All Writings
December 30, 2009

9/11: Repercussions And Realignment, Part 3

Recently I was asked by some colleagues at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, Turkey to write a chapter of book they are publishing on the "Middle East after 9/11."* As many of you know, I am very supportive of Turkey's increasing involvement in the development of the Middle East, and I agreed to give my perspective on the seismic shift and its many repercussions that the events of September 11th had on the greater Middle East. Today, more than eight years have gone by since the economic and political hallmarks of United States were attacked by a rogue terrorist group, and the world is still coming to terms with how to effectively deal with terrorism born out of religious fanaticism and a discord between East and West that has been simmering since the Cold War. As the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved, the brawn or logic of the US and its allies alone will not suffice to create stability in the Middle East. To this effect, a careful cultural and psychological reading of what has moved the Middle East in the past eight years is critical to understanding the crossroads we are at today. With permission from ISRO, I will be releasing sections of the chapter over the next few weeks, continuing with Part 2: 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

In his reflections on September 11th, Osama bin Laden avowed that American support for Israel prompted the attacks from al Qaeda. This bold statement proved to be more ironic than foreboding, because while 9/11 dramatically realigned the global order and the United States' outlook on the world, its direct impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict has been limited. By the time the 9/11 attacks took place, the second Intifada was already raging. The daily Israeli and Palestinian violent clashes with suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations undermined all previous Israeli-Palestinian political and economic progress. The preoccupation of the Bush administration with the war in Afghanistan prevented the White House from taking any decisive action to prevent the continuing carnage. The biggest effect that 9/11 had on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to effectively divert attention and resources away from it.

In the absence of a strong US mediation effort, the Arab League convened in March 2002 in Beirut, Lebanon and introduced perhaps the most historic document, what is now known as the Arab Peace Initiative. The central premise of the Initiative is for Israel to return the territories captured in the 1967 war in exchange for a comprehensive peace with all Arab states. Regardless of its historic implications, the Arab Peace Initiative was overshadowed in Israel by the continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and in the US by the raging war on terror which was manifesting in Afghanistan. The one development in his first term that moved President Bush to act-albeit under pressure from the Arab states and the EU-was the creation in September 2002 of the Quartet, made up of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, with the purpose of promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Other than the initial meetings in Madrid where United States unveiled the Road-Map for a two-state solution, very little was accomplished as the second Intifada continued to rage. It was not until 2007, when the former Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair was appointed as the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East that some progress was made-though it was largely economic development with very little political progress.

The Bush administration's preoccupation with Iraq:
As US troops entered Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration distanced further from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as many White House staffers began to view it as just one of the facets of the global war on terror and Islamic extremism, rather than a distinct conflict propelled by its unique dynamic and history. The decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict has heightened tensions between the Islamic world and the West in recent years, and has influenced terrorist organizations like al Qaeda-but it was not precipitated by 9/11. Any resolution the Arabs and Israelis agree upon will certainly change the context of the Middle East but it will not, in and of itself, end East-West discords. Generally, the Arab states have often deliberately prolonged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as its continuation takes pressure off their own failures. Meanwhile, however justified, Israel's obsessive concern with national security has obstructed its ability to seek a just solution to the crisis it has inadvertently helped create.

Back handed diplomacy:

Toward the end of his presidency in late 2007, George Bush convened the Annapolis conference as an attempt to leave office with at least one accomplishment in the Middle East. Top Arab and Israeli officials attended with low expectations, and despite Secretary Rice's best efforts, Israel and the Arab states remained locked into their previous positions. The Annapolis conference was reminiscent of President Clinton's attempts in the waning months of his presidency to achieve a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David. As many previous encounters between the two parties have indicated, the Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for not negotiating in good faith. The fact is that there remain fundamental differences that must be reconciled between the two sides including final borders, a resolution to Palestinian refugee dilemma, and the future of East Jerusalem. Adding to these problems is the fact that both sides are politically fractured, and it has been extraordinarily difficult to engender wide public consensus in favor of an accord. Finally, the efforts by the former Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to reach a peace agreement from 2007 through most of 2008 also ended up without an agreement, albeit by Olmert's account the Israelis and the Palestinians settled 99 percent of the issues that separated them in the past.

This is what the Obama administration has inherited of this conflict, yet the desire for peace that Rabin and Olmert brought to Obama's American predecessors has been replaced with the trepidation of Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition. If he wants to succeed in any type of breakthrough with this conflict, there are three lessons that Obama must learn from the past: the first is that that no matter how indispensable America's role may be, no Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved unless the United States is prepared to be actively and directly involved and invest heavy political capital. Secondly, the Obama administration must be willing to bring all the pressure to bear on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to move the process forward. Lastly, the need for President Obama to stay the course and remain committed to a solution is essential, regardless of the level of difficulty or how many obstacles his team will undoubtedly face.

Choosing the right course of action:

From the initial efforts thus far, the Obama administration has chosen a wise course of action. From the start, President Obama asked the Israelis to end their expansion of settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Resolving the settlements issue is one of the most critical elements in altering the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. More than anything else, ending the settlements activity sends a clear message that Israel has every intention to relinquish the territories, and that the idea of a two state solution is well and alive. Unfortunately, President Obama failed to enforce the necessity of freezing all settlements, which has undermined his credibility in the region. Though a 10-month moratorium in the West Bank is undoubtedly a positive development, this does not include building in East Jerusalem, and thus falls short of what Obama had hoped for and the Arab states demand. Raising Palestinian expectations to call for a full freeze has, as a result hampered the negotiations as Mahmoud Abbas and his cabinet now refuse to settle for anything less. Overall, President Obama's approach has been correct, though it lacks the enforcement of a well thought-out strategy with enforcement mechanism in place.

The Obama administration is also on target in its efforts to persuade the Arab states to translate the Arab Peace Initiative into confidence building measures, but here too the President failed to achieve his objective as the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, have insisted first on an Israeli settlements' freeze.
Now that the President has an Afghan policy in place, he must now exert a greater effort to resume the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the resolve and commitment akin to his efforts in dealing with the other major foreign policy concerns. To that end the President must focus on a new strategy with four critical components.

The US first needs to back any efforts that the Arab states make in the name of peace and normalization, specifically by supporting the Arab Peace Initiative. Even if President Obama decides not to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative as the official US peace plan, he should show overt support for a document that demonstrates a leap for moderation and peace from the entire Arab fold. Even publicly embracing the Initiative could help to keep it alive as it enters a third year since it was re-introduced in March 2007 in Riyadh Saudi Arabia without serious acknowledgment form Israel and the US. In a recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa also expanded on the necessity for Arabs to back the Peace Initiative in a more robust way: "We must stop the small minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move, we've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous good-faith action if peace is to have a chance."

The Obama administration next needs to pressure the European Union to expand its involvement, as the EU also has a direct role to play in this process, especially as they offer a balance for the Palestinians to the tight-knit US-Israeli relationship. The US should partner fully with the EU when it comes to resettling and compensating Palestinian refugees, economic and institutional building in the West Bank, and providing security once a deal in is place. The EU is both interested in and committed to securing an economically viable Palestinian state, and thus the US should coordinate closely with it to create a comprehensive approach.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a key test in judging US credibility on the ground, as this conflict has outlived countless US attempts at reconciliation that were too short lived or lacked the political capital necessary to reach an agreement. Having started his peace offensive on day one of his administration, President Obama has shown his commitment to finding a solution. He must now demonstrate his resolve to stay the course. President Obama himself must remain relentless, as both the Israelis and the Palestinians will continue to check and test his resolve. He must demonstrate evenhandedness in his demands from both Israelis and Palestinians without necessarily compromising America's commitment to Israel's national security. In the past two decades, there have been countless agreements and concessions on the table offered from both parties. If he is to seriously push for a peace deal, President Obama should make clear that he will not start afresh, but will take into consideration the achievements and consensus' that have been reached thus far. Moreover, President Obama must up the ante on his public relations offensive in Israel to extol the virtue of a two-state solution. This should include newspaper editorials, exclusive interviews, and using the Israeli media to speak directly to the public. Both the Israeli and Palestinian public must be made fully aware about what the enormous benefits are of creating peace, and what would be the price of failure.

Lastly, It is of utmost importance to encourage the Israelis to maintain the economic and security progress between Israel and the PA in the West Bank and non-violent atmosphere along the Gaza borders. The lull in violence must be promoted on both fronts as it remains the key to continuing progress on the ground. If anything, Israel's offensives in both Lebanon and Gaza have created a temporary calm on the ground that should not be forsaken or taken for granted by Israel, who should use peaceful conditions to show more goodwill gestures. The Obama administration must also encourage the Israelis to conclude a prisoner's exchange deal with Hamas as this could open the way for further long-term agreements with Hamas. This would lead to opening the border crossings between Israel and Gaza for commodities other than food and medicine to ease the hardships of the Palestinian in Gaza. In essence what is needed is continued efforts to improve the behavior of both sides on the ground to foster better relationships. Moreover, the Obama administration must insist that all sides begin to change the political narrative and put an end to the systematic negative public relations campaigns that all sides have been engaged in for decades.

Finally, President Obama must seek ways, along with the Egyptian government, to reconcile the political differences between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in order to bring latter to the negotiating process with Israel.

There is no doubt that this is a long and most difficult agenda, but it must be judged against the alternative of doing less, as the situation will certainly deteriorate and could lead to horrifying consequences. As the Obama administration is now gearing up to expand its commitment in Afghanistan in the hopes of bringing that war to a successful conclusion while trying to deal with Iran's nuclear program, finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will enormously aid President Obama's efforts on both fronts. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will send a loud and clear signal of the President's resolve, and will dramatically defuse Middle Eastern tension throughout the region.

*Sedat Laciner – Arzu Celalifer Ekinci (eds.), /11 Eylul Sonrasi Ortadogu/, (Ankara: USAK Yayinlari, 2009)