Trilateral: Much ado about nothing
By Alon Pinkas, Politico, September 24, 2009
It was about nothing.
Before it began, while it took place and once it ended, Tuesday’s trilateral summit in New York among President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a “Seinfeld” summit. As George Costanza put it in a famous episode parodying the real-life sitcom, “I think I can sum up the show for you in one word: Nothing.”
The problem is that in the Middle East, “nothing” is not funny but dangerous. That is why both Israel and the Palestinians would be wise to seriously consider an important concept that Obama expressed Tuesday. In clear and unequivocal words, Obama presented an idea that none of his predecessors expounded: The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an American interest. If Obama develops this into a coherent policy, “nothing” will no longer be acceptable. But while formulating this policy, the administration should be aware of Israel’s fundamental concern.
Here is the most excruciating dilemma: Israel wants out of most of the West Bank, yet the Palestinians cannot govern effectively and guarantee security. A Palestinian state may be supported all around the world on grounds of self-determination or as a conflict resolution formula, but if it is established prematurely, it will implode and fail. A failed state on its border is a perilous development that Israel cannot and should not accept considering the Palestinians’ proclivity for terrorism.
In the broader region, Obama’s Cairo speech in June presents a new and welcome approach. The more respected America is, the more power it can project and the greater its political leverage. That also implies a more robust peace process, if America’s power projection is used to extract long-overdue recognition of Israel by the entire Arab world, which is fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions far more than it is losing sleep over housing projects in some settlement.
Studying the past two decades of peacemaking and analyzing his predecessors’ policies would indicate clearly to Obama that there is no causal relationship between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinians’ failure to gain their desired state. While settlements are a perfectly legitimate issue for negotiations, the failure should be attributed to Palestinian recalcitrance and lack of statesmanship when it mattered most. Had the Palestinians accepted what was offered at Camp David in 2000, they most likely would be celebrating their fifth independence day this year.
The vast majority of Israelis — including Netanyahu — endorse the two-state solution as the likeliest of outcomes of an amicable, honest and durable final-status peace agreement. The Israeli predicament concerns the daunting specter of a Palestinian state being a failed state immediately at its inception. Currently, the Palestinians lack the ability to effectively govern, their economy is unsustainable, and most important, they are split between a Fatah-controlled (through the Palestinian Authority) West Bank and an Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza. Such a state can easily deteriorate into lawlessness and an armed-militia-controlled ragtag of fiefdoms.
Obama will also learn — and thereby avoid further “Seinfeld” summits — that one of the enduring conclusions Israelis draw from the past years of negotiations is that the Palestinians seem not to want to resolve “1967 issues” concerning borders and sovereignty. Rather, they reject any accommodation unless “1948 issues”— that is, the very establishment of Israel (and refugees) — are dealt with to their full satisfaction. This is not realist statesmanship but a recipe for continued conflict.
Ironically, a seemingly intractable situation could become an opportune moment to consider a paradigm shift. This requires a more cooperative calibration of short-, medium- and long-range attainable objectives from all parties involved. The ideas laid out by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on building political institutions, creating more transparency and especially developing the Palestinian economy are a bottom-up approach that can ensure positive negotiations. If a meaningful process is relaunched sometime soon, it is not unreasonable to assume that Israel will entertain the idea of a quasi-Palestinian state defined in provisional borders as a midrange goal. This is hardly a risk-averse concept, but it could prove to be a game changer.
Contrary to what some may be predisposed to think, Netanyahu currently may very well be the only Israeli leader capable of convincing a skeptical Israel that it is the right thing to do. The Palestinians would do their cause great service by announcing the “end of conflict” and recognizing Israel’s right to exist, not merely its being.
Alon Pinkas is a former Israeli consul general in New York and served as adviser to four foreign ministers.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC