Germanicus Returns

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 9:25 AM

Every honest and concerned expert on the Middle East is grasping at straws, trying to figure out what to make of the current impasse in the so-called “peace process”. Among these is Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard, who writes a column--nowadays, it is called a blog--for the Foreign Policy website. He has just posted an entry entitled “A Modest Proposal for the Middle East Peace Talks”. Find it below, excluding readers’ comments.

Under my pen name “Germanicus” I made a comment entitled “There are limits”. More grasping at straws. Here it is:

We all have to hope for the best, like Professor Walt does here, but there are limits to wishful thinking--especially if one is a realist.

(a) Has Obama really “been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech” as Walt suggests? The mistake here is to have taken President Obama's Cairo speech seriously to begin with. It was an exercise in public relations, a bunch of empty words. This is something in which Obama excels. He has no real power, but he thinks he can talk a good talk, and everything will be fine. Then he continues down the same wrong path as others have done before him. It is tedious. He is no better than they are. In certain respects, he is worse, because he is such a hypocrite and a complete waste of time. At least with Dick Cheney, for example, you knew you were dealing with a determined, misguided and benighted individual, beyond all reason. G.W. Bush, Cheney’s sidekick, was no better. So you didn’t hope. You didn’t waste your time.

(b) What does it mean to say “ the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions...”? Does anybody out there think that Tel Aviv did not start long ago to make ridiculous demands, to indulge in delaying tactics, and to refuse categorically to make reasonable concessions? One could reasonably argue that this is all Tel Aviv has done ab ovo, and that such is the modus operandi. What's more, the tactic has obviously paid off in spades. It has been a great success. So it will continue.

(c) Professor Walt makes the suggestion that the United States tell “everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change....” All well and good, but who is going to do that? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Please! How could she or B. “Slippery” Obama make such a statement with a straight face, when they know it is untrue, can never be true in the future, and has in fact never been true since 1948? American domestic politics renders an honest broker option impossible. The only way around it would be for a future Presidential candidate to tell the truth up front, and still (somehow) manage to get elected in spite of it. Either that, or a full-scale extra-constitutional revolution take place against the established order. Neither is very likely to happen.

(d) "The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans." That is Dr. Walt's goal, all right. But it is certainly not the goal of Tel Aviv. Its plan for the West Bank is just the opposite, and Tel Aviv is in the driver’s seat. As for Washington, its politicians and unelected foreign policy officials could care less one way or the other. All they care about is putting the powerless Palestinians into the same room with the all-powerful Jewish colonialists from Russia, Eastern Europe and America. Then wait for something to happen. If the Palestinians see the light, and can be brought around to agreeing to the intolerable, to their own subjugation, that will be fine. Otherwise, we will all just have to redouble our efforts, keep at it a bit longer, courageously paying out more bribes and enunciating empty words. The charade must continue at all costs. It has a life of its own, and everyone has a great deal invested in it.



A Modest Proposal For Middle East Peace Talks

Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy Magazine, September 17th, 2010

I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.

But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.

Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.

So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?

Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.

And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.

This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.