If you had any doubts that the Obama administration is completely out to lunch when it comes to the Middle East peace process, they should be erased for good by U.S. reactions to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reelection victory. Statements by American officials since the Israel results came in make clear that President Obama is not only on the wrong track on the merits, but lacks a clue even how to implement his own misguided strategy effectively.
As I’ve written previously, the way to a sustainable peace between Palestinians and Israelis is not to try to win for the former at the bargaining table what they are less capable of winning on the battlefield than ever. This approach – which has dominated Arab-Israeli diplomacy since at least the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – can only encourage the Palestinians’ recalcitrance (by convincing them that foreign pressure on Israel will continue regardless of their behavior) while creating no incentives for Israeli concessions (barring the kind of harsh American and European measures that seem inconceivable – even though the Washington Post has noted that some of the latter’s leaders “have begun to openly debate employing sanctions against Israel….”).
Instead, the United States should encourage a peace based on current and foreseeable power realities in the region – meaning overwhelming Israeli strategic superiority. In policy terms, this means clearly telling the Palestinians that their only hope for meaningful progress is behavioral change dramatic enough and prolonged enough to convince Israeli majorities that statehood or something like it has become safe. That is, America is leaving the two sides to their own – incredibly unequal – devices.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama remains wed to recipes for failure. The dispositive evidence? Responding to Netanyahu’s last-minute campaign promise to reverse himself and oppose the idea of statehood for Palestinians, the State Department announced that it might not veto United Nations Security Council resolutions critical of the Jewish state.
But this quasi-threat is a hissy fit – at very best. For the administration has brought up no plausible ideas for restarting the peace negotiations in which it puts so much stock. Indeed, in addition to making clear to reporters that “there will be no change in military, intelligence and security cooperation,” and that it will continue opposing the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to join the International Criminal Court (which is scheduled to take place on April 1, and which would enable it to file war crimes cases against Israel), Obama aides told The Wall Street Journal that “the White House now sees no chance for restarting peace talks while” Mr. Obama and his Israeli counterpart “remain in office.” Of course, to Netanyahu and his backers, that’s a promise, not a threat.
Fortunately, the prospect of a freeze on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has never been less relevant to U.S. security interests. And it will remain so while all actors in the Middle East, except maybe for the Palestinians, have much bigger fish to fry – like the inter-related rise of ISIS, the unfolding break-ups of Iraq and Syria, and the expansion of Iranian influence. But this latest reminder of American diplomatic incoherence can only weaken the U.S. position among Middle Eastern friends, foes, and everyone in between.