The Magazine

Next, Locusts?

The abject failure of the Obama administration's Middle East policy.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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They all wonder whether to blame Mitchell or Clinton or Dennis Ross or National Security Adviser Jim Jones or the State Department's Near East bureau, and each individual Israeli and Palestinian has a favorite target. But the answers to their questions seem obvious: It is the president's policy, and no, he does not seem to be aware that it has already failed. While he has backed off from the early targets, he has not changed his attitude toward -Israel's government, nor altered his basic approach: to push for negotiations over "core issues" as soon as possible.

And this is the fundamental problem with Obama's policy: Like too many of his predecessors he believes that a solution is at hand if only he can force the parties to the table. There, presumably under American tutelage, they will reach American-style compromises (pragmatic, sensible, realistic) and resolve the dispute, with Nobel Peace Prizes for all. The only question is where the table is: Camp David, Taba, Annapolis, Oslo, perhaps this time Chicago.

This approach undermines the one real hope in the region, which is the practical advances being made in the West Bank. There, the economy is improving, law and order are maintained, the Palestinian Authority is fighting Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation is growing, and mobility for the population is increasing. In recent months Israel removed more checkpoints and expanded the hours of the Allenby Bridge to Jordan. It isn't paradise, but it isn't Gaza either, and life is better each year. It could be far better if the Obama administration would abandon its doomed efforts to force an Israeli construction freeze in Jerusalem and an Arab embrace of Israel, and instead ask them all to think of real-world ways to keep improving life in the West Bank. There are many ways this could be done, from further steps to remove Israeli barriers to movement, to reliable and generous Arab financial support.

The way forward does not lie through fancy international conferences, and one idea still mentioned as an Obama option--proposing a final status plan--would be disastrous and unsuccessful. The way for the Palestinians to get a state is to go ahead and build it. If and when the institutions are there and functioning, from police and courts to a parliament, negotiations will reflect that fact. But the argument that settling the borders and removing the Israeli troops must come first is a path to failure. For one thing, Israel will not and should not leave until it is clear that the West Bank can be policed by Palestinians and that the region will not be a source of terrorism against Israel, as Gaza and South Lebanon became when Israel left there. No conference and no treaty can provide such a guarantee; only functioning Palestinian police forces that are already fighting and defeating terror can do so.

Such a practical approach would bring other benefits. It would enhance the status and power of Palestinian moderates who are working to improve life in the West Bank, rather than enhancing the status and power of old PLO officials who thrive on endless, useless negotiating sessions. It would put a premium on practical Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, rather than elevating precisely the final status questions (like Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees) that most bitterly divide them. It would increase the gap between the West Bank and Gaza, thereby showing Palestinians that Hamas rule brings only despair and poverty. It would press the Arab states to help real live Palestinians in the West Bank, rather than the imaginary Palestinians--all either bold jihadists or desperate widows and orphans--whom they see on Al Jazeera. In fact, except for occasional visits by Jordanians and Egyptians (who have peace treaties with Israel already), top Arab officials haven't a clue what's going on in the West Bank, for they've never been there. Not one head of state or government or foreign minister, not once. If George Mitchell wants to do something useful, he could organize a tour; take a few princes and foreign ministers to Ramallah and Jericho and Jenin, where they would find that they are neither in Somalia nor some heroic battle scene against Zionist oppressors.