Friday, April 25, 2014

Obama Also To Blame For Peace Talks Breakdown

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated yesterday that both Israel and the Palestinians have taken "unhelpful steps" during the peace efforts that have been a pillar of Secretary of State John Kerry's foreign policy. Israel's withdrawal from the talks, much to the delight of Washington's cynical pundit corps, was predictable. But there is another party which has taken unhelpful steps: the Obama White House.

The President has taken a hands-off approach to much of foreign policy, but particularly the peace negotiations. While John Kerry has been as effective a mediator as any one person can be, he has lacked consistent support from the administration. Today's statement by President Obama that both Israel and the Palestinians need a "pause" in their negotiations is an affirmation of the status quo - exactly what the negotiations are intended to change. Without pressure from the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas face little short-term sanction for "defecting" from peace negotiations.

True, the odds of an agreement were long. And perhaps the White House's avoidance is an attempt to cut its political losses. But given that the negotiations were a major initiative by the Secretary of State, this policy is inconsistent at best. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not anti-peace, they are simply reacting to short-term incentives. But it is only by using the office of the Presidency to alter these incentives that there can be any hope of alleviating the suffering of the Israelis and Palestinians who have no option to withdraw.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Passover Note

In the spirit of Passover renewal, it's exciting to be renewing regular posts here at The Camels Nose.

I'm writing from Israel after spending the past six and a half months in the Arab Gulf. In that time, it became apparent that the DC policy community knows very little about the politics of this increasingly important region. Like many of my colleagues who write at the nexus of two political issue areas, I will be slowly expanding the scope of the blog to compare domestic and regional politics in Israel and the Gulf. These new posts are intended to generate feedback (and correction when necessary) that will better inform my own conclusions and those of the blog's readers.

In the meantime, I will continue to post about Israeli domestic politics, including the recent murmurs from Naftali Bennet about a split from the coalition. Best wishes for a happy Passover for those of you who celebrate. Stay tuned for new posts!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fighitng Unilateral Recognition is a Losing Battle for Israel

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty stipulated that Egypt would cease attacks on Israel, and in return Israel would withdraw from the Sinai peninsula. This kind of trade-off became known as "land for peace." The Egypt case was unique. Both sides had fought to exhaustion, and both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were in danger of losing a popular mandate. But most importantly, the conflict had already resulted in an Israeli military victory. Giving back the Sinai was a way to maintain a peace that already existed.

In the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel made the mistake of agreeing to land for peace with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. It failed for two reasons. First, peace is ambiguous. It's hard to accuse Palestinians of violating the peace when there's no agreement about what exactly peace is. Second, peace is reversible. Re-taking land involved a much higher cost for Israel than restarting violence did for Palestinians.

In the current flailing negotiations (see here for an explanation why), Israel is making the same mistake it made with land for peace. "Pursuing unilateral international recognition of a Palestinian state" is also ambiguous and reversible. It's difficult to say exactly what "pursuit" entails, and it's something the Palestinian Authority can always do in the future. Even if a deal were to be signed, Israel's condition that the Palestinians not pursue peace would be a sword of Damocles over future interactions.

If Israel really wants the Palestinians not to pursue unilateral recognition, it should address these efforts by offering elements of recognition in return for tangible concessions that bolster its security. Israel may not believe such recognition is deserved, but neither is perpetuating the conflict upon another generation of Israelis. Israel also faces an international community which is increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Managing this tide is good policy. But trying to stave it off entirely is a losing battle.