announcements anymore and I don’t think the United States cares whether Israel formally extends the moratorium or not. In fact I don’t think there’s any chance they will. But I do think the administration has made its views very clear to the Israeli government: it will not react well to any new land expropriation in the West Bank or building in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. I think if the Israelis want to continue to build after the moratorium expires on September 26 in the large settlement blocs and some obviously Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem, that is to say in areas that are likely to be the subject of a land swap, especially if they do so modestly in practice (what they do is much more important than what they say on this issue), this will not create a crisis with the administration or even with the Palestinians. But I think the Obama administration has quietly but resolutely told the Israelis what the limits are and I suspect Netanyahu understands perfectly well that he’s going to have to respect them. It seems clear this is the quid pro quo for the direct negotiations not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the United States and the two parties separately, and that this is, if anything, what one can claim has been achieved by the proximity talks.

Lots of Israeli leaders are making all kinds of bold claims about what they’re going to do after September 26, but as I say, I think a lot of this is empty bluster. In fact, I think given the administration’s attitude it’s entirely possible, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem, that we will see less building in the 10 months after the ?moratorium? then we did during it. My point here is that Israeli leaders are not being any more honest about the policy decisions they’re going to have to make with their general public than the Arab or Palestinian leaderships are being. Nobody wants to frankly acknowledge American power and influence in the Middle East, but everyone accedes to it when push comes to shove. When that pushes past the point of diminishing returns, it becomes a pretty undignified spectacle and right now Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are all putting on a pretty unimpressive show.