Israelis for Obama

Obama Pizza, Jerusalem. May 2009

Barack Obama has decided to go to Israel, with his new secretary of State, John Kerry preceding him. The White House has already stated that Obama is not using this trip to restart talks with the Palestinians. Obama will likely spend most of the time discussing Iran and Syria with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But eyes are still on the Palestinian issue. At some point, Obama will either decide, or be forced, to take it up again.

Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, offers some very relevant lessons for Obama’s second term. Clinton took more action toward a two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict than any president, before or since. However,  the results were mixed.

The Clinton Parameters remain the benchmark of a two-state solution. Clinton’s Parameters displayed more sensitivity to Palestinian claims than one is accustomed to from a US leader, even if that sensitivity betrayed some seriously flawed understanding of Palestinian views, as we shall see. And Clinton actually achieved some small measurable gains, particularly through his pressure on Netanyahu at Wye River, where he forced Bibi to honor earlier agreements and re-deploy some Israeli forces in the West Bank.

But the mistakes Clinton made left a wide gap between diplomacy and minimal Palestinian demands. Much of this was due to Clinton’s lack of understanding of the Palestinian cause, and his over-reliance on Yasir Arafat to express the views of the Palestinian people, as well as a deference to an untrustworthy Israeli leader, Ehud Barak, who Clinton believed to be the heir to Yitzhak Rabin (Clinton’s admiration for Rabin may have helped lead to his blindness.) But let us look specifically at what was right and what was wrong with Clinton’s actions, and what lessons Obama needs to draw from them. We’ll start with the mistakes, since they are generally more educational.

In 2000, Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his term and very much wanted an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to be his crowning foreign policy legacy. Ehud Barak was treading on thin ice after his controversial decision to withdraw from Southern Lebanon. He believed that continuing incrementalism was something he could not afford. The only way he could make more concessions on the occupation was by ending it in a deal that would be popular in Israel.

Both leaders knew that time was short. Thus, they felt it was imperative that a summit be held, because Barak claimed he was ready to make the Palestinians an offer the likes of which they had never seen. But Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was working from a different calculus.

Arafat knew that however generous Barak’s offer was, it was going to involve serious Palestinian compromises on sensitive issues, particularly on refugees and Jerusalem. This was a serious obstacle for him. Voices among the Palestinians— within the Occupied Territories, the scattered refugee camps and the Palestinian diaspora living around the world – remained united on the sacrosanct nature of the Right of Return. There had been no national dialogue to give Arafat any sort of wiggle room on negotiating this issue. Perhaps such a dialogue would have made no difference, but in any case, it hadn’t happened. Yet the US and Israel had both been given the impression that an arrangement could be made whereby very few Palestinian refugees returned to Israel. This was an internal impasse Arafat could not possibly resolve in a few weeks or months. Indeed, once the summit was announced, agitation among the Palestinians grew by leaps and bounds amid the fear that Arafat was going to bargain away the Right of Return.

On Jerusalem, Arafat again had little room to negotiate on his own. This was an issue that was central to Palestinian nationalism, but also involved the entire Muslim world. Arafat had not raised, with leaders of other Muslim states, the question of what he might be able to agree to that key countries would support. Even coordination just with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, close US allies, might have sufficed, but it hadn’t happened and Arafat was unable to consult with them at the summit.

Arafat himself did not have the looming deadlines against him that Barak and Clinton did. He surely realized he was going to have to figure out, at some point, just what the maximum distance he could go on refugees and Jerusalem was. The PLO Chairman can be faulted for not having done it by early 2000. But the six years between his return to the Palestinian Territories and Camp David saw what was to that point unprecedented settlement expansion, new internal political challenges and a sharp decline in the already-low Palestinian standard of living. He should have engaged a national dialogue, but the obstacles to it were considerable. In any case, it hadn’t happened. Lacking the reasons for immediacy that the other two leaders had, Arafat was reluctant to go to Camp David.

US elections-era deli. Israel, 2008.
US elections-era deli. Israel, 2008.

The rest of Clinton’s mistakes come from similar roots. According to most sources, Clinton promised Arafat that he would not blame him for the summit’s failure if it should fail. Clearly, Arafat knew what his own limitations were, and Clinton misunderstood Arafat’s concerns. Clinton was then infuriated by what he perceived as Arafat’s unwillingness to negotiate, and this led to him feeling unbound by his prior commitment. This reading of events jibes well with numerous accounts from many different participants from all sides. The lack of clarity from Arafat was certainly regrettable, but he tried to avoid the summit and had he outright stated that he didn’t feel he could realistically negotiate these key issues, he would have lost his credibility in Israeli and US eyes. But Barak and Clinton compounded this problem by blaming Arafat alone, while ignoring their own many mistakes.

What do these experiences mean for Obama? First and foremost, he cannot push for major steps prematurely, and certainly not without a much clearer idea than Clinton had as to what the moods of the Israeli and, especially, Palestinian public are. Obama cannot content himself with shallow polls asking about a two-state solution. He must dig deeper and understand how Israelis would feel about sharing Jerusalem, perhaps giving up one of the major settlement blocs, what sort of compromise they are willing to make on the Jordan Valley, and other questions. Obama must find out what will meet at least minimal Palestinian needs for security, sovereignty, full independence from Israel, economic needs and, of course, what they need and can negotiate about in terms of the Right of Return, if anything.

Getting to that clarity requires a Palestinian national dialogue. That, in turn, requires not only reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but also some degree of networking with refugees in neighboring countries. That might prove difficult, but it is likely that it can be done to the extent necessary; unless it turns out there is much more of a schism on these issues between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and those in the refugee camps than there seems to be at the moment, there should be a way to have refugees’ voices sufficiently present to make this work.

The Quartet members along with the Arab League must also be brought into the process, in order to give it legitimacy and to help push the parties toward resolution. This needs to be done at the point of re-issuing a framework for negotiations, which brings us back to another of Clinton’s mistakes, as well as his accomplishment.

The Clinton Parameters themselves did a very good job of consolidating the issues as they had been discussed to that point. But he brought them out too late. Barak’s offer at Camp David was presented as “the best he could ever do,” which amounted to a take it or leave it offer even though Barak did go farther in later months at Taba. If, instead, Clinton had brought his Parameters to Camp David and presented them, as he did later, as the basis for negotiations, things might have gone differently. In any case, that is precisely what Obama must do. That is, when he’s ready to get serious, he needs to bring forth his plan, get the Quartet and Arab League on board and tell the Israelis and Palestinians that this is his framework for negotiations.

Setting up those conditions will take time. And Obama should take that time, even if it means it extends past his term. Rushing things leads to bad outcomes, as Clinton demonstrated. And cutting the rest of the world out takes away not only a big chunk of the international pressure needed on both sides; it also limits what the participants, especially the Palestinians, are sure they can do. If Obama can get an updated diplomatic framework to stick, it will be difficult for his successor to undercut it.

If Obama can get some of our allies, both in Europe and the Arab world to help with Palestinian unity and a Palestinian national dialogue on the issues, he can work on Israel. As I wrote recently, Israel must accept the rollback of the 2004 Bush letter to Sharon and be made to realize that any West Bank land it keeps, even in an even exchange, is a Palestinian concession, not something Israel is entitled to merely because it built settlements illegally. Israel will balk, but Obama’s goal at that stage is not to get Israel to agree to anything except his framework.

What that framework ought to be will be explored elsewhere. But Obama needs to learn from Clinton’s experience. Clinton had some of the right ideas, particularly in that an outside force needs to actively guide the negotiations. His Parameters also recognized the Palestinian Right of Return, which seems completely remarkable in today’s United States. But he rushed ahead without ensuring that the leaders were capable of making a deal and he allowed Israel to take the initiative with an offer rather than putting his own framework out front from the start.

Obama must be patient and make sure the leaders of both sides are coming to the table with a clear idea of their people’s and the other sides’ minimal and maximal demands. He needs then to bring forth a framework that makes clear where either side is not being sufficiently forthcoming and offers ways to bridge gaps on all the major issues. If Obama can’t learn those lessons, then as bad as things are, everyone will be better off if he stays in the background. As Obama has kept himself, for the past two years.


Photographs courtesy of RahelSharon and Milch&Honig. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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