Barack Obama has Nothing to Gain from Promoting Middle East Peace

There has been a lot of talk the past few weeks about President Obama’s visit to Israel, both in government circles and the media. The gist of the chatter is quite similar across the board; Obama should take this opportunity to renew efforts towards achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. This is certainly a noble endeavor, I mean, who doesn’t want peace? But when we start examining the deeper content behind these calls to Obama, it quickly becomes clear that “peace” means very different things to different people, both domestically and abroad. Not only is the topic contentious in America’s domestic politics, but it has the potential to further destabilize an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been quietly seething in recent months. It appears a third intifada is closer today that any time since the end of the second, and neither Israel nor the Palestinians are in any position to renew good-faith negotiations that could actually lead anywhere. Obama would be wise to avoid pushing either side back towards the negotiating table; nothing constructive can result from such action.

To understand why, let us begin “over there” and work our way back to American domestic politics. But first a short word on the logic behind my argument, which derives from my reading of Robert Putnam’s concept of “Two-level games” (1988). This game-theoretical approach recognizes that national leaders are simultaneously seated at two tables, one of domestic politics and one of international politics. In order for a foreign policy to be a “winner,” it must be one at both levels. However, in the very probable situation where domestic political interests trump good foreign policy, leaders are more likely to pursue the interests of their selectorate, that is, the group to which they are accountable. Thus, leaders will not pursue foreign policies that might have negative repercussions at home.

How does this logic apply to the Israel-Palestine conflict today? Israel recently held national elections that drastically reshaped the domestic landscape of Israeli politics. For the first time in recent memory, the religious parties are out, sacrificed to an electorate increasingly hostile to what are seen as the inordinate privileges enjoyed by the ultra-orthodox. This development aside, the character of Netanyahu’s coalition has changed little. The settlers and the wealthy are both well represented by the ultra-right wing HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home), Netanyahu’s only natural partner in the new coalition (secular, right wing, pro-settlements – In Israel, parties are often grouped into blocs and associated with their broad position, generally speaking this includes secular right, center-left, religious, and, loosely speaking, Arab). Even to the left of Netanyahu’s Likud (“left” being an extremely relative term here), for TV personality Yair Lapid and his centrist “Yesh Atid” party (There is a Future), support for meaningful negotiations is specious. While Lapid made negotiations with Palestinians a precondition for joining a coalition, it was further based on an understanding that Israel would not make any large concessions to the Palestinians. A vote for Lapid was a vote for cheap talk; instead his popularity derived from his domestic agenda, especially education and social reform. In a nutshell, Israel’s new coalition (Netanyahu’s Likud, Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah [the latter two are associated with the center-left bloc while the former define the secular right-wing]) has no interest in pursuing a material peace with the Palestinians, and moreover, Netanyahu barely pulled off this coalition after almost two months of negotiations, coming close to having to call for new elections.  Domestically, Netanyahu has no mandate to compromise with the Palestinians. Instead, Israeli visions of renewed negotiations entail making the Palestinians an offer they would have to refuse, and then use that refusal to further entrench the status-quo.

Now for the Palestinians, who are as fractured and politically ineffectual as ever. While it appears that growth in the West Bank may be nominally up, the Palestinian leadership is not seen to be helping the situation. Levels of support for the PA and its leading faction, Fatah, are as low as ever. Despite the best intentions and limited progress made by the technocratic PM, Salam Fayyad, he lacks a domestic support base and is still seen as “Washington’s man in Ramallah.” The PA has never been less legitimate than it is today. It will most likely be the same tomorrow. Hamas is itself in a quagmire. Despite the political gains of its ideological brethren (and in the case of Egypt, its parent organization) in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Hamas has reaped less of the rewards than it expected. If anything, Egypt is tightening its security along the Gaza-Sinai border even as it is loosening its official siege policies, which had entailed maintaining a sealed border to prevent the entry of goods into Gaza in cooperation with Israeli and US policy. The checkpoints into Gaza may be opening, but with the destruction of the smuggling tunnels, largely controlled by Hamas, fewer goods actually appear to be entering Gaza and the revenue collected by Hamas is down. Furthermore, despite ostensible attempts to pursue reconciliation, Fatah-Hamas cooperation does not appear likely. Hamas does not appear inclined to negotiate with Israel from a position of strategic weakness and the Fatah-led PA could not enforce an agreement on Israel’s terms even if it made one. Of course PA President Abbas will not bend to Israeli conditions, following Arafat’s precedent in the 2000 Camp David accords. So too, the Palestinians are in no position to negotiate.

So where does this leave Obama? Clearly there is no middle ground among Israelis and Palestinians for a peace agreement, but at the end of the day, Obama will be more concerned with domestic political fallout than what happens in the Middle East itself. In the run-up to Obama’s trip to Israel, letters have been submitted by members of congress pushing Obama to renew his push for peace. Fantastic! The Senate is finally getting behind Obama’s first-term efforts to restart negotiations and reclaim America’s role as neutral arbiter. But wait, the text of these letters reveals the Senate’s true aim. The Senate, per its usual, wants Obama to put the screws to the Palestinians, demanding that the PA renounce Hamas until Hamas falls in line with foreign demands and threaten to cut foreign assistance to the PA. Furthermore, amidst the squabbling over the fiscal cliff and the sequester, cutting funding for domestic spending, the Senate is showing bipartisan support for increasing funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, whose effectiveness is dubious (it is now coming out that the system may only be somewhere around 20% effective – a fact that was seemingly understood before the recent Gaza conflict, forgotten, and once again remembered; see also here). Such funding will do nothing but increase Israel’s comfort with the status-quo, further undermining domestic pressure to pursue meaningful negotiations. Domestic opinion in America is divided, but most Americans have disengaged, especially after the failure of first-term Obama to construct a framework for Middle East peace. The loudest voices in Washington, those on the right, are calling for a type of peace that is anathema to Obama. The left recognizes the futility of any further efforts as there are no voices for peace in either Palestine or Israel.

So what are Obama’s options? On one hand, he could stick to his first-term principles and try again to restart negotiations predicated on meaningful compromises by both Israelis and Palestinians. But neither Netanyahu nor PA President Abbas has the domestic support to enter into negotiations of this sort, and Obama will be rebuffed on both sides, leading to even more diplomatic egg on his face. This will fuel Obama’s domestic critics, who will claim that once again, Obama does not understand the Middle East, has undermined the US relationship with Israel, and has further contributed to Middle East unrest. He may be a second-term president unworried about re-election, but this does not mean that he is entirely immune from this criticism. Such a failure, in turn, will further undermine US influence in Palestine and Israel, empowering the intransigent factions in both places (the pro-settlement right in Israel and Hamas in Palestine).

On the other hand, Obama could respond to the Senate’s calls to resume the Bush-era policy of unequivocal support for Israel against the Palestinians, which will only increase Israeli obstinacy and Palestinians rejectionism. It will further disillusion Obama’s natural support base and win him no supporters among those calling for this approach, in whose eyes Obama can do no right. And while this policy would be a quick loser at the international table and produce no benefits domestically, it would also go against all of Obama’s ethics; frankly it is just not going to happen. This being the case, it appears fairly clear that the renewal of the peace process is a non-starter in a practical sense, even if it is desirable from an ethical sense. If one thing is certain, it is that the historical successes and failures of the peace process have been driven entirely by domestic political factors. Domestic politics defines what negotiating positions are acceptable and which are not. Israeli domestic politics is built on a pro-settlement coalition while the Palestinians do not even have a coalition that could feasibly enforce any compromise agreement. This being the case, any proposal by President Obama will be met with an unequivocal rejection by at least one of the parties involved due to domestic political constraints [not to mention ideology]. As for Obama’s domestic table, it seems that a lasting peace agreement would be a winning policy, but anything short of this will be perceived as a waste of time and prestige. Obama can only lose by attempting to restart peace talks, and would do best to just leave it alone.

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