On April 29, John Kerry’s initiative to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace collapsed. This was the first such failure for the secretary of state, but it was President Obama’s third.
On the very first morning after his inauguration in 2009, the president appointed George Mitchell, a former senator, as his “special envoy for Middle East peace.” Mitchell’s assignment was ambitious: a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. After nearly two years of work, the veteran negotiator had nothing to show for his efforts. Facing the possibility of having to abandon a major White House initiative, the president decided, instead, to re-launch it. In September 2010, from the podium of the UN General Assembly, he set a new goal for Mitchell, more narrowly focused but still very ambitious: a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement within one year. This push, too, quickly dissipated. In May 2011, just eight months into the revamped initiative, Mitchell quit altogether.
And now Kerry. Forget about singles and doubles. When it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the president has struck out three times in a row. What next? Will he admit defeat? Or will he launch a fourth effort?
If the president were a Vulcan—those mythical figures of perfect rationality made famous by Star Trek—he, too, would quit altogether. By now it is obvious that the chances of success are nil. Even clearer, moreover, is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is hardly the most pressing problem in the Middle East. The dangers from Syria, for example, are much greater. Conservative estimates now put the total number killed in the Syrian civil war at 150,000. That number represents approximately 34,000 more deaths than the Arab-Jewish conflict has caused in its entirety—a period of almost a century. That’s right: Seven major Arab-Israeli wars and many more lesser conflicts, including two intifadas, have killed far fewer people than the Syrian civil war.
And the death tally signifies only a small part of the story. Compare, for example, the Palestinian refugee problem with the Syrian refugee problem. The 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars produced, together, approximately a million Arab refugees. In the case of Syria, the UN has already registered 2.7 million refugees, and this figure, great as it is, does not include unregistered refugees or “internally displaced persons”— people, that is, who have been driven from their homes but who have found refuge inside Syria itself. Those numbers would more than double the UN’s count.
Many of these refugees, perhaps most, will never return to their homes. The squalid camps into which they have been corralled will form a ring of misery around Syria, a permanent siege line that will define the politics of the Middle East for a generation and maybe longer.
Taking all this into account, a Vulcan would devote much more attention to managing the Syrian conflict than to brokering a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. And yet, if the last five years are anything to go by, the American president will not abandon his quest for the latter goal. Why?
Part of the answer lies in the grip of dogma on the mind of this administration, which has been deeply influenced by the “realist” school of foreign policy. For adherents of this approach, the Palestinian issue has always been—and will always remain—the central strategic problem in the Middle East. The dogma rests on three key propositions, the three “R’s” of the peace process.
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First, American support for Israel, so the realists assert, reverberates around the Muslim world in a manner that redounds, uniquely, to the detriment of the United States. The peace process is a prophylactic device; it can mitigate the damage to American interests by muffling the reverberations. Its purpose, in this view, is not so much to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians as to broadcast the good intentions of America toward all Muslims. Even if it is destined to fail, the show must go on, for merely by existing it refutes the allegation that the United States is partial to Jews and prejudiced against Muslims.
Second, realists claim that in fact the peace process produces real, strategic results. To date, its greatest achievement was the Camp David accords of 1979, a strategic coup that, by ratifying peace between Israel and Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world, removed that country from the Soviet sphere and placed it squarely in the American camp. What was done before can be done again.
Third, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is said to be ripe for solution. If there is a main impediment, it is the Israeli government. Indeed, it was his failure to remove this impediment that caused George W. Bush to miss an earlier prime opportunity to broker a peace agreement. If only Bush had been willing to pound his fist harder on the desk of the Israeli prime minister, so the argument goes, he, too, like Bill Clinton before him, could have presided over another historic handshake on the White House lawn.
False hope springs eternal, and so do false premises. In the case of the Camp David accords of 1979 and the Oslo accords of 1993, what the realist argument fails to recognize is that both of them followed, rather than led to, a bilateral agreement between the two parties. Moreover, when it comes to changing the strategic landscape, the analogy between the Egypt of Anwar Sadat and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas falls totally apart, for the simple reason that the latter is for all intents and purposes already inside the American security system. The proper analogy to an Israel-Palestinian deal is not Camp David but the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994—a thoroughly agreeable development but one that changed the strategic picture not in the least.
And yet, following the collapse of Kerry’s peace initiative, diehard realists are now weaving a similar fiction. Today’s situation, they insist, is also ripe for solution—were it not for the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Just as the Clinton administration made clear its wish that Shimon Peres vanquish the same Netanyahu in 1996, so now, we are assured, a peace deal is just one changeover of Israel’s government away—so tantalizingly close, in fact, as to justify yet another American-led peace initiative.
As the president contemplates his next steps, it is impossible to say how seriously he will take the doctrine that the Palestinian problem is the central strategic issue in the Middle East. However, that doctrine is only one of the two motivating factors that could incline him toward continued peacemaking, and the second factor is even more compelling than the first. In brief: continuing the Israel-Palestinian track will allow the president to stake a claim to the moral high ground in his fight with Netanyahu not over the Palestinians, but over Iran.
The interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that was struck last November eased economic sanctions on that country in exchange for a short-term freeze of (part of) its nuclear program. But that deal also laid Obama open to the accusation that he had stabbed Israel in the back. During a closed-door briefing, Kerry lashed out at his Senate critics (thus inadvertently acknowledging the threat they posed to the administration): “You have to ignore what [the Israelis are] telling you,” Kerry expostulated, “stop listening to the Israelis on this.”
Kerry’s outburst, which undoubtedly expressed the true feelings of the Obama White House, made for bad politics. Since trust of Israel runs high in Congress and among the American people, hostility toward the Israeli government is best expressed through subtler means.
Pursuit of the peace process is just such a means. Not only does it offer Obama a politically safe tool for hammering Netanyahu, it also allows him to mobilize a loose coalition of allies: Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and, especially valuable, liberal American Jews, all of whom regard Jewish settlements on the West Bank either as illegal, as an injustice to the Palestinians, as a threat to the democratic character of Israel, or as all three. This coalition can be reliably expected to endorse any criticism of Netanyahu by the Obama administration as long as it is couched in the language of peace.
And that language is readily at hand in a fourth “R”—rescue—that has been added to the traditional three “R’s” of the peace process. John Kerry, for one, has proved especially adept at deploying this theme. Recently, he has expressed his deep concern that Israel is at risk of becoming an “apartheid state.” On another occasion, he has voiced his fear that Israeli policies are laying the groundwork for a third intifada. On still another, he has worried out loud about the strength of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). The message in each case is that Israel is on the road to ruin, and its best friends are those who understand it, who love it, and who will rush to save it—from itself.
Why is this so important now? I have already hinted at the answer: another battle with Congress is looming over the next round of negotiations with Iran. Last fall’s interim agreement expires in July, at which time it will either be extended for another six months or be replaced by an altogether new agreement. Already, reports are circulating that the West is prepared to make still more concessions to Tehran, allowing it to proceed ever closer to nuclear breakout. If these reports turn out to be true, Obama will face bitter opposition from Congressmen and Senators, mainly but not entirely Republican, who are guaranteed to accuse him once more of betraying and abandoning Israel. The defensive strategy of the White House will then focus on the Senate, where Obama will seek to split his critics. That task will be made easier if doves, especially liberal Jewish doves, testify loudly and continuously to the administration’s profound friendship for the Jewish state.
The secretary of state and his supporters portray the administration’s criticisms of Netanyahu as heartfelt statements of their concern—the same concern that drives their reiterated hopes of reviving and reinvigorating the failed peace process. It may be so; but the rescue theme also serves the president’s larger purposes. On one level, it neatly sidesteps the commonsensical observation that peacemaking in the current circumstances is nonsensical by generating a sense of urgency to forge ahead; after all, no one blames the fireman who rushes, against all odds, to save a burning house. On another level, it helps keep Netanyahu distracted and tied up; the tighter he is wrapped around the Palestinian axle, the more freedom of movement Obama will enjoy on Iran.
And so, the very special brand of love that prompts the Obama administration to rescue Israel from itself is likely to be increasingly on display as the debate over the Iran negotiations heats up. One might think that, if he were absolutely certain of failure, the president might be persuaded to abandon efforts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; but that consideration has never swayed him till now. It is safe to say, then, that we can expect the four “R’s” to run parallel to the Iranian nuclear negotiations—like a rickety old sidecar bolted to a sparkling new Harley.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.