Everyone who follows the struggle for Israeli-Palestinian peace – especially insofar as they have any interest in it succeeding – quickly risks getting sucked into an exaggerated, bipolar discourse. The highs are too high and the lows too low to be justified by the circumstances. These affects inevitably lack what T. S. Eliot called an “objective correlative”: a reality-based source for such extreme emotions. The narrative asserts, but doesn’t justify, them.
There are two ways of getting it wrong, even without being hostile to a two-state solution. Some are fixated on being relentlessly rosy or doggedly downbeat. But most, at least to some extent, allow ourselves to be swayed with the pendulum of prevailing wisdom. Neither impulse is fact-based.
Right now a great many who are invested in Israeli-Palestinian peace appear to be in a manic phase. Because expectations were so low for President Barack Obama’s trip to the region, his skillful exercise in public diplomacy (especially as directed towards Jewish Israelis) has produced a palpable positive overreaction in many quarters.
Some are even speaking as if we had an active, American-led peace process in place, but in fact we don’t. And developing one will be a lengthy, difficult, and risky process.
Others, of course, are still entirely depressive. Obama looked like a tourist. He gave the store away to Israel. He kicked the can down the road to his successors. Been there, done that, etc.
But the bottom line is, while we are not on the brink of peace, or even renewed negotiations, we are across-the-board better off than we were a week ago. It’s equally unjustified to dismiss those improvements and pretend they didn’t occur or don’t matter as it is to declare the United States has reasserted its leadership and once again made peace a top priority.
So, if he didn’t make any actual progress towards a peace agreement, what exactly did Obama achieve? Quite a good deal, actually.
Most obvious is his reset with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, more importantly, the Israeli public. A reflexively zero-sum mentality assumes that better relations between the American president and Israel are a bad thing for the Palestinians. But the last two years of such tensions didn’t deliver anything useful to the Palestinians at all. And, in the end, since they want the Americans to help secure Israel’s agreement to end the occupation, Palestinians need a healthy, functional US-Israeli relationship.
Obama bent over backwards to tell the Israeli public everything it could want to hear, but he also had some harsh truths for them. And in those harsh truths were acknowledgments of the Palestinian experience that went far beyond anything we’ve heard from top-level American officials in the past. In particular, Obama’s declaration that the Palestinians “deserve justice” can only be read as an acknowledgment that there is something fundamentally unjust about the way the occupation mistreats them as human beings.
At least as significantly, Obama’s visit was immediately followed by two important steps that will directly benefit the Palestinian economy.
The United States pledged to release $500 million in withheld aid to the Palestinian Authority. And, more importantly, Israel has pledged to resume transferring the Palestinian tax revenues that make up the bulk of the PA monthly budget. Those revenues translate directly into paychecks for public sector employees and their families – about 1 million Palestinians – who have been struggling with delays and other hardships for many months.
It’s also striking that Obama personally met twice with embattled Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and repeatedly endorsed the institution-building program that he developed and has led since 2009. Obama made American support for Fayyad and his policies clear to any Israelis or Palestinians who harbored doubts about that.
Finally Obama obviously played a major role in initiating the unfolding Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. The two parties were brought together by mutual concerns regarding Syria, which will also provoke anxiety for Iran and Hezbollah. Bringing these two sulking American allies back together may not please everyone in the Middle East, but it’s clearly a substantial achievement for US policy.
So Obama’s trip yielded significant benefits to all parties. That said, nothing that took place could be confused for any actual “progress” towards a peace agreement.
Carefully cultivated low expectations for Obama’s trip led not just to pleasant surprise, but also to “irrational exuberance” on the part of some when it proved substantive and impressive. The danger, now, is that too large a bubble of hope has been created which, sooner rather than later, will pop, crash, and burn.
To avoid that, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will need to move beyond public diplomacy and managing expectations. They will have to develop policies that breathe new life, however gently, into the two-state solution. And that’s when the hard part really begins.