The Palestinian Peace Process as Political Theater

For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome. – George Friedman

John Mauldin’s email newsletter came today incorporating a recent analysis by George Friedman of Stratfor. It is moderately long, so you’ll definitely want time to read the whole thing. I liked it because, in his usual style, George doesn’t pussyfoot around, clearly outlining the limited outcomes and the motives of the key players:

That Israel has a new prime minister and the United States a new president might appear to make this meeting significant. But this is Netanyahu’s second time as prime minister, and his government is as diverse and fractious as most recent Israeli governments. Israeli politics are in gridlock, with deep divisions along multiple fault lines and an electoral system designed to magnify disagreements.

Obama is much stronger politically, but he has consistently acted with caution, particularly in the foreign policy arena. Much of his foreign policy follows from the Bush administration. He has made no major breaks in foreign policy beyond rhetoric; his policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Europe are essentially extensions of pre-existing policy. Obama faces major economic problems in the United States and clearly is not looking for major changes in foreign policy. He understands how quickly public sentiment can change, and he does not plan to take risks he does not have to take right now.

This, then, is the problem: Netanyahu is coming to Washington hoping to get Obama to agree to fundamental redefinitions of the regional dynamic. For example, he wants Obama to re-examine the commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel is no longer bound by prior commitments to that concept.) Netanyahu also wants the United States to commit itself to a finite time frame for talks with Iran, after which unspecified but ominous-sounding actions are to be taken.

Facing a major test in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has more than enough to deal with at the moment. Moreover, U.S. presidents who get involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations frequently get sucked into a morass from which they do not return. For Netanyahu to even request that the White House devote attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at present is asking a lot. Asking for a complete review of the peace process is even less realistic.

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For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome.

The Jordanians have feared and loathed Fatah in the West Bank ever since the Black September uprisings of 1970. The ruling Hashemites are ethnically different from the Palestinians (who constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jordanian population), and they fear that a Palestinian state under Fatah would threaten the Jordanian monarchy. For their part, the Egyptians see Hamas as a descendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the Mubarak government’s ouster — meaning Cairo would hate to see a Hamas-led state. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the other Arab states do not wish to see a radical altering of the status quo, which would likely come about with the rise of a Palestinian polity.

At the same time, whatever the basic strategic interests of the Arab regimes, all pay lip service to the principle of Palestinian statehood. This is hardly a unique situation. States frequently claim to favor various things they actually are either indifferent to or have no intention of doing anything about. Complicating matters for the Arab states is the fact that they have substantial populations that do care about the fate of the Palestinians. These states thus are caught between public passion on behalf of Palestinians and the regimes’ interests that are threatened by the Palestinian cause. The states’ challenge, accordingly, is to appear to be doing something on behalf of the Palestinians while in fact doing nothing.

The United States has a vested interest in the preservation of these states. The futures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are of vital importance to Washington. The United States must therefore simultaneously publicly demonstrate its sensitivity to pressures from these nations over the Palestinian question while being careful to achieve nothing — an easy enough goal to achieve.

The various Israeli-Palestinian peace processes have thus served U.S. and Arab interests quite well. They provide the illusion of activity, with high-level visits breathlessly reported in the media, succeeded by talks and concessions — all followed by stalemate and new rounds of violence, thus beginning the cycle all over again.

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