The Middle East Channel

An Obama Middle East peace plan: Is it real? Is it smart?

A new round of speculation regarding the U.S. administration's Middle East peace efforts has been set off by this David Ignatius op-ed in Thursday's Washington Post and this report by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, both revealing a meeting hosted by current National Security Advisor Gen. James L. Jones with his predecessors and a presidential drop-in that became the occasion for a pow-wow on a prospective U.S. peace plan.

Elliott Abrams -- previously a senior advisor at the National Security Council and now resident dog-whistle for the neoconservative attack machine at the Weekly Standard, was first out of the traps describing talk of a plan being borne of "frustration" and ultimately "dangerous." Others have suggested that this might be a trial balloon or a head fake whose real purpose is to extract Israeli gestures on East Jerusalem settlement expansion by hinting at something more dramatic being in the works. In general, the tone of commentary on the Israel-U.S. spat of recent weeks has tended to depict U.S. moves as whimsical and anger-driven. So what are we to make of this news?

These leaks imply something different is at play -- a premeditated strategy leading to an American peace plan, an idea that it seems has been kicked around for some months, notably by General Jones. Recent developments may have accelerated the potential timetable and won new converts to the strategy, possibly tipping the balance in favor of this approach among administration principals.

To understand the genesis of this story, one needs to cast one's mind back to before Barack Obama was in office, to the final year of President George W. Bush. In November 2007, the Bush administration re-launched peace efforts at Annapolis. The main impetus was a belated recognition of the centrality of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace for the broader missions and challenges the United States was pursuing in the region. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had raised the need to advance Palestinian statehood as he got on board in selling and then mounting the Iraq war effort in 2003, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Gen. Colin Powell, was similarly inclined. Nothing was doing then.

It is a theme that was taken up by Gen. David Petraeus in his much-commented-upon testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month in which he argued that the unresolved conflict impaired America's ability to achieve its goals throughout the region. Despite the headlines his testimony generated, Petraeus was doing nothing more than paraphrasing his own testimony of a year earlier, and repeating what all other Centcom commanders since 9/11 -- Gen. Tommy Franks, Gen. John Abizaid, and Adm. William "Fox" Fallon -- had recognized.

The Bush administration had not been convinced, even when the Iraq Study Group report of December 2006, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, took this call to a new level by drawing an explicit linkage between enlisting Iraq's neighbors for a successful outcome there and re-engaging in Israeli-Arab peace efforts. Finally the president and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got on board with great fanfare in hosting the Annapolis gathering. The new converts ambitiously defined their goal as a peace deal within 12 months and Bush subsequently made his first presidential visit to Israel, this in his eighth year in office (making it somewhat amusing to read Elliot Abrams, who served in that administration, attacking President Obama for not having visited Israel yet after all of 15 months on the job, and for Obama having the nerve to suggest a peace deal can be reached in a more leisurely 24 months).

This sunset period of the Bush administration established not only the intellectual but also the practical foundations of an emerging U.S. strategy. The content of the Annapolis negotiations will no doubt feature prominently if there is a future peace plan, and the then-departing National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley is reported to have left a note detailing progress made across a range of issues. But more significant perhaps was the participation of General Jones himself in that Annapolis effort -- brought on board by Secretary Rice to devise the security components of a two-state deal. Jones is now reported to be leading the peace charge, and his involvement then, his familiarly with the terrain, and exposure to Israeli-Palestinian realities will be a precious asset for the president if and when a peace plan strategy moves forward.

The evidence that a possible Obama peace plan was born of strategy rather than caprice rests on more than fin-de-siècle Bush administration precedent. Even during the campaign, in a departure from the standard operating procedure, then Senator Obama committed himself to an assertive peace effort, embedding that commitment in a reading of both U.S. and Israeli interests. In May 2008, in a campaign stopover in Amman while traveling from Iraq to Israel, Obama asserted that he would "be actively engaged with the peace process" and that his goal was "to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs." Indeed on day two of his administration, former Sen. George Mitchell was appointed U.S. special envoy for the Middle East and later President Obama rededicated himself to "act now" and "personally pursue" a two-state solution in his ground-breaking Cairo speech.

Having established an Israeli-Palestinian two-state deal as a priority and strategic interest, the question was always going to be how the new administration would go about it. It came as something of a surprise when the kind of policy review undertaken on other issues was avoided on Mideast peace. The approach that appeared to be adopted went along something like the following lines:

Let's rebuild some confidence between the parties with steps on the ground, including gestures by Arab states. Off the back of that we'll re-launch negotiations without any terms of reference, have the U.S. and the new special envoy actively involved in those talks, and if, as is perhaps likely, they reach an impasse, then we'll introduce U.S. bridging proposals.

Aspects of this approach were inherited and deeply flawed -- having failed to gain traction for well over a decade. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer described in powerful testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month:

We have known for years that interim, incremental, or step-by-step approaches will no longer work. We know that confidence-building measures, in a vacuum, do not work and instead inspire lack of confidence ... combined with a determined leadership role by the United States, strong terms of reference can make the difference between negotiations that simply get started and negotiations that have a chance to end with success.

There is an irony to this story.

It is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has, inadvertently, confronted the administration with Kurtzer's truisms and helped create a learning curve of what one might call "policy review by painful experience." Netanyahu helped provide a moment of clarity, demonstrating that confidence cannot be built incrementally, that settlements will not be frozen, and that East Jerusalem cannot be ignored. If one is to ascribe strategic foresight to the Obama administration (and that may be merited), then what they have done is to walk the Israeli prime minister down a corridor in which, in part due to his own actions, the exit routes are being sealed and a moment of real choice is approaching.

As I argued here back in September, the Obama settlement-freeze strategy took Netanyahu out of his comfort zone (of interim measures and economic peace). In rejecting the freeze, Netanyahu found himself not only facing but embracing the thing he most abhors -- endgame peace negotiations. The latest round has taken this a step further, now making a discussion of Jerusalem inescapable. The more Netanyahu demands recognition of Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the more obvious and unavoidable the flip side becomes -- namely, that Palestinian East Jerusalem and Palestinian neighborhoods will need to be recognized as part of the Palestinian capital and state. He continues to be walked down that corridor.

If, as reported, the administration is working toward a peace-plan script and not shooting from the hip, then the focus is turning to when to present a plan, what is in it, and how it might succeed.

The when (and by extension the if) will be as much about domestic political considerations as it is about developments in the region. On the latter, a word of caution is in order. Anyone feeling threatened by such a peace plan might seek to create a distraction, with violence being a predictable default option. So there is a need to monitor and prevent any escalation in violence and some urgency to pushing forward. It will be argued that the long-awaited proximity talks and even direct talks first need to be given a chance and only their failure can legitimize the United States presenting its own ideas. That would be a mistake; it creates a dependency on the very actors who may be comfortable with paralysis and ignores the opportunity to pivot that has already been created.

In a way, everything the Obama administration has done on the issue to date could be retroactively explained as preparation for this great moment of pivoting to a plan - "we sincerely tried to do everything to build confidence, especially on settlements, but it is clear that the only answer is to know where Israel ends and where Palestine begins, and therefore to delineate a border."

The political calendar would seem to dictate something either rather soon (before midterm elections become an all-absorbing focus) or post-November. And while the politics won't be a cakewalk, they may not be all that daunting, either. Polling amongst Americans in general (and also amongst American Jews) suggests broad support, the zeitgeist is visibly shifting, especially if the president wraps this up in U.S. national interests while articulating a strong pro-Israel narrative for such an initiative -- and of course if he is flanked by the uniformed military. Despite the neocon apoplexy that would be generated and predictable GOP attempts at political point-scoring, there will still be no shortage of responsible, adult Republicans who can step forward to give the plan bipartisan support. The key congressional Democrats, including from the Jewish caucus, would prefer that the issue just go away, but if the chips are down they are most likely to support their president, even if they come under pressure not to do so.

The Times' Cooper goes into some detail on what a plan might look like regarding borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem, and in truth most of the details are already known. Ignatius drops a tantalizing hint that the plan may go further in his reference to Syria and the broader Arab world.

The spectrum of a plan's possible content essentially looks like this: At one end, a comprehensive regional peace plan including an Israel-Syria deal, and implementation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative's offer of comprehensive normal relations with Israel; in the middle, a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement addressing all the core issues and with some regional add-ons; and at the minimalist end (yet not to be sneezed at), a deal that fixes two states, an Israeli-Palestinian border delineation, and security arrangements, but defers closure on all details of, for instance, refugees, Jerusalem's Old City, and an end of claims. Even a one-sentence frame of reference might move the ball forward dramatically. It could read like this:

Establish a border based on the 1967 lines with an agreed, minimal and equal one-to-one land swap taking into account new realities on the ground (settlements close to the Green Line), whereby the Palestinian state is on 100 percent of the '67 territory and is demilitarized with security arrangements overseen by a multinational deployment.

If it is to happen, then a key component of the sales pitch, particularly for Israel and the pro-Israel community, will be the effect of resolving the Palestinian issue on regional dynamics and notably in dramatically reducing Iran's capacity to mobilize hostility to Israel and to avoid further isolation and pressure on itself.

Moving forward with any of the above may ultimately depend on whether a compelling case can be made that any of this can succeed. As General Powell is quoted in the Times piece as saying, what do we do in "acts two, three and four" if someone says no?

It requires a longer answer, but the central premise of a "yes, we can" approach is that the Israeli and Palestinian systems are capable of making the right choice (even if it takes a little time) if they are consistently and insistently asked the right question -- and that has to be about the endgame. In fact, they are only likely to produce the right answer if asked the right question -- yes or no to a specific peace plan -- and one that comes with an attendant set of incentives and disincentives.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

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