Aaron David Miller
The New York Times (Opinion)
March 11, 2011 - 1:00am

This is going to be a great year for Middle East peace initiatives, but likely a very bad one for Middle East peace.

Driven by all kinds of motives to reach an agreement (except the right one), Israelis, Palestinians and Americans are considering various peace plans and proposals. None look terribly promising. The year 2011 will most likely turn out to be a year of “Gotcha,” in which all three look to deflect pressure from themselves and bring it to bear on one another rather than make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement. But this is the sad reality when Israelis, Palestinians and Americans are unable or unwilling to do the heavy lifting required.

The Chinese should dub this “the year of the initiative” (actually, “the bad initiative”). There’s a good chance that in coming months we’ll see a lot of process but not much peace. The transformative changes now sweeping the Arab world have knocked everybody off balance, made bold decision making more difficult, and sharpened divisions within the Arab, Palestinian and Israeli worlds as to how to pursue serious peace-making. Events have also left the Obama administration playing catch-up in response to the Arab Spring, and, in regard to Libya and maybe elsewhere, the Arab Winter.

Just the right time to launch a flurry of peace process activity, for all the wrong reasons. Let’s start with the Israelis. Always wary of what President Obama may be planning and sensitive to his increasing isolation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be gearing up for an Israeli initiative to preempt more hostile ones.

It’s likely to be interim in character, with an emphasis on provisional statehood. It will almost certainly fall short of what the Palestinians want, even though it could establish an important precedent: that a Likud prime minister is willing to withdraw from large amounts of West Bank territory. Still, trying to balance his coalition requirements against the need to deflect American pressure will almost certainly make an Israeli initiative fall short. The only question is whether it will be good enough for the Americans to re-package and try to sell to the Palestinians.

As far as President Obama is concerned, his failure to get serious negotiations launched between Israelis and Palestinians still rankles. Too much rhetoric early in the administration, an unwise call for a comprehensive settlement freeze, and too much faith in his own transformative power, have collided with reality. But he hasn’t given up.

Now, with big changes in the Arab world, there will be pressure to use peace-making to pre-empt radicalization, counter Iran (there’s that linkage thing again), and to make good on his belief that Arab-Israeli peace is vital to American interests.

At the same time, the president knows the odds are long and re-election is close. He’s smart enough to know that no agreement is possible now. So why risk a fight now? That might not stop him from putting out U.S. policy positions on territory, Jerusalem, refugees and security in an effort to restore U.S. credibility and bring pressure on the Israelis.

If the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, should accept these ideas, Obama would then be able to squeeze Netanyahu.

All of this, of course, looks better on paper than in practice. Presidentially declared positions sitting out there with no takers and a bunch of nos or yes buts won’t do much to help American credibility. It’s that pesky problem of words again rather than deeds. And why, with almost no chance of a negotiation, would any would-be mediator want to put out bridging proposals which will be picked apart, devalued and trivialized?

Finally, there are the Palestinians who must be beside themselves as they watch the other Arabs take to the streets to gain their freedom. Even though former P.L.O. negotiator Saeb Erekat noted recently that people power works against dictators but won’t work against Israel, Palestinians are desperate to act.

And they will with a United Nations initiative in coming months designed to create a virtual Palestinian state through resolution, rhetoric and recognition. This could make a strong point without making much of a difference. Palestinians might actually declare statehood on the ground. But this would demonstrate profound weakness rather than strength. Palestinians don’t control Gaza, their putative capital in East Jerusalem, or even most of the West Bank.

Not a pretty picture, to be sure, but it’s a fair assessment of what happens when you have an absence of leadership, real urgency, an effective third-party mediator and the presence of big gaps between the sides on the core issues. Put some of these things back in play and who knows, it’s the land of miracles, maybe you’ll get one on the peace process.


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