Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading back to Israel with an offer from the Obama administration of a large basket of incentives in exchange for a 90-day extension of a settlement freeze. The reported contours of the administration's offer include 20 free advanced F-35 fighter jets and assorted promises to defend Israel at the U.N. and other international fora (which meets Israeli fears but in reality would almost certainly be forthcoming under any foreseeable circumstances). In exchange, Israel would renew its partial settlement freeze for 90 days. During that period, the Israelis and Palestinians are to go back to the bargaining table and (reportedly) concentrate on sketching out an agreement on borders, which would generate progress and reduce the risk of future battles over settlements.
It's easy to be skeptical. The United States seems to be giving a lot for a temporary fix which only kicks the can down the road another few months, while neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem to see this as a moment of opportunity. The deal only makes sense if serious progress on reaching agreement on borders can be made in three months. But the three months in question include Thanksgiving, the Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, and the seating of the new U.S. Congress. Even if the parties have already sketched out the contours of the deal -- and I sure hope they did that spadework before committing themselves to such a high-stakes deadline, though I'm kind of afraid that they didn't -- experience suggests that getting that deal through the Israeli and Palestinian systems won't be easy. Since the United States promises not to ask for another extension, the 90-day deadline gives all kinds of incentives for those who don't really want a deal to stall. Oh, all right… I'm skeptical.
The attraction of the "borders first" approach is obvious. If it works, then there would finally be some real progress for the first time in ages, some confidence might be built between the parties, and the endlessly recurring settlement battles might be put in the cooler for a while. But the issues there haven't changed much since the last time the gambit was floated more than a year ago. It will be difficult to reach any kind of agreement on borders without tackling the vexatious issue of Greater Jerusalem -- not the Old City, but the sprawling metropolitan area that includes significant portions of the central West Bank (here's a nice map, for those who haven't looked at one lately). The Israeli move last week to escalate construction in East Jerusalem was a pretty clear warning shot that both the settlement freeze agreement and any 'borders first' deal would exclude the Jerusalem area. That's going to be a problem, and it's hard to see how it can be avoided.
I hope that those problems can be overcome, but count me among the skeptics. The deal seems to epitomize the unimaginative, tactics-focused U.S.e approach that has dominated the administration's Israeli-Palestinian strategy. Where President Obama set out sweeping goals and offered a deep and sustained commitment to seeking peace, the execution of his strategy immediately bogged down. The problem is not that he chose to fight a battle over settlements, as conventional wisdom has now concluded -- that was the right battle to choose, as an indicator of Israeli intentions and as a signal to the Palestinians of U.S. seriousness. The problem isn't even entirely that he lost that battle, as damaging as that was to U.S. credibility and strategy, since even a losing battle demonstrated Obama's willingness to pay costs to achieve the goal.
The problem is deeper than that -- it's the lack of imagination and tactical focus that have doomed the administration to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The administration's approach thus far has been to keep trying harder at the same things that were tried by the Bush administration and, before that, by the Clinton administration. Try to get the two parties to the negotiating table. Try to force Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze. Try to contain the fallout when Netanyahu responds by announcing construction in East Jerusalem. Try to persuade the Palestinians to come back to the table. Try to strengthen the Fayyad government and try to help build Palestinian security services. Try to pretend that Gaza doesn't matter. Try to persuade the Arab states to offer some positive concessions to Israel to reward any glimmer of good behavior. Try to keep the 'peace process' moving forward no matter what. Repeat. And repeat.
Three examples, which don't get addressed through this narrow, tactical approach to the 'peace process,' might illustrate the broader issues. First, it was clear by spring 2009 that the push for peace faced a range of clear problems, which couldn't be addressed through the usual diplomatic moves. It was clear by then that the Israeli public and political class had largely lost interest in the peace process and wasn't sure whether to trust Obama. But while the administration did eventually try to repair relations with Netanyahu and intensified its political, military and intelligence consultations with the Israelis (in large part to reassure them enough on Iran to prevent them from going Goldberg), it has made little serious effort to try to build support for the peace process among the Israeli public.
Second, the paralyzing effects of intra-Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and between the West Bank and Gaza, have long been obvious, but nothing has been done to try to overcome those divisions -- if anything, the United States and its Arab allies, such as Egypt, have evidently continued to block efforts at intra-Palestinian reconciliation. And Palestinian politics today remain as fractured and internally riven as ever, even as anger over Gaza smolders, the remnants of the PA's democratic legitimacy fade away, and faith in a negotiated peace agreement withers.
Third, the rising salience of the battles over the "delegitimation" of Israel suggests that events may simply be overtaking the formal peace process. From the frenzy over the Goldstone report to the frenzy over the Mavi Marmara flotilla, the most urgent battles surrounding Israel's relationship with the Palestinians seem to have little to do with the formal peace process upon which U.S. strategy focuses. Those international ideological battles largely focus on Gaza, which is virtually completely left out of the peace process as currently defined.
Nobody can doubt the administration's deep and enduring commitment to trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president has paid significant domestic and international costs for his efforts. His administration has persevered impressively in the face of considerable pressure to back away and despite few tangible benefits from U.S. involvement in the issue. His administration has done everything possible to demonstrate its support for Israel even as it continues to insist that achieving a peace agreement is a vital U.S. national security interest. I hope that this push for a borders first deal on a three-month deadline works, and then galvanizes a more comprehensive drive for a comprehensive, just final status peace agreement. I really do. If it doesn't, then perhaps it will be time to consider a new approach rather than just trying harder at the same things.