Michael Young
The Daily Star
December 11, 2008 - 1:00am

Rarely a day goes by without someone offering new advice to the incoming Obama administration on how to deal with the Middle East. This advice is usually based on a simple principle: If George W. Bush pursued a specific policy, Barack Obama must do the opposite.

Much of the counseling has focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The lines of argument are familiar. The conflict lies at the heart of the Arab world's traumas, therefore resolving it is the key to unlocking many of the region's other problems. Peace is achievable because the outlines of an agreement were almost agreed to during the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords were signed. And Bush didn't do enough for Palestinian-Israeli peace, while Obama can succeed by compensating for that failing.

The difficulty with the three premises is that each is questionable. The problem of Palestine doubtless requires an urgent settlement, but all the signs are that we may be beyond that stage - past midnight on the kind of peace with which we would have been familiar in 2000, when talks collapsed and new leaders took over in the United States and Israel.

Is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the Gordian knot that needs to be cut in order for other regional crises to be resolved? The bitter fate of the Palestinians is a significant factor in how Arab populations view themselves and their relationship with the West. However, when one looks more closely, the centrality of the Palestinians' humiliation is also, perhaps even mainly, the result of the Arabs' humiliation at the hands of their own leaders and their alienation from politics in general. In supporting the Palestinians, Arabs also denounce the illegitimacy of those governing them. That is why Palestine, as much as it is about Israeli behavior, is also about the abject failure of the Arab state.

Arab citizens are the victims of despots who neither respect them nor afford them the bare essentials of a political life. Citizens are permitted only indifference, only to express themselves in favor of the tyrannical fathers ruling over them. What is the role of Palestine in such a context? Arab regimes have used the conflict with Israel to maintain suffocating security establishments and to deflect popular anger away from their own shortcomings. However, that could mean that if Arab societies become more open, Palestine will recede as a prime shaper of Arab attitudes.

Taking this a step further, if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved but Arab despotisms are left in place, it is doubtful that we would see deep changes in the nature of Arab societies. Peace with Israel will not mean that fewer young men join militant Islamist groups (probably the contrary would happen), nor that Arab citizens will be able to voice their opinions more liberally. No one doubts the importance of Palestine, but as the Lebanese showed at the end of their 15-year civil conflict, just as the Kuwaitis showed after the 1991 Gulf war and the Iraqis did at the end of the 2003 war, Arab societies will turn against the Palestinians, often in very unreasonable ways, when they feel that they themselves have paid an onerous domestic price for having backed the Palestinians.

The second assumption about a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, namely that the outlines of a final agreement are known and were defined during negotiations in the 1990s, is equally problematic. All the evidence today suggests that Palestinian-Israeli dynamics are changing so rapidly that the Oslo framework may have become a distant anachronism.

The reason is that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide those unwilling to make the required concessions for peace are in a position to veto a final settlement. On the Israeli side we are likely heading after the February 2009 parliamentary elections toward a center-right government, one either led by the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or in which he will have a decisive say. Given that the present center-left Kadima-led government has been incapable, when not unwilling, to take steps bolstering the credibility of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, it seems illusory to expect better next spring.

Similarly, Hamas has no interest in a peace settlement, believing the armed struggle can deliver the Palestinians much more. The Islamist movement may soon have as its main Israeli adversary Netanyahu, who, like Hamas, welcomes an open-ended truce that ultimately resolves nothing. Meanwhile, the Palestinians' condition will only consolidate the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza. However, not before very long this stalemate might only further undermine the credibility and negotiating strategy of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, creating openings for Hamas in future elections. This coming January, Hamas and Fatah are likely to clash over whether Abbas should remain in office as president, and this week's fighting in the Mieh Mieh camp in southern Lebanon was a worrying omen that Palestinian refugees may soon be caught up in their political animosities.

So, did George W. Bush err in not doing enough to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? His administration blundered in isolating the late Yasser Arafat, pushing for Palestinian elections, and doing nothing to persuade Israel to suspend settlement-building - all steps that strengthened Hamas and discredited Fatah. But Bush's lethargy in the past year, despite the Annapolis conference, was only a symptom of the dynamics at play: Washington is basically unable to impose peace on the Israelis and Palestinians, and nothing suggests this will soon change.

Few in the US want to admit that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be irresolvable for now. That's understandable, since doing nothing to address the conflict may be worse than doing something, even if that something is futile. The danger is that Palestine has become a diplomatic quandary where it is better for the Americans to oversee negotiations that merely delay the inevitable descent into violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Such negotiations present no prospect of peace, but keep alive an empty process that is better than no process at all. If so, Barack Obama may soon find himself as ineffective as George W. Bush was.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017