A Mideast Peace Strategy for Obama

A Mideast Peace Strategy for Obama

Dr. Thomas Mitchell advocates a long-term perspective by the new administration:

Now that Halloween is past and the McCain campaign is no longer trying to scare us with Bill Ayres “the terrorist and Obama friend” and Sarah Palin is no longer dressing up as a Kremlinologist, we can begin to concentrate on what an Obama foreign policy might look like. American and Israeli peaceniks, tired of a five year pause in American mediation efforts in the Middle East, are pushing for a rapid re-engagement of America in the Palestinian track of the Middle East peace process. I believe that this would be a serious mistake because the situation is still unripe for peace. This is due to several reasons concerning the Americans, the Israelis, and the Palestinians.

Let’s start with the new administration. Its top primary will be attempting to save the American economy and stabilize the international economy. Then there is the matter of the new Obama healthcare plan and a new energy plan. The top foreign policy priority will be the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to safely withdraw from the former and stabilize the latter is the big question that will demand the attention of the President, his secretary of state and secretary of defense.

Israel faces new elections early next year. This may result in a return to power of Binyamin Netanyahu, who as prime minister nearly killed off the Middle East peace process in the mid-to-late 1990s. He will either form a new version of the right-wing Shamir and Sharon Likud coalition governments or another government of national disunity—a recipe for paralysis.

The peace camp of Labor and Meretz is at less than half of its combined Knesset representation under Rabin in 1992. Labor is at best able to be the junior partner in a Kadima-led coalition. And Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system makes peacemaking difficult if not impossible under the best of circumstances.

The Palestinians are divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas lacks a strong domestic constituency within the West Bank. And the Palestinians are still committed to claiming a “right of return,” which Abbas (Abu Mazen) would be loath to relinquish due to the nationalistic competition with Hamas. Abu Mazen is in no position to make Palestinian concessions to match the Israeli concessions that the Palestinians justifiably demand.

Does this mean that the new Obama administration can do nothing? Not at all. President Bashir Assad is in a strong position in Damascus. If Israel is willing to give up control of all of the Golan, captured in June 1967, Damascus will be in a position to “normalize” its relations with Israel at least to the minimal extent that Egypt did after 1982. Negotiations under Turkish mediation are ongoing. Obama should use them as an opportunity to implement a policy of dual mediation in conjunction with the European Union. This was the structure that eventually led to success in Northern Ireland, and the Middle East is infinitely more complicated due to greater religious differences, territorial dimensions, settlements, refugees and outside interference. A successful peace settlement in Israeli-Syrian negotiations could serve as a model for dual mediation in the Palestinian track under Obama in a second term or under a future American administration.

A new administration can also explore means of dealing with structural impediments to the peace process from the Israeli side. These include the problems of illegal settlements that have been ignored for eight years under Bush, Israel’s dysfunctional coalition politics, and the weakness of the peace camp. A new administration should quietly explore inducements that might persuade the three main parties in Israel (Kadima, Labor, Likud) to unite to pass major electoral reform in the Knesset. This could take the form of a new form of proportional representation, a mixed system of proportional representation and American style first-past-the-post single member constituencies or simply raising the bar to admission to the Knesset to ban parties that win less than four or five percent of the vote.

It should be kept in mind that the French Fourth Republic, with a coalition system similar to Israel’s, was incapable of withdrawing from Algeria. It took a De Gaulle and pressure from the military to implement major constitutional reform. Possibly similar pressure will have to come from outside.

Labor is suffering from demographic disadvantages compared to the Likud and Kadima (for historical reasons these two parties appeal more to Russians and Mizrahi Oriental Jews). It is also experiencing a backlash from a peace process gone bad (as is Meretz) and from poor performance in the Second Lebanon War. Unless an organized viable party constituency for a realistic two-state solution can be created in Israel, Israel will remain as incapable of making peace as the Palestinians are at present.

And Obama must show Israel that continuing to erect illegal settlements is not cost free. Secretary of State Condi Rice failed to extract a price for settlement expansion during the Olmert government. Unless Washington can prevent Jerusalem from continuing to colonize the West Bank, Hamas might be able to either topple the Fatah administration in the West Bank or rally the Palestinians into expanding the Intifada into a new terrorist war that will provoke another Israeli invasion of Gaza. Although the time for a final settlement is not yet ripe, Washington will have to engage at some serious level, to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from boiling over, even as it deals with more pressing priorities elsewhere.

Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., is a graduate of Hebrew University and the doctoral program in international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in research on deeply divided societies – particularly Arab-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and 19th century America.

By | 2008-11-13T18:01:00-05:00 November 13th, 2008|Blog|5 Comments


  1. Payday Loans November 14, 2008 at 8:31 am - Reply

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  2. Yehuda Erdman November 15, 2008 at 7:10 am - Reply

    The post by Dr Mitchell is a well-constructed appraisal of the outlook for peace at the dawn of Obama’s presidency. However it is a recipe for yet more postponement in tackling the Israel/ Palestine conflict. I agree it is not a propitious time but that does not mean things will improve. Experience has shown that on the contrary, things go from bad to worse if bold moves are not made.
    Dr Mitchell makes comparisons with the era when Rabin was Prime Minister. Surely the lesson learnt from that tragedy is that the traitor Amir assassinated Rabin because Peace was imminent. How close we came only became apparent after the region slid into a cycle of desperate violence after the Intifadas, the rise of Hitzbollah and Hamas with the concomitant fall of Fatah.
    Dare I quote Donald Rumsfeld and ask people to think outside the box? My proposition now is to combine unilateral and bilateral moves towards the settlement that has more or less been negotiated by various individuals and parties over the last 15 years. In my view what Sharon tried to do in Gaza was to test the water in a meaningful way, i.e. an experimental approach. Despite what many pundits have said about the said withdrawal being a total disaster, actually it was a wake up call to ALL the parties involved.
    Similarly the second war in Lebanon, which had very painful lessons not just for Israel and Hitzbollah but also the sovereign state of Lebanon. In particular I have grown to admire the way Olmert has genuinely tried to learn the painful lessons of that debacle, and his speech last week at the memorial service for Rabin was excellent. It is a shame he did not start in that fashion when he led Kadima to victory in the last Israeli elections. Instead he failed to even meet with Abbas for ages.
    I want to see a new Israeli Prime Minister acting with dash (Meretz!!) and showing that sometimes caution must be thrown to the wind. THIS is what Rabin and King Hussein may have meant by “Peace of the brave”.

  3. Anonymous November 17, 2008 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    Dear Thomas,

    An important question here. You use the phrase “illegal settlements” repeatedly. This is problematic because Israel uses this phrase to to describe a tiny percentage of Israel’s settlements. However, all of Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, immoral, and also an obstacle to peace.

    As you know, Israel and many Israelis use “Israeli law” to whitewash and legitimize many discriminatory practices. Thus most settlements become legal, home demolition is legal, forms of torture are legal, seizing Palestinian land is legal, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israeli is legal, etc., etc..

    Meretz sadly also has provided cover for the settlers, backing the Geneva Accords which legitimizes the concept that (ever expanding and undefined) “settlement blocs” will remain with Israel, rather than simply stating clearly that all Israeli settlements are illegal.

    So, writers always need to be clear, because these terms have serious political impact, whose definition of “illegal settlements” are you using, Israel’s definiton, or the rest of the world’s definition? If you are using Israel’s, how do you rationalize that?



  4. Anonymous November 19, 2008 at 11:23 pm - Reply


    I make the suggestions that I do, because I want Obama to make some progress rather than none. I am a realist not a Quixotian.

    The Palestinians make their case that everything Israel does is illegal, while at the same time having carried out a policy of armed struggle that is in major parts a contradiction of all the laws of warfare. If Israel could be induced to deal first with the settlements that are illegal under its own law then there might be hope of it dealing with other settlements that are questionable under international law. One method of dealing would be to swap territory inside Israel for the settlement blocs on a equal territorial basis.

    Tom Mitchell,

  5. Anonymous November 24, 2008 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Dear Thomas,

    I expected a more thoughtful response than this from you (and that’s a polite way of describing what you wrote).

    1) “The Palestinians make their case that everything Israel does is illegal.”

    Actually, I’m not really too focused on the case the Palestinians are making, though it is largely valid. I’m focused on international law, a point you seem to have (dis)missed.

    Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, etc., and most every reputable scholar on international law make the case that many of Israel’s actions violate international law, including the actions and policies I listed in my earlier post. As for Israeli settlements, there is really no legal case to make that they do not violate international law, though a few cranks with no real legal knowledge and their own serious biases ocassionally try to make it (Dore Gold, et al). I’m sure you know that Israel’s legal counsel after the ’67 war told the Israeli gov’t that building settlements would be illegal (see Gershom Gorenberg). So to minimize that clear conclusion by writing of “settlements that questionable under international law” as opposed to flat out illegal,simply diminishes your credibility and calls into serious question your knowledge and seriousness.

    The list of Israeli violations of international law, including attacks on Palestinian civilians, is very, very long, according to legal experts. And, if you’re not a fan of international law, it’s really not much of a stretch to move from considering these actions as illegal to considering them to be immoral.

    Your effort to attribute the legality argument to Palestinians (and thereby implicitly discredit it as biased) simply begs reality and is disingenuous. I expected a bit more than this.

    2)Palestinians “at the same time having carried out a policy of armed struggle that is in major parts a contradiction of all the laws of warfare.”

    I assume here you are referring to Palestinian attacks on civilians as violations of the laws of warfare. They are indeed. You will get no argument from me about that. I missed it, where did I write that they were not? Personally, I along with many other international and Israeli activists have been shot at, beaten, arrested, etc. by the Israeli army in trying to support Palestinian efforts to develop a strong, viable nonviolent movement, in the face of severe Israeli repression of such a movement. And you?

    Was it somewhere in my post which said Israeli settlements violate international law that you found that I said that Palestinian attacks on civilians were legal and moral? Let’s also not forget that if we were to quantify the number of attacks on civilians by each side, all in violation of international law, Israel wins hands down. And that comes on top of a multitude of other major violations committed by Israel.

    By responding to my post on the illegality of Israeli settlements by referring to Palestinian acts, you’ve adopted some convenient rationalization like, since Palestinians violate international law, it doesn’t hold for Israelis. Not very impressive nor moral thinking on your part. Nor does international law accept the argument that one side’s violations justify the others.

    Interestingly, it’s easy enough to note the great diminuition in Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians in the last few years, yet recognize that on the other side, Israeli violations of all sorts, including settlement construction, have continued apace and even accelerated.

    3) “If Israel could be induced to deal first with the settlements that are illegal under its own law”

    You are referring to only a tiny, tiny fraction of Israel’s settlements. Admittedly, they sometimes play am more important strategic role in beginning new and expanding old settlements. Nonetheless, most Israeli settlement expansion today (as well as in the past) is completely “legal” under Israeli law.

    The West Bank is being remade and you are focused on the nits and the gnats. And you think that if we can just focus on and kill off the little bugs this will move us towards taking on the ever-expanding expanding monstrosities that we’ll just ignore for until we get the gnats. Sounds a bit like self-deception.

    4) “One method of dealing would be to swap territory inside Israel for the settlement blocs on a equal territorial basis.”

    Again, you and Meretz have missed the point. The settlement strategy throughout has been and still is to create “facts on the ground.” You’ve legitimized this strategy by saying, we won’t stop it by taking a clear legally based and moral stand on the settlements, we’ll just swap land for them.

    And so the settlements grow, the possibility of any kind of viable Palestinian state has disappeared because of that, and you delude yourself that some kind of equitable swap can and will occur. I can probably count well over 80 Palestinian agricultural villages that are much less viable and/or seriously threatened because people cannot access their land due to settlements and/or the wall, and I guess you would propose moving all those people of the farmland their families have cultivated for centuries and moving them to the Negev, or building them nice industrial zones, or something else, so that Israel doesn’t have to deal with settlers, who never should have been there? Do you really think that conforms with any sort of equitable or even realistic solution?

    In short, I don’t think you made any kind of academic, theoretical or practical case for why you chose to be vague about what Israeli settlements are illegal. Instead, you’ve demonstrated why you are part of the problem. I wish I could say that many other Meretzniks demonstrate clearer thinking thah this, but I can’t.


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