Peace in the Middle East has been on the Obama administration’s mind from the beginning. Two days after his inauguration the president traveled to the State Department to announce the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the administration’s approach as “an intensive effort from day one.” Here was the plan: Israel would freeze construction in all the settlements and in Jerusalem; Arab states would reach out to Israel in tangible ways visible to their own publics and to Israelis; and the Palestinians would do better at building political institutions, ending incitement against Israel and fighting terror. With these achievements in hand the administration would lead the parties into peace negotiations to be concluded within the president’s first term. Nobel Prizes would be the frosting on the cake.
An Israeli soldier guards the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh near Nablus.
That’s not how it turned out, except for the Nobel Prize. As the Obama administration begins its second year in office, its Middle East peace efforts are widely regarded as a shambles. Its initial goals have all been missed. Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab governments have lost confidence in American leadership. The challenge for Year Two will be how to get out of this mess and on to a more positive track—but that will require some candor inside the administration in assessing what went wrong.
From the start the White House—led by the president himself and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—has pushed hardest for Israeli concessions, a reversal of the standard pattern where the legendary Arabists in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau criticize Israel while top officials defend her. This time, those at the top—including Mitchell and Clinton—publicly and repeatedly demanded a total Israeli construction freeze. And this time, the experts in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau and in U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East were the voices of caution and realism, for whatever their biases they knew Obama’s approach wouldn’t work. The Arabs would not step forward. Israel’s coalition politics would not permit adoption of a total freeze. What’s more, once we demanded it as a precondition for new negotiations, Palestinians could demand no less. And unlike us, they would not be able to walk away from that demand when Israel predictably said no.
The great plan has collapsed, but the mystery of who exactly will be in charge of the policy in Year Two—and whether they understand what happened—is now the center of conversations all over the region. Visitors are asked “What’s U.S. policy? Where is it headed? Is there a strategy?” In Israel, there is deep suspicion of the Obama administration, both at official levels and among the population at large. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to impose a partial settlement freeze should not have been a surprise despite the months of friction with Washington; for any Israeli government, relations with the United States are a central strategic matter, while a (partial) moratorium in West Bank construction is not. It is fair to say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as much responsible for this freeze as Barack Obama, for in the coming year Israel may have to deal with the Iranian nuclear program—and therefore needs to avoid tension with Washington whenever possible. One official of a previous Israeli government put it this way to me: “Bibi agreed to this freeze to enable Israel to concentrate on Iran without the daily background noise about the settlements.”
Israel will always go far to keep relations with Washington on an even keel but that feeling is especially strong these days. The anti-Israel bias in the U.N.’s Goldstone Report—condemning Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war a year ago—astonished Israelis, but what hurt them more was the acceptance by the “international community” of Goldstone’s assault. His report, and the many recent efforts in Europe to have visiting Israeli officials arrested for “war crimes,” reminded Israelis how isolated they are in the world and how important American support remains. So the ten-month construction moratorium—to reduce tension with Obama, and to shift the blame for refusing new peace negotiations to the Palestinians—was approved 11-1 by Israel’s security cabinet.