A Dismal Failure Of Leadership All Around
It is hard to describe the state of affairs of the Arab-Israeli conflict at this particular juncture without using adjectives such as "sad," "unfortunate" or even "tragic," which I think is the most appropriate description. The collapse of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process is indicative not only of the failure of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, but of the other parties involved, in particular the Arab states and the Obama administration. It is a tragic situation because all the parties seem to focus on political expediency to explain away their failing policies while they lose the capacity show the vision and courage needed to avert the great regional disaster that is in the making.
I am not sure how Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be remembered. As things stand today, he will surely be recalled as the Prime Minister who twice lost an historic opportunity to forge peace with Israel's remaining conflicting parties-the Palestinians, Syrians and the Lebanese. It is one thing to miss such an opportunity if the status quo remains frozen and can be revisited at leisure without major losses or risks. It is an entirely different matter, however, when the enemies of peace like extremist groups and Iran are steadily gaining power and will certainly pose a far greater danger to Israel in the absence of an Arab-Israeli peace. Netanyahu has shown not only a lack of ability to lead, but has been systematically engaged in deceiving his interlocutors, the Americans as well as the Palestinians, while misleading his own people. Using his right-wing government as an excuse for his inability to engage the Palestinians in earnest is nothing short of demagogy. He knows that he could have made basic-and for that matter inevitable-concessions to lure the Palestinians to the negotiating table. He could have also changed the composition of the government by dumping Shas and Israel Beiteinu and inviting Kadima to join him to put the Palestinians to the real test. But he opted not to, simply because he and his coalition partners are unwilling to make any meaningful concessions-regardless of what the Palestinians are doing or saying. Netanyahu may see a hopeful sign in the fact that the Obama administration has given up its effort to persuade Jerusalem to freeze construction in Jewish settlements, but the judgment of time will be much harsher than Netanyahu can imagine. The Israelis will end up paying a dear price for the tragic mistakes that he has willfully and even proudly committed.
Just as tragically, the Palestinian leadership does not fare any better. It is "understandable" that for ideological and political reasons Hamas will continue to hold onto its extreme position, albeit to the detriment of the Palestinians. But then, the same cannot be said about Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. Surely he has internal and external-from the Arab states-constraints, but that does not explain his failure to demonstrate leadership and go against the political grain to rise above past prejudices and skepticism. No leader can claim to want peace but then allow certain preconditions-the settlement freeze-to stop him from entering into serious negotiations. Moreover, President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have failed to utilize the remarkable progress they made in maintaining security throughout the West Bank and their impressive economic developments to change the dynamic of the negotiations with Israel by changing the rules of engagement, including-however legitimate-the settlement freeze. Abbas remained bogged down in negotiations with Hamas, which unavoidably limited his maneuvering room in trying to negotiate with Israel. Although Mr. Abbas appears to be sincere and certainly committed to a non-violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he remains politically weak and isolated. Instead of taking new initiative, he relied heavily on the Americans to deliver the Israelis and on the Arab League to provide him with the political cover to engage or disengage the Netanyahu government, missing yet again another opportunity to reach an agreement.
The Arab states too have not fallen much shorter behind the Israelis and the Palestinians. What ever happened to the Arab Peace Initiative? Why is it that the Arab League led by Saudi Arabia has done next to nothing to promote their historic Initiative, especially among the Israelis who know very little about the document and even less about the Arab states' real intentions to make peace? More than any other time, especially because of the growing Iranian threat, the Arab states have every reason to sort out their differences with Israel and begin some serious back-channel diplomacy to assure the Israelis of their true intentions behind their Initiative. It is not enough to present the Israelis with a general framework for a comprehensive peace; it is an entirely different matter to translate it into action. The Israelis, who have and continue to be extremely skeptical about the Arab states' ultimate intentions, want to see a concrete move in the direction of normalization as virtually nothing has changed since the Arab league first introduced the API in 2002. The Arab states, to be sure, have become the victims of their own rhetoric, consistently maintaining the same political narrative. For example, the rhetoric about the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees gives Netanyahu the excuses he needs not to engage in serious negotiations.
The Arab states have a critical role to play; they can no longer blame a lack of peace solely on the Israelis. They have to do more to moderate Hamas' position and take advantage of the changing regional geopolitical dynamic, especially in confronting Iran. The Wikileaks cables reveal with clarity the Arab states' sentiment and profound fear of Iran's growing influence. It is time to abandon their hypocrisy and take a stand against Hamas and Hezbollah to demonstrate that they are committed to regional stability by using their collective power to moderate the extremists. It is also time for the Arab League to make a real use of the remarkably important Arab Peace Initiative in order to foster the prospect of equitable peace.
Finally, the United States should take a much harder look at its initial failure to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Whereas the Obama administration received high marks for starting the peace process in the first days of assuming power, it must now accept the deserved blame for failing to properly assess the political and physical realities on the ground. It is time for the Obama administration to realize that even with the best of intentions, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will forge peace without a forceful American diplomacy and without a clear vision for the future. The Obama administration needs a new strategy and a new team while insisting on a much more active and direct involvement by the leading Arab states. The current team led by former Senator George Mitchell and Dennis Ross is tired and perhaps out of touch with the reality and the political constraints under which the Israelis and the Palestinians live. Moreover, Mr. Mitchell has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the underlining mindsets in both camps, specifically in connection with Israel's national security and the future of the Palestinian refugees.
I maintain that it is time for the Obama administration to come up with its own plan and a new team to advance a new solution based on prior agreements and on negotiating borders first. President Obama has barely a year to achieve a breakthrough. He must make it abundantly clear to all parties that American national interests are being systematically undermined by the continuing conflict and an Israeli-Palestinian peace serves American strategic interests as much as it serves the interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can seek continued American support and security guarantees but then ignore vital American interest in the area that are being undermined by Iran and Al-Qaeda. The United States has every right to demand that both sides come to grips with what is required to move toward a political solution. Unfortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added nothing new in her statement about the peace process at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy's Seventh Annual Forum on December 10th. Now that Secretary Clinton feels that shuttle diplomacy may produce better results, the question is, why have Mitchell and Ross wasted two years trying everything else while failing to produce any substantial result? Time has come for the Obama administration to rethink an overall strategy and not to hesitate-should it become necessary-to bring any pressure to bear on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make the necessary concessions. If this precipitates the collapse of either government or both, so be it.
No single entity, be that Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states or the United States, can achieve a comprehensive peace unless all parties are prepared to really make-and not just talk about making-critically necessary concessions or take a new initiative to achieve peace. While the conflict continues, the one and only country benefiting from-and contributing to-the impasse is Iran. Iran virtually controls all of Iraq, exerts enormous influence in Syria and holds tremendous sway in Lebanon. Iran is bent on developing nuclear weapons and is poised to become the region's hegemon. Neither Israel, the Arab states nor the United States can or should allow that to happen. But this will happen as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to simmer and as long as the leadership on all sides fail to rise to the historical call and instead pave the way for another catastrophic conflagration.
*A version of this article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on December 17th and can be accessed at http://new.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=199697