The Obama Administration, Iran, and “Middle East Peacemaking”

There has, of course, been much commentary about the “re-launch” of the Middle East peace process last week in Washington.  Actually, the process is, at best, an Arab-Israeli peace process.  And, to be even more accurate, the process that was re-launched last week is really the highly conditioned Israeli-Palestinian “track” of old.

Just giving an accurate description of the Obama Administration’s approach to “Middle East peacemaking” provides important insights into why this approach is unlikely to produce anything meaningful or positive.  We would highlight three considerations, in particular.

First, several parties that need to be represented at the table are not there.  This is purely an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

  • Syria — a nation-state with a significant portion of its territory under Israeli occupation since 1967, the provenance of which not even the most right-leaning Israeli politicians and commentators dispute — is not included.  Syria was left out, even though, according to the Arab League peace initiative, Israel will not get comprehensive peace with all Arab nations until it has returned all of the Arab territory it currently occupies and has resolved its disputes with all of its immediate neighbors — including Syria and Lebanon, along with the Palestinians.
  • As to the Palestinian side, a number of commentators have already pointed out — correctly, in our view — the absurdity of advancing negotiations when the Palestinian interlocutor does not represent all of the major Palestinian factions and communities and almost certainly could not “sell” to the Palestinian people any agreement it might actually negotiate with Israel.  The most glaring deficiency, in this regard, is the exclusion of HAMAS.  We recognize that HAMAS may not want to be a direct party to negotiations with Israel and has accepted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the appropriate negotiator for the Palestinian side.  But HAMAS has also long advocated a reorganization of the PLO to encompass important Palestinian factions — like HAMAS — not currently included.  And, HAMAS has made clear that, in its view, any peace agreement negotiated by the PLO should be submitted for the Palestinian people’s approval or rejection in a genuinely representative referendum.  None of these conditions is in place — and the Fatah-dominated PLO that is negotiating almost certainly could not “sell” to the Palestinian people any agreement it might actually conclude with the Netanyahu government.
  • Moreover, for a “Middle East peace process” to have any chance of working, the Islamic Republic of Iran needs to be at least an indirect party.  Of course, Iranian officials have said over a number of years that, while Tehran respects the prerogative of Arab parties to negotiate an end to their conflicts with Israel, the Islamic Republic is not prepared to recognize a Zionist state.  But the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace holds potentially profound implications for the balance of power across the Middle East as a whole.  The interests of key Iranian allies — among them Syria, HAMAS, and Hizballah — and of the Islamic Republic itself could be deeply affected by the nature of an Arab-Israeli accommodation.  That is why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is advocating a genuinely comprehensive settlement — encompassing the Syrian and Lebanese tracks along with the Palestinian track, with HAMAS playing an important role on the Palestinian side, and with the indispensability of Iran to a truly regional settlement recognized from the outset.

Second, the Obama Administration is stuck in an untenable position regarding Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory.  More specifically, the Administration’s refusal to declare such settlements as illegal — as the rest of the world does and as the Geneva conventions stipulate — effectively guarantees that there will be never-ending haggling over what is or is not a new settlement, what is or is not “natural growth” of existing settlements, etc.  This, in turn, means there will be no confidence, on the Palestinian side, that negotiations will produce a viable territorial outcome.  The historical record on this point is clear.  When U.S. policy clearly identified the illegality of Israeli settlements — as it did during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations — U.S. diplomats were able to achieve genuine progress at beginning to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, as evidenced by various armistice agreements and the Camp David accords.  Even if Arab parties did not “like” Israel, they knew that there was at least the possibility of a settlement based on return of occupied territory.  But, ever since President Ronald Reagan changed U.S. policy to describe Israeli settlements as “unhelpful” but nonetheless legal, this prospect has slowly but surely evaporated.  President Obama had a chance in his first months in office to take U.S. policy back to its original, legally correct, and diplomatically effective position regarding Israeli settlement activity — but he “tanked” on this in his June 2009 Cairo speech.

Third, the Obama Administration’s approach is grounded in a delusion that has warped America’s Middle East policy at least since the Clinton Administration — the mythical prospect of an Israeli-“moderate Arab” coalition brought together under U.S. leadership to contain and/or fight the Islamic Republic.  This truly bad idea suffers from many of the same deficiencies touched on in the preceding discussion — in particular, it seeks to exclude important regional constituencies with effective vetoes over diplomatic outcomes.  Moreover, while purportedly seeking to “contain” Iran, it blithely ignores the reality of the Islamic Republic’s effectively “uncontainable” regional position and raises regional tensions.  In retrospect, one might say (with more intellectual generosity than we would extend) that, when this approach was first tried during the Clinton Administration, it was an experiment.  But today, we have “data” collected through repeated runnings of the experiment — across the Clinton Administration, the George W. Bush Administration, and the Obama Administration.  And the results are clear — the experiment has consistently failed, thereby invalidating the “theory” underlying it.  Unfortunately, the Obama Administration persists not only in continuing with this failed and irredeemably flawed approach — it has brought back some of that approach’s original champions to guide yet another ill-conceived effort at “Middle East peacemaking.”

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 6 September 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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