By Jim Hoagland, May 31, 2009.
Memo to President Obama:
Cling to one thought as you work on your greatly anticipated speech to the
Muslim world Thursday in Cairo, Mr. President: There is no American solution
to the Arab-Israeli conflict that you can heroically deliver from on high. Peace
must be built from the bottom up by the warring sides. Cling to that thought
but keep it to yourself.
It would be pleasing to your hosts to suggest the opposite — a made-in-the-USA
plan for the Middle East. Some of your aides believe this is a special moment
that can end the region’s Sixty Years’ War if you intervene forcefully enough.
But that neglects history and the internal logic of the conflict.
Your own jut-jawed face-off with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in
the Oval Office two weeks ago suggested that you hoped to bring a West Bank
settlement freeze to the Cairo masses and a global Muslim audience this week.
Netanyahu pushed back by ruling out unilateral gestures, insisting that Israel,
the Palestinians and moderate Arab states move simultaneously.
You will not, of course, take Netanyahu’s no as a final answer on the
settlements. You are right when you say they are not only a huge obstacle to
regional peace but also a stain on the global reputations of Israel and the United
But the settlements cannot be treated in isolation or used as trophies
with which to win Arab favor. They will eventually have to be for the most part
evacuated as part of a give-and-take in which Israel’s legitimate security
concerns are addressed. For Netanyahu, agreeing to freeze settlements is
tantamount to declaring them chips to be bargained away. He will require a
good bit more than is on offer now from the Palestinians and other Arabs to
make that move.
Yes, new administrations feel compelled to offer overarching initiatives to the
Arab-Israeli conflict, and some have been useful — especially when they have
been so poorly thought out that they scared the two sides into bypassing the
United States and seriously negotiating with each other.
See Carter, Jimmy, and the Oct. 1, 1977, Soviet-U.S. communique that drove
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and eventually to the Camp David
treaty. Other presidents have cynically put forward peace plans, road maps and
demands for settlement freezes to placate the Arabs with process rather than
substance. See everybody from Nixon, Richard M., to Bush, George W.
But cynicism is not your long suit, and unwittingly scaring others into acting in
their own best interest is not your style. You need instead to start a
step-by-step process built on squeezing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to
fulfill the implicit bargain struck in Oslo in 1993. You should give glimpses of
that approach — but not present an American blueprint for the final outcome.
In the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat was offered a Palestinian state in return for
that state’s eliminating Palestinian terrorism. But Arafat never intended to go
through with either part of the bargain. He feared a two-state solution’s finality
as much as he feared dismantling the terrorist machine he had helped create.
Instead, he bobbed and weaved his way through U.S. peace efforts while
enriching himself and his cronies and destroying the Palestinian Authority’s
claim to moral and political legitimacy.
But the bargain’s logic remains intact and should be incorporated into a revival
of a realistic two-state solution, not the rhetorical fig leaf your predecessor
offered. Israel must come back to empowering Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud
Abbas, and his security forces, by dismantling settlements and roadblocks to
bring stability to the West Bank and eventually Gaza.
The United States has trained two brigades of Palestinian security forces, which
kept order in the West Bank during the January upheaval in Gaza, and wants to
train half a dozen more. This is patient, low-visibility U.S. help that builds
confidence for Israelis and Palestinians to reach their own settlement. So does
Tony Blair’s work on economic development.
Today the Arab side lacks a leader as visionary as Sadat to save a failing U.S.
effort or a Palestinian leader as skillfully duplicitous as Arafat to keep a
homegrown one afloat.
It is a moment for what George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of
state, called the “gardening” phase of diplomacy — pulling weeds and planting
seeds — rather than overly ambitious plans that raise expectations too high.