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.