Although Obama administration officials have expressed optimism about progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, experts suspect that the political climates in Washington and Tel Aviv will preclude it.
Mitchell Plitnick , last updated: February 01, 2013
Inter Press Service
The optimism expressed by U.S. President Barack Obama and newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry about restarting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has been met with scepticism from many seasoned Middle East experts.
At his confirmation hearing, Kerry told the assembled Senate, “I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table and go down a different path than the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.”
Since his re-election, there has been considerable debate in the U.S. media about whether Obama would re-engage in peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. It is often the case that second-term presidents engage more in foreign policy and have a freer hand, not having to be concerned about re-election at the end of their term.
Speculation that Obama might put significant effort into Israel-Palestine peace was fueled by his nominees for two key Cabinet posts: Kerry for secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defence. Kerry, though widely recognised as strongly pro-Israel, has voiced sharp criticism in the past of Israel’s policy of expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Hagel faced much greater opposition on this score, and his confirmation is less certain than Kerry’s was, though it is expected that he too will be confirmed. Much of the opposition to Hagel stems from a 2006 interview where he said that “
…the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people (on Capitol Hill)”, and “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”
But despite Obama’s choice for the key posts, and a White House statement saying that Obama had pledged “to work closely with Israel on our shared agenda for peace and security in the Middle East,” during his congratulatory call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the latter’s re-election last week, few see a strong possibility that the new administration will put much effort into the vexing conflict.
“I don’t think that Mr. Obama is lying about his intentions, it’s simply that he’s required to say he’ll reengage,” Mark Perry, former co-director of the Washington, D.C., London, and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, told IPS.
“The only other possible answer would be: ‘I’m sick of the whole damn thing, and we’ll just have to wait for new Israeli leadership’ – which is something he dare not say. Mr. Obama is focused on domestic matters – which will command his every attention. He will need every vote he can get to pass his domestic programme, and irritating conservative Republicans and Democrats by making demands on Israel is something that he just won’t do.”
Yet speaking in Washington in a globally broadcast address on Tuesday, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced optimism.
“I actually think that this election opens doors, not nails them shut,” Clinton said. “So I know that President Obama, my successor, soon-to-be Secretary of State John Kerry, will pursue this, will look for every possible opening… somehow, we have to look for ways to give the Palestinian people the pathway to peace, prosperity, and statehood that they deserve and give the Israeli people the security and stability that they seek.
“I think that still is possible, and I can assure you the United States under President Obama will continue to do everything we can to move the parties toward some resolution.”
Speaking at The Palestine Center in Washington, Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of The Jerusalem Fund, noted that Israel’s ongoing occupation and settlement expansion was a very minor issue in the Israeli election.
“The issue of peace is fading because the cost of occupation has become bearable for Israel and there is no motivation (to change) if the costs are low. The question that needs to be asked in Washington is how can we create incentives so an end to occupation becomes a reality. If we continue to support everything Israel does … we cannot expect it will happen.”
PJ Crowley, former spokesman for the U.S. State Department, told the same audience that the Israel-Palestine issue was no longer the same regional focal point it once was.
“In 2009, President Obama came in knowing that the Israel-Palestine issue is the key driver in the region. We believed that to be true in 2009, but it is not true in 2013,” Crowley said.
“There are new players in region, with (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak replaced by (Mohammed) Morsi, who was helpful in ending hostilities with Hamas, but has a much different view of the Palestine issue and has very different dynamics domestically. King Abdullah of Jordan has his hands full with 700,000 Syrian refugees. So Israel-Palestine has been pushed from the top of the list.”
Others have focused on the personal issues between Obama and Netanyahu. Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that the two leaders have “bad chemistry” between them. This was echoed by former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, who put the blame for the tension squarely on Netanyahu.
“Frankly, I doubt that Obama…is likely to invest much effort in either supporting or opposing Netanyahu’s Israel now,” Freeman told IPS. “Netanyahu has not only beaten the warmth out of his government’s relationship with its American counterpart, he has left Obama with no basis for engagement with him other than posturing for domestic political effect.”
John Mearsheimer, professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago summed up the pessimism, telling IPS, “Obama will surely go through the motions to make it look like he is serious about pushing the peace process forward.
“I would be very surprised, however, if he makes a serious effort to get a two-state solution, simply because the Israelis taught him in his first term that they are in the driver’s seat and they are not interested in allowing the Palestinians to have their own state. Nothing happened with the recent Israeli election to change that dynamic."
Mitchell Plitnick is a contributor to Inter Press Service.
Mitchel Reiss, a former U.S. diplomat who held numerous posts in the George W. Bush administration, is concerned that the United States may be getting “suckered” by Iran. He has criticized the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, calling for broadening the “scope of negotiations” with Iran to “include Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its systemic violation of human rights.” Experts at Harvard’s Belfer Center for International Affairs have referred to Reiss’ position as “mindless maximalism.”
James Woolsey, the former CIA director and chairman of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that President Obama is "heading in the right direction" in his approach to the Islamic State but he insists that the president must make a declaration of war. Woolsey also thinks that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden should to be “hanged” if convicted of treason.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and a former official in the Obama State Department who has been called Washington’s “go-to” Iran analyst. He has for years taken a stridently alarmist tone with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and has been critical of the Obama administrations nuclear negotiations with Iran. In July 2014, Takeyh co-authored a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that called for increasing “pressure” on Iran during the on-going negotiations.
Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and head of the “liberal hawk” Center for a New American Security. Recently named to the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, Flournoy has warned against a preemptive U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran, although she once told the rightwing Jerusalem Post that “Israel can rely on Obama to stop a nuclear Iran. … [T]he policy is not containment and I think he is serious about that.” Flournoy has also called for increases in defense spending, writing in an op-ed with former Bush Pentagon official Eric Edelman that "the U.S. military must be able to deter or stop aggression in multiple theaters, not just one, even when engaged in a large-scale war.”
Ashton Carter, former deputy secretary of defense in the Barack Obama administration, is a longtime academic and Pentagon bureaucrat who has advocated using military force as part of controversial nuclear counter-proliferation programs. During his time as deputy defense secretary, Carter strongly criticized cuts in the defense budget. One observer responded to Carter’s criticisms arguing that the cuts “resulted in part from the inefficient and unsound choices the Pentagon has made over the past decade, much of it occurring on Carter’s own watch.” Carter was recently appointed senior executive at the Markle Foundation, an organization that “works to realize the potential of information technology to address previously intractable public problems, for the health and security of all Americans.”
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