The Magazine

Better Late than Never?

Obama’s trip to Jerusalem and the ‘peace process’

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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President Obama will make his first presidential visit to Israel in March, and Secretary of State Kerry will make his own trip even sooner. The White House is trying to dampen the inevitable speculation about a possible breakthrough to peace negotiations, and its spokesman has said the president’s trip is “not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals.” Let’s hope so. But given the itinerary—Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman—the so-called peace process will be near the top of the agenda at every meeting Kerry and Obama have.

The trip itself is a good thing: Israel is  a close ally, and American presidents should visit there. The visit would have had more impact in Obama’s first term, before opinions about him began to harden in Israel (and for that matter in Ramallah), but the formation of a new government in Jerusalem provides a good moment for this visit. The question is what Obama will say​—​about Iran, the violence in Syria, the instability visible after the Arab Spring in several countries​—​and of course about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In January, even before Israel’s election, there were many stories about a new European peace plan. Here’s a typical account, this one from the Times of Israel:

[T]he goal of the EU plan is to bring about the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem. .  .  . [T]he EU intends to set a clear timetable for negotiations between the two sides in 2013. .  .  . Sources said that the plan will include land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well as a complete freeze on all Israeli construction in the settlements. .  .  . Diplomats cited in the report said that it would be difficult for Obama to oppose the plan, which was said to closely mirror his own stated views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

More recent information suggests that the Europeans are too smart to present their own plan directly to the Israelis, who would reject it. They seek instead to get Obama to buy it and then impose it on Israel. Like most European plans, this one suffers from demanding everything from Israel up front​—​especially a total construction freeze in all settlements and, you may be sure, in Jerusalem​—​while asking nothing from Palestine. But the obsession with such a settlement freeze does in fact “closely mirror” the view taken by the Obama administration throughout the first term.

No doubt a “peace plan” like this, especially if it had American support, would be an immediate test of Israel’s new government. It would especially be a test of Yair Lapid and his new centrist party, which won
19 seats in the Knesset. During the campaign Lapid called for peace negotiations but also took a hard line on Jerusalem: “We must not blink. There should be no compromises in Jerusalem.” A European, or even U.S.-European, strategy based on cornering or even breaking up the Israeli government over the terms of a new peace proposal might actually end up solidifying the new coalition if its demands go well beyond Israel’s centrist consensus and include a construction freeze in Jerusalem. And our new secretary of state, John Kerry, should know better. “I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work, and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable,” Kerry said in 2011. Kerry has favored getting an agreement on borders and security first, saying that once borders are established the settlement issue goes away.

But this too is unrealistic. The definition of borders in the northern and southern West Bank is not too hard, and Israel’s security fence is often on or near the “Green Line”—​the 1949 armistice line that separated Israel from the West Bank. It is the area around Jerusalem that causes the greatest controversy, so fully defining borders without addressing Jerusalem is impossible. And when the Europeans call for a construction freeze in Jerusalem​—​or to be more precise, call for a construction freeze by Jews while Arabs are free to build wherever they can​—​they are in effect taking a strong position for the division of Jerusalem along those 1949 lines (which are often called “1967 borders”).

What about getting an agreement on security? Here things get even more complicated. Palestinian reconciliation efforts​—​between the Fatah movement (which controls the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, and the West Bank) and Hamas (which controls Gaza)​—​are on again. How can serious peace negotiations begin while Palestinians are simultaneously working on bringing a terrorist group into the mix?

The Palestinian negotiations, fostered by Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood government, are very unlikely to succeed. The cause of national unity is popular with the “masses” so no Palestinian politicians ever say they are against it, but they never seem to achieve it either. Back in February 2007, the king of Saudi Arabia engineered the “Mecca Agreement” between Fatah and Hamas “to prevent the shedding of Palestinian blood” and “form a Palestinian national unity government.” The unity lasted until Hamas seized Gaza in June of that year, throwing Fatah militants off rooftops in the process. Fatah and Hamas tried again in the 2011 “Cairo Accords,” which were to create an interim national unity government leading to elections in 2012. This never happened. The Fatah and Hamas activists hate each other and have been killing each other for decades; signing a piece of paper does not change that. So even if they do announce some sort of agreement, the great likelihood is that it will be a fraud that deepens the skepticism and mistrust with which Palestinians view the statements of their political “leaders.”

But great harm can be done even by a limited agreement​—​one that claims to put “technocrats” in office for a few months to prepare for elections. To begin with, any deal with Hamas means Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister Salam Fayyad is out: Hamas hates him. The current idea is that President Abbas would serve also as prime minister in any temporary government. Fayyad’s departure would mean that the figure most associated with clean and efficient government, and with pragmatic work to prepare for Palestinian statehood, is gone.

What’s more, preparing for elections in which Hamas would participate simply repeats the unhappy experience of 2006. Over Israeli objections, the “Quartet” (the United States, EU, U.N., and Russia) agreed that Hamas could participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections without laying down its arms. When Hamas won, the United States and the Quartet did not say it could never have any political role. Instead we developed the three “Quartet principles”: Before Hamas could participate in the Palestinian government it would have to accept Israel’s right to exist, renounce terror, and accept all previous agreements signed by the PLO with Israel. It has done none of these things, so any role for it in the governing of the West Bank would be disastrous.

The security issue shows why: Today, Israeli and Palestinian security forces cooperate quietly to prevent terrorism. Maintaining that cooperation with Hamas inside the PA government seems impossible. In fact, Hamas and Fatah maintain entirely separate armed organizations and those of Hamas engage in acts of terror (even if they occasionally prevent other acts of terror by smaller Palestinian terrorist groups when Hamas finds them inconvenient). If the Fatah and Hamas armed groups remain separate, unity is a farce; if they merge, peace talks are a farce.

If the Hamas-Fatah talks by some miracle did succeed and lead to a true unity government, their great achievement would be the inclusion of a terrorist faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in the governing of the West Bank. Hamas has never renounced terrorism against Israelis, and still practices it​—​for example in the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli towns. The Hamas Charter still includes a reference to the “treacherous Camp David Accords,” contains primitive anti-Semitic language about the “Nazism of the Jews,” makes repeated attacks on the Rotary and Lions Clubs as Zionist fronts (I am not making this up), and condemns all “so-called peaceful solutions” as an abandonment of Islam. Palestinian unity is sometimes promoted on the ground that it will make real peace negotiations more likely. That’s impossible when “unity” brings in a group that is absolutely opposed to all previous peace efforts and views compromise as heresy.

But playing out this farce could bring great advantages for Hamas. Already it is treated in many Arab capitals as a group equal in legitimacy to Fatah and the PA, and participation in any unity government​—​even a brief or largely fake one​—​will bring more such recognition. And Hamas has bigger game in its sights: control of the PLO, which is still viewed by many governments as “the sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people.” Indeed the Palestinian office in Washington is not that of the PA, but of the PLO. Yasser Arafat feared Hamas and kept it out of the PLO, understanding that membership and then control has long been a Hamas goal. A reconciliation deal that brings Hamas inside the PLO is a step toward the control of Palestinian politics by a terrorist group. About all of this the Europeans and their “peace plan” appear to be silent.

There are also legal ramifications to a “government of national unity,” at least in the United States. The American reaction to the Hamas election victory in 2006 was dictated more by government lawyers than by policymakers. The Palestinians have a parliamentary system, lawyers at Treasury and State pointed out, so the Hamas majority in the parliament meant the whole PA was now legally under Hamas control. Not only could they not get another dime in U.S. aid, the lawyers said, but giving them money was actually a crime​—​the crime of aiding a terrorist group. How those laws would affect a new Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas remains to be seen, and the devil will probably be in the details. Does the parliament meet and act? Are ministers members of Hamas, or fellow-travelers? What exact role does Hamas play?

There is a further legal issue. Several key cases against the PA and PLO brought by victims of terrorism (including the family of Leon Klinghoffer, killed on the Achille Lauro in 1985) and seeking monetary awards have over time been settled. These cases often resulted in the freezing of PA and PLO bank accounts and made delivery of U.S. aid, and the use of the U.S. banking system, impossible or very difficult​—​which is why they were settled by the Palestinian side with the payment of large sums to the victims of Fatah terrorism and their survivors. But there are many additional cases against Hamas, and if it enters the PA and PLO, many lawyers will argue that now those bodies are responsible for paying the damages. And U.S. courts may agree, making Palestinian finances unmanageable once again.

On the Israeli side, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation can only widen the consensus that, for now at least, peace talks are hopeless. How many Israelis will view giving up land in the West Bank as a sensible step when Hamas, which turned Gaza into a terrorist base, will be part of the group governing territory around Jerusalem and just miles from Tel Aviv? And even failed Hamas-Fatah talks have a deep impact on Israeli perceptions of whether a Palestinian peace partner exists. Watching PA/PLO/Fatah leaders embrace Hamas on TV and pledge themselves to unity suggests to Israelis that their previous pledges​—​to peace and nonviolence, for example​—​are simply worthless.

Such is the background as the EU shines up its new peace plan and the Obama administration works on the president’s trip to Israel in March. And of course, the background also consists of chaos in Syria, instability in Jordan and Egypt, and the president’s selection as defense secretary of someone viewed as unsympathetic to Israel and its concerns about the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Much will be written in the United States and in Europe about whether the president will pressure the Israelis and lecture Netanyahu, demanding concessions. But what will he say to the Palestinians? Will the president during his visit to Ramallah tell the Palestinians to drop any deal with Hamas​—​or face an American freeze on financial and political support? Will he tell the PA and PLO leadership that any move against Israel in the International Criminal Court would be disastrous and jeopardize not only their own cooperation with Israel but American aid as well? Will he demand an end to the glorification of terror and terrorists in Palestinian broadcasting, public ceremonies, and school textbooks?

It seems unlikely, for all the “peace plans” have in common a squeeze on Israel while they ask little from the Palestinian Authority and PLO. In another context this was called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Even more important is whether the president aims at realistic progress or wants another conference and another glamorous effort at a comprehensive final status negotiation. The lesson of the Obama first term, and indeed of the Clinton and Bush years, remains unlearned in Paris, London, Berlin, and perhaps in Washington as well: Grand efforts at a comprehensive peace fail, when the Palestinians in the end balk. 

The difficult, slow, and steady effort to build up Palestinian institutions that are free of corruption and terrorism is undramatic: no handshakes on the White House lawn, no Nobel Prizes. Yet there is good reason for Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate over incremental, practical steps, and there are steps that can be taken to improve the standard of living in the West Bank, reduce the Israeli footprint there, and build toward Palestinian statehood. Any approach that ignores the current Hamas-Fatah negotiations and the sad history of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, while it demands that Israel cease all construction in Jerusalem and every single settlement, is bound to fail. Again. Will the Obama visit move away from past failures and try a new and pragmatic approach? Now that would be hope and change.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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