Ben Smith
Politico (Analysis)
November 23, 2010 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — Vowing to change a region that has resisted the best efforts of presidents and prime ministers past, Barack Obama dove head first into the Middle East peace process on his second day in office.

He was supposed to be different. His personal identity, his momentum, his charisma and his promise of a fresh start would fundamentally alter America’s relations with the Muslim world and settle one of its bitterest grievances.

Two years later, he has managed to forge surprising unanimity on at least one topic: Barack Obama. A visit here finds both Israelis and Palestinians blame him for the current stalemate — just as they blame one another.

Instead of becoming a heady triumph of his diplomatic skill and special insight, Obama’s peace process is viewed almost universally in Israel as a mistake-riddled fantasy. And far from becoming the transcendent figure in a centuries-old drama, Obama has become just another frustrated player on a hardened Mideast landscape.

The current state of play sums up the problem. Obama’s demand that the Israelis stop building settlements on the West Bank was met, at long last, by a temporary and partial freeze, but its brief renewal is now the subject of intensive negotiations.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders have refused American demands to hold peace talks with the Israelis before the freeze is extended. Talks with Arab states over gestures intended to build Israeli confidence — a key part of Obama’s early plan — have long since been scrapped.

The political peace process to which Obama committed so much energy is considered a failure so far. And in the world’s most pro-American state, the public and its leaders have lost any faith in Obama and — increasingly — even in the notion of a politically negotiated peace.

Even those who still believe in the process that Obama has championed view his conduct as a deeply unfunny comedy of errors.

“He’s like rain,” said a top Israeli official involved in diplomacy with the U.S., speaking of Obama’s role in negotiations. “You can do all kinds of things to cope with it.”

Some fret that not only has Obama failed to move the process forward but he and his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts may have dealt it a setback that will leave it worse off than when they began.

“Each of them has exacerbated the mistakes of the other,” said Michael Herzog, a retired general who still plays an informal role advising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiators. He worries that the result of the bumbling could be “disastrous: People will lose hope in the possibility of a two-state solution.”

The White House declined to comment for this story. But in general, the Americans point fingers back at the region. They’re unsure whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, has the will to make peace. They’ve been surprised and disappointed by Arab leaders’ unwillingness to bolster Israel’s confidence in the process with diplomatic concessions or financial support for the Palestinian Authority. And they are dissatisfied with the domestic political excuses of an Israeli prime minister they see as having chosen his own intractable coalition and who is now — in the view of one American official — “running out the clock.”

Peel back any corner of the current negotiations, and the problems quickly become evident.

In August, the Obama administration announced that it would sell 84 F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, part of the largest arms deal in American history.

The plan drew some grumbles from pro-Israel members of the Congress, who worried that the sale would tip the balance of power in the region. But Israel’s government remained publicly silent. Privately, in August — a top Israeli official told POLITICO — they asked the Obama administration to match the Saudi sale with 20 F-35 jets for the Israeli air force, a move that would maintain the “qualitative military advantage,” which has long been a principle of American policy toward Israel.

Those F-35s are now at the heart of a proposed deal between the U.S. and Israel over the renewed 90-day freeze.

The notion that Israel would get $2 billion worth of military hardware for a three-month delay in the construction of a few houses appears incomprehensible and has drawn criticism for two reasons: Netanyahu’s conservative coalition partners worry that the Americans are selling them yesterday’s carpet, making a condition of something that was already in the works. His American critics, meanwhile, expressed astonishment that Obama would pay so much for so little.

The reality is more complicated, and emblematic of the stilted relationship between the United States and its ally, and of the Israeli angst over American support, its mistrust of Obama and its assumption that peace talks will fail. The Israelis are using the talks — viewed by most of the government as a fantasy — as a bridge to their more immediate security needs.

“It’s not connected to the 90 days — it’s connected to the Saudi deal,” said a senior aide to Netanyahu. “It’s not something [Netanyahu] had in his pocket.”

Still, a visitor finds no shortage of good news on the ground. Israel’s tech sector is booming, Tel Aviv’s cafes bustle, and Israel has enjoyed a period largely free of suicide bombings and rocket attacks. In the Palestinian territories, there is also a positive tale to tell: The robust economic growth in West Bank cities patrolled by a functioning Palestinian police force.

But the American president has been diminished, even in an era without active hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. His demands on the parties appear to shrink each month, with the path to a grand peace settlement narrowing to the vanishing point. The lack of Israeli faith in him and his process has them using the talks to extract more tangible security assurances — the jets. And though America remains beloved, Obama is about as popular here as he is in Oklahoma. A Jerusalem Post poll in May found 9 percent of Israelis consider Obama “pro-Israel,” while 48 percent say he’s “pro-Palestinian.”

Other polling in Israel shows a growing gap between aspirations for peace and the faith that it can happen. One survey last month found that 72 percent of Israelis favor negotiations, while only 33 percent think they can bear fruit. (Palestinians show a smaller gap, primarily because a smaller majority favors negotiations.)

Obama has resisted advisers’ suggestions that he travel to Israel or speak directly to Israelis as he has to Muslims in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia.

“Israelis really hate Obama’s guts,” said Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for two leading Israeli newspapers. “We used to trust Americans to act like Americans, and this guy is like a European leader.”

Many senior Israeli leaders have concluded that Hillary Clinton and John McCain were right about Obama’s naiveté and inexperience.

“The naive liberals who are at the heart of the administration really believe in all the misconceptions the Palestinians and all their friends all over the world are trying to place,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former high-ranking military intelligence officer who is now deputy director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Kuperwasser, like other Israelis, bridled at the suggestion that the country’s dislike of Obama draws from the Muslim influences of his heritage — or even his name.

“It drives me crazy. Who cares that his middle name is Hussein? It’s the last thing we care about. [To suggest that] is just anti-Semitism,” he said. “There is one reason why we are hesitant about this guy: He doesn’t understand us.”

The deal on 90 more days of freeze currently hangs in the balance. Netanyahu is also trying to sell his coalition partners on an administration promise that there won’t be a demand for a third freeze, and on another promise — which has provoked the same claims that it’s too much or too little — to veto a threatened attempt to advance Palestinian statehood through the United Nations.

The demand for a 90-day freeze in new construction has, all sides agree, a real internal logic: American leaders have said they hope the Israelis and Palestinians will resolve the question of the border of a Palestinian state. And once that’s resolved, the issue of settlements — which Obama raised at his Cairo speech last June, and which has emerged as a prime impediment to talks — will, the theory goes, be resolved with it. The scenario: Most of the “settlements” will be put within mutually agreed borders of Israel, the rest will be clearly out of bounds, and the residents of far-flung Jewish communities on West Bank hilltops will be on notice that Israeli soldiers will soon be knocking on their doors to drag them out of the state of Palestine.

The problem is that virtually nobody in Israel who isn’t required by the logic of politics to express public faith in the political process of peace talks has much faith that the talks will lead anywhere. Netanyahu’s coalition is dominated by people with a profound skepticism about not just these talks but of any negotiated peace.

“The only positive policy is to operate under the realistic assumption that as long as the PLO do not change fundamentally their thinking, no government of Israel can sign an agreement with them,” said Beni Begin, a cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s own Likud Party and — like most of the Israeli government — a firm skeptic of the prospects for a Palestinian state anytime soon.

The extremist group Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, “is not a ‘real problem’,” Begin says, mocking the diplomatic conversation on the topic. “It’s an insurmountable problem. Everyone knows it.”

Netanyahu’s close staff and his government share some of that skepticism.

“It might be that the reason you haven't had peace with the Palestinians is not because you haven’t had changes in policies, not because you haven’t had changes with the American approach, but because the Palestinians haven’t brought themselves to real reconciliation with Israel,” Netanyahu’s closest adviser, Ron Dermer, told POLITICO.

Netanyahu, oddly enough, given his perception around the world (and particularly in Washington) as an unyielding hawk, sounds like a virtual peacenik compared with many of his advisers. Almost alone on the right, the prime minister “thinks (Palestinian president) Abu Mazen may rise to the occasion,” Dermer said.

“The prime minister is not only more optimistic than his staff. The prime minister is more optimistic than his ministers,” he said, adding that unlike Begin, Netanyahu “does not believe that the status quo is sustainable.”

Netanyahu is almost alone in his party in suggesting that the peace process could go somewhere; one of the few others in Israeli public life who insists on that point is his chief rival and critic, opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Peace talks really could advance, she argues, if Israel had a leader whom the Americans and Palestinians could trust, as they did when she served as foreign minister when her party, Kadima, ran the government before the rightward correction that occurred just weeks after Obama’s own election.

“I believe it’s feasible, but I don’t have a 100 percent guarantee. What I don’t do is try to undermine the willingness of the other side,” Livni told POLITICO. “When we negotiated there was trust — there’s no trust now.... It depends on the way you negotiate.”

Livni scrupulously avoids criticizing Obama’s conduct of the peace talks, but those around her are blunter.

“If Obama wanted to be a transformational figure, he would never have led with the settlements,” said Eyal Arad, the architect of Livni’s campaign for prime minister. He argues — like most Israelis — that Obama inadvertently got talks hung up on a matter of irrelevant principle, rather than engaging the reality that some settlements can stay while others must go.

“The settlements were pushed by a bunch of left-wingers who were out of sync with the realities and were out of government too long,” he said. “The irony is that Obama went directly back to the place where George Bush the father left off.”

Another of Livni’s top lieutenants, her former party chairman and Knesset ally Yohanan Plessner, is among a surprising spectrum of Israeli leaders who have begun to imagine radically different alternatives to the negotiated, political peace that American and Palestinian officials insist must be the main road to a settlement.

“The whole focus on final status isn’t compatible with the political reality on the Israel side and the Palestinian side,” he said, arguing that a better option is a regime under which Israeli and Palestinian leaders would build the Palestinian economy, remove far-flung settlements and strengthen a de facto Palestinian state “as a tunnel to final status.”

To him, the endless talks about talks are a distraction. As for Obama, he said, “You have to create a crisis that serves an end. This crisis today — I don’t know what it’s serving.”

Palestinian leaders say they, too — for different reasons — are losing faith in the political talks.

“[Netanyahu] has a chance, and he’s wasting it,” said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat. “Given the chance between settlements and peace, he’s always chosen settlements.”

The advocacy director of the American Task Force on Palestine, Ghaith al-Omari, said the frustration in Ramallah isn’t only with Netanyahu.

Abbas and other Palestinian leaders are “personally fed up with the whole thing,” he said, and “losing faith in the process, both with the Israeli willingness to deliver and the Americans’ ability to deliver the Israelis.”

But Plessner’s suggestion of an interim process reflects Israeli disillusion with the notion of a negotiated peace process, one that some of its veterans fear is already on its last legs. It’s echoed by a surprising range of voices: Former Israeli U.N Ambassador Dore Gold, a hawkish Netanyahu ally, has cited the skepticism about the political process outlined by the left-leaning Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the New York Review of Books.

Livni dismisses this alternative.

“For any deal, you need two sides. The Palestinians are not going to accept that. It’s not going to happen, and it doesn't serve the Israeli interest to end the conflict,” she said.

She also says Obama’s unpopularity — now a fact of life — doesn’t matter.

“It’s not important: People in Israel can love him, admire him, hate him, dislike him — people can oppose everything he says — he is the United States ... we have the umbilical cord with the United States. We cannot cut this.”

Others aren’t so sure. If Netanyahu comes close to a deal, they expect Obama will have to play a key role in closing it.

“In the money time, the popularity of the president will matter a great deal,” said the senior official with a key role between the countries.

George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy, often compares the stalled peace process here to his famous role in settling Northern Ireland’s Troubles, where he had “700 days of failure and one day of success.”

The 700th day since Mitchell began work will pass next month without, it appears safe to say, anything resembling political progress toward a Palestinian state. In Israel, indeed, the debate focuses largely on whether the American-led process has left negotiations at a standstill — or pushed them backwards.

“What will happen after 90 days if we haven’t decided the border?” asks Kuperwasser. “And we won’t settle the borders.”

Meanwhile the president who hoped to dramatically remake the regional landscape has, in the end, simply become part of it.

“Obama’s biggest problem is that we don’t buy what he’s selling, and that is hope,” said one Israeli veteran of past negotiations. “There’s this sincerity about the American approach that is heartbreaking to watch.”


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