Friday, February 11, 2011

Obama, The Plan, And The Politics

A final (preemptive) word about my forthcoming article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, appealing to President Obama to present an American plan based on the Olmert-Abbas talks.

Obama knows very well that when Abbas finally met Netanyahu last year, the Palestinian president proposed that he and Netanyahu begin where he (Abbas) and Olmert left off, and that Netanyahu rejected this out of hand. ("No way," Netanyahu said, or so Abbas told me.)

Why then should Obama present a plan that the Israeli government is bound to dismiss? Isn't this setting up the American administration for a diplomatic failure?

No way.

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert's offer and designed (as Olmert's offer was) to be "in the spirit" of the Arab League Initiative of 2002.

Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation's ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

The purpose of presenting a plan now, in other words, would be to signal the Arab street, and the Israeli street, too, that America is committed to a new, coherent Middle East and that it has the world behind it. The plan's gravitas, which may take a year or two to sink in, would derive from its inherent fairness (based, as it is, on Olmert's and Abbas's 36 meetings), not on the predictable resistance of extremists to it. It would start a new political conversation, like the UN Partition resolution of 1947. It would signal all parties that the fate of Palestine is by no means Israel's internal affair, nor is the security of Israel merely a matter for the Israeli military.

Obama needs to understand--and everyone with a pen should encourage him to--that he has the chance to face an election, not as the manager of a stalemated peace process, but rather as the author of a visionary policy. He would not be seen as a timid, failed mediator, like Dennis Ross, but as a bold architect, like George Marshall, universally identified with the only reasonable future the Middle East can expect. After all, Obama has not got Iran to give up its nuclear program, as the rest of the world wants. But he has been justifiably given great credit for organizing what the rest of the world wants.

Moreover, a peace plan of this kind is bound to have a serious impact on Israeli politics, empowering the parties of global Israel (Livni, Labor and the rest) to declare that they alone can preserve relations with Washington and the EU, while the parties of greater Israel (Netanyahu, Lieberman and the rest) will be seen as driving Israel into an impossible isolation. It will give Palestinians a political horizon and may help to preserve the peace and demonstrable economic progress in a volatile West Bank.

Besides, if Obama misses this opportunity, he will almost certainly be running in 2012 with Palestine in chaos, spreading violence in the region, and mobilized Arab youth chanting anti-American slogans. He will be the president who "lost Egypt," rather than the one who gained an international consensus. He does not have much time.


Y. Ben-David said...

I will again repeat the three questions that I think beg answers based on the Avishai interviews:
(1) If they were so close to an agreement, why didn't Olmert hold off the war with HAMAS? He could have told his cabinet that was pushing for military action that they were on the verge of an historic peace agreement and a war would put it on ice. Why, I ask?

(2) If they were so close to an agreement, why didn't Abbas, Olmert and Livni call a press conference during the election campaign and tell the voters that an historic agreement was within reach and the people of Israel should vote for KADIMA which was a vote for peace. Why?

(3) If they were so close to an agreement, why wasn't Obama informed and then encouraged to make the final, minimal steps needed for the agreement and then impose it on Israel, telling the people of Israel that peace was here? Instead, Obama wasted his time, energy and political capital on the settlement freeze, something that was TOTALLY SUPERFLUOUS since Avishai, Olmert and Abbas tells us that the settlements, except for Ariel were not an issue any more since they were either going to be plowed under or accepted by the Palestinians. Why, why, why?
If we receive no answer to these questions, the only conclusion I can come to is that someone here is deceiving the public.

Willburg Will said...

I would like to know how the U.S. could expect to show its "commitment to a new, coherent Middle East" if it proceeds (as it has signalled it will do) to veto a UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in the coming days. Such a vote would mean that the U.S. opposes (indeed negates) 20 years of its own stated policy and could only be seen as not only throwing U.S. policy into disarray but also undermining the basis for the "peace process" (no unilateral acts, etc.)

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