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Beyond September: Lessons from Failed Mideast Diplomacy

Beyond September: Lessons from Failed Mideast Diplomacy

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In September 2011, a UN vote on Palestinian independent statehood seems all but certain. In this Middle East Brief, Prof. Shai Feldman looks beyond the upcoming vote and asks what lessons can be learned from the diplomatic failures of the U.S., Israel and Palestinian Authority over the past two and a half years that have led us here. Using these lessons, Prof. Feldman then lays out the conditions required for a more successful future effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In September 2011, a UN vote on Palestinian independent statehood seems all but certain. In this Middle East Brief, Prof. Shai Feldman looks beyond the upcoming vote and asks what lessons can be learned from the diplomatic failures of the U.S., Israel and Palestinian Authority over the past two and a half years that have led us here. Using these lessons, Prof. Feldman then lays out the conditions required for a more successful future effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Published by: Crown Center for Middle East Studies on Aug 09, 2011
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Beyond September: Lessons from FailedMideast Diplomacy
Prof. Shai Feldman
here seems to be a broad consensus that the PalestinianAuthority’s strategic decision to seek a declaration of independent statehood at the United Nations this comingSeptember resulted from deep frustration if not completehopelessness regarding the prospects for a negotiated resolution of the conflict. PA President Mahmoud Abbashas made this clear on a number of occasions, emphasizingthat a negotiated resolution of the conflict remains hispreferred option but that no acceptable negotiating termshave been presented to him.
While much of the commentaryhas focused on the vote itself and the political storm thatmight ensue from it, several important questions remainto be answered. How did we get here? What has led thePalestinians to give up on diplomacy? What explains the totalfailure of the most recent chapter in the efforts to resolve thePalestinian-Israeli dispute?
This Brief looks beyond the anticipated September vote by answering thesequestions and examining some of the lessons that should be drawn from thefailure of diplomacy over the past two and a half years with respect to anyfuture efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To the extent that atleast some of the sources of this failure can be addressed, identifying them isessential if the next chapter in these efforts is to prove any more successful.August 2011No. 54
 Judith and Sidney Swartz Director 
Prof. Shai Feldman
 Associate Director 
Kristina Cherniahivsky
 Associate Director for Research
Naghmeh Sohrabi, PhD
 Senior Fellows
Abdel Monem Said Aly, PhDKhalil Shikaki, PhD
 Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics
Eva Bellin
 Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East 
Nader Habibi
 Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies
Kanan Makiya
 Junior Research Fellows
Abigail Jacobson, PhDPeter Krause, PhDShana Marshall, PhD
Prof. Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney SwartzDirector of the CrownCenter and Co-Chair of the Crown-Belfer MiddleEast Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The opinions and findings expressed in thisBrief belong to the author exclusively anddo not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.
As has been the case since the first breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peacemaking—the 1974–75 Egypt-Israel and Israel-Syria disengagement agreements—the processinvolves three major partners: Israel, an Arab interlocutor, and the United States.While the catalyst for a breakthrough often did not involve Washington—Egypt’sPresident Anwar Sadat’s surprise visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 being themost visible example—peace agreements have ultimately almost always required intense and sustained U.S. involvement. Therefore, understanding the sources of the failure of the recent efforts to advance an agreed resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict requires a balanced approach that examines the conduct of allthree “partners” to the sought-after grand bargain.
During his election campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to make aserious effort, beginning early in his first term as President, to achieve Arab-Israelipeace.
Accordingly, as one of his very first acts in office, he announced on January22, 2009, the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his specialenvoy to the envisaged talks. Having negotiated the Good Friday Agreement thatbrought the bloodshed in Northern Ireland to a gradual end, Mitchell seemed tobe the right choice for the job.Observing, accurately, that the Palestinian side had no trust in Israel’s new Likud-led Israeli government, the Obama administration assessed that a dramatic stepneeded to be taken to build such trust and thereby improve the environmentfor the proposed talks. Since the epicenter of the Palestinians’ distrust of Israelwas the latter’s ongoing expansion of the settlement project—one that thePalestinians saw as inconsistent with negotiating the end of Israel’s occupationof Palestinian lands—it was not unreasonable for the U.S. to push for a freeze onsettlement activity.In its pursuit of this worthwhile goal, however, the Obama administrationmade a series of mistakes. First, it made the attempt to obtain a settlementconstruction freeze the focus of its diplomatic efforts rather than a supplementto the more important goal of renewing the Israeli-Palestinian permanent statustalks launched in Annapolis in November 2007. Second, the administrationseems to have neglected to reach a prior understanding with the Palestiniansthat they would not transform the construction freeze sought by the U.S. into aprecondition for negotiations, thereby holding the entire process hostage to asettlement freeze.Third, the administration found itself adopting a far-reaching definition of a settlement construction freeze by allowing both the Palestinians and theIsraelis to frame the issue as applying in equal measure to Jerusalem. Thoughthe administration did not emphasize the Jerusalem dimension of the proposed freeze, it allowed the two parties to do so: The Israeli side brought up Jerusalemto explain why it could not accept a freeze, prompting the Palestinians to reactby stating that they would not accept a freeze that would 
apply to Jerusalem.Thus, an attempt that might have engendered some sympathy in Israel—asmany Israelis are opposed to settlement construction for different reasons—became entangled with the fate of Jerusalem, an issue that enjoys a much broaderconsensus among the Israeli public.
3Then, when the administration finally succeeded inextracting an Israeli commitment to a ten-month partialsettlement construction freeze, it failed to impress uponthe Palestinian side the need to make the most of thisperiod by engaging the Israelis in serious and continuousdirect talks. As a result, much of this period was wasted.Four other dimensions of the Obama administration’sefforts to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough also proved highly problematic. First, the administration did notmake a serious attempt to rally support from withinthe American Jewish community, or at least to diminishpotential opposition to its approach in that communityand among its allies in Congress. Instead, it relied on thearticulation of its position in presidential speeches tocreate the pressure required to move the parties along.Second, brilliant speechmaking became a substitutefor establishing policy and devising strategy. Whilemasterfully articulating his understanding of Arab-Israeli realities, Obama’s speeches rarely provided or werefollowed up by an action plan incorporating practical stepsthat would enable the U.S. to achieve the administration’sstated objectives. Indeed, the administration seemed tohave lacked any strategy for moving the parties to wherethey did not volunteer to go or motivating them to assumerisks they were not prepared to take.Third, in a number of cases, President Obamaunnecessarily attached deadlines and time frames to hisgoals and aspirations for Arab-Israeli peace. For example,when launching direct Palestinian-Israeli talks in August–September 2010, the President declared his expectationthat the parties would reach an agreement within twelvemonths, to be implemented over ten years.
It was not clearwhy the President thought he could achieve within a yearwhat had eluded his predecessors for over four decades.And not surprisingly, when these deadlines were not metwithin their predicted time frames, U.S. credibility wasfurther eroded.Fourth, while repeatedly emphasizing his commitment toIsrael’s safety and security—and, in fact, translating thiscommitment into even closer U.S.–Israel defense ties—President Obama’s style and conduct often bred doubtsabout this commitment. Obama’s failure to address theIsraeli public directly—though he addressed the Muslimand Arab public in Ankara in April 2009, in Cairo in June2009, and at the State Department in May 2010—was amistake, because it encouraged speculation that while hewas deeply concerned about the views of Muslims and Arabs, the President was “taking Israelis for granted.”Moreover, by failing to address Israelis directly, Obamamissed a golden opportunity to place the requested Israeliconcessions in the context of shared U.S.–Israeli strategicinterest in creating a regional environment conducive tocontaining Iran.Above all, the Obama administration failed to exerciseleverage, or to extract penalties for ignoring America’spriorities. Senator Mitchell’s unending talks with thecontending parties proved futile because they were notaccompanied by any attempt to utilize leverage in orderto extract the desired responses. In some measure thiswas associated with Obama’s failure to convince Israeliand Palestinian leaders that both Mitchell and Secretaryof State Hillary Clinton were speaking on his behalf, inexactly the same manner that Secretary of State Kissingerwas perceived as speaking on behalf of Presidents Nixonand Ford. But even more fatal was Obama’s failure toextract any costs from leaders who defied his directappeals. Thus, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas could rightlyexpect to pay any penalty for their repeated refusals toaccommodate the United States.
In some ways, the manner in which PA President and PLOChairman Mahmoud Abbas conducted himself during thisperiod was the most puzzling of that of any of the majoractors in this failed diplomatic saga. While Americanscould legitimately debate whether their governmentshould invest time and energy in attempting to resolvethe Palestinian-Israeli dispute, it would seem that thePalestinians should have had no greater strategic objectiveand no higher priority than ending Israel’s siege of Gazaand its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.Accordingly, it would seem that Abbas could have made nogreater mistake than to present conditions for Palestiniansbeing willing to engage Israel in negotiations aimed atachieving these goals.Abbas’s skepticism as to whether any breakthrough could be achieved in negotiations with arguably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history was understandable.Having made so little progress in Palestinian-Israelipeacemaking during Netanyahu’s first term, thePalestinians could reasonably assume that it was noweven less likely that talks with Israel would yield anythingmeaningful—because in 2005 the more moderate and pragmatic among Likud leaders and activists had left theirparty to join Ariel Sharon in creating the then new Kadimaparty. Under such circumstances, Abbas rightly feared that negotiations would simply provide cover for Israel’scontinuing to unilaterally establish “facts on the ground,”particularly through settlement construction.

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