Scott Wilson’s play-by-play of the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement offered some useful evidence (and led to a huge twitter spat between @PostScottWilson and @AliAbunimah, @clayswisher, and @MJayRosenberg). But the article was not structured to list possible explanations for the failure to reach a two-state agreement since January 2009. I would group possible explanations into three categories:
1. Tactical Blunders
As Wilson explains, President Obama’s approach started with calls for an Israeli settlement freeze and “symbolic gestures” from Arab states. After months of footdragging, Benjamin Netanyahu eventually agreed to a partial freeze, but the Arab states never took action and Mahmoud Abbas rejected Israel’s partial** freeze. The PA refused to participate in talks for months. Yet Obama officials 1) accepted a partial freeze rather than the full freeze they initially sought 2) did not castigate the Arab states 3) did not heavily pressure the PA to come to the table despite the limitations of the freeze. [There is nothing new in pursuing a settlement freeze. Many other U.S. presidents, from Carter to George W. Bush, have done so as well.]
This, in turn, meant that Obama lost support in Congress. One reason Netanyahu agreed to a partial freeze was because, as Wilson notes, Israel’s allies in Congress sided with Obama at first:
“What [Netanyahu] received was a distinct surprise to him, which was unified support from many longtime friends of Israel for the president’s policy,” said former congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).
But when the Palestinian/Arab side did not respond to the freeze, Israel’s Congressional allies changed their tune and Netanyahu had their support when the United States and Israel debated the idea of a second freeze (the first one expired in September 2010).
Despite much talk about Obama’s (and Rahm Emanuel’s) “tough love” for Israel, the article left me wondering if they really thought through how tough they would need to be to move Israeli policy. Does tough but not too tough work? If not, maybe going down that path set the stage for failure.
Another aspect that we may hear more about over time is whether George Mitchell was the right person to lead the US effort. There are some strong hints he was not.
Although these are largely tactical points, it does make me wonder about the overall U.S. strategy. Had they considered the many possible permutations, pathways, and obstacles? I do not see much evidence of that in the U.S. performance but whether that was a failure of planning or execution awaits further evidence.
2. There was no deal to be had
Local parties may have limited what the United States could accomplish even had there been a perfect diplomatic performance. I think it is very likely that the Netanyahu government did not support a two-state solution that would meet the minimum Palestinian requirements (meaning the Palestinian sovereign capital in East Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty in, say, 96% of the West Bank). Yes, Netanyahu said he supported a two-state solution, but he never spelled out in detail what he meant. The term “two-state solution” means many different things to different participants in the conflict.
On the Palestinian side, the Fatah-Hamas split endures. Abbas would cut a two-state deal, but how Hamas would react is a wildcard. Negotiating with a split Palestinian national movement is complicated. To give one example, one of the reasons the Abbas-Olmert talks in 2008 fell apart was because of Israel’s battle with Hamas in late 2008.
The point here is that how the United States “managed” the issue – to use Wilson’s verb – might matter little in the face of unwilling participants.
Independent of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, politics mattered in two ways. First, Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party and Netanyahu is the leader of the Likud Party. One is left, one is right. Such partnerships are not impossible (see George W. Bush-Tony Blair), but perhaps Obama and Netanyahu’s different political perspectives colored their views of each other in a negative way.
At home, Obama’s popularity noticeably declined from his early 2009 high approval. Obama was a human president, not a rock star. Netanyahu could see the numbers. When coupled with the Congressional change of sentiment above, it created fertile ground for Netanyahu’s defiant tone toward Obama after the first partial freeze was finished.
This is not meant as an exhaustive list but rather a first effort to be more systematic. What would you add to the list? Do you see strong evidence for one explanation?
**Among other things, the September 2009 Israeli settlement freeze did not address Israeli building in East Jerusalem. Wilson reports that after a March 2010 disagreement during Vice-President Biden’s visit to Israel, Secretary of State Clinton spoke to Netanyahu and Israel froze building in East Jerusalem as well.