There is little chance peace can be brought to the Middle East unless it is imposed on both Israel and Palestine by the international community. Calling for an international peace conference and an immediate cease-fire ought to be the first foreign policy priority for the Obama administration.
Instead, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton's remarks to the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday committed the Obama administration to a path that is certain to fail as it has throughout the past several decades.
She stressed three elements of her position:
- The United States remains committed in its support of Israel, which guarantees that it cannot play the role of "honest, neutral broker of peace."
- The United States restates that it will not negotiate with Hamas until it recognizes Israel (which Hamas has already said it would not do, though it has been willing to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with Israel and announced that it is prepared to negotiate a new agreement that could last for 20 or 30 years).
- The Obama administration will work to bring the two parties together for peace negotiations.
This position is at odds with the views that Obama articulated when he was seeking the Democratic nomination. At that point, he made clear that we should negotiate with Iran and Syria, which both pose more serious threats to American interests than Hamas.
The difference, of course, is the Israel lobby to which Obama and Clinton have repeatedly paid obeisance. That lobby, representing the most hard-line elements in the Jewish world but also tens of millions of Christian Zionists who support the militarist perspective in dealing with Arabs and Palestinians, has insisted as a matter of faith that American politicians promise not to deal with Hamas. In the 1980s and 1990s, the lobby insisted that the United States not negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Obama administration's game plan, according to several Israeli analysts, is this: Call for a cease-fire that will freeze in place Israel's commanding military position in the West Bank and Gaza after allowing Israel some more time to finish its task of wiping out Hamas operatives in Gaza, then hope that the military success of the Israelis will strengthen Ehud Barak (head of the Israeli Labor Party) and Tzipi Livni (head of Olmert's Kadima party) in Israel's February elections; anticipate that these two will form a government to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, whose power will be strengthened as Palestinians witness the defeat of the military option proposed by Hamas.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian state likely to be produced by these negotiations will be neither economically nor politically viable. Barak and Livni will not have the power to make serious concessions to the Palestinians, so the government they likely will form (with Secretary of State Clinton and the Obama administration's participation) will be one that allows the Israeli army to crisscross the Palestinian state in order to safeguard the 400,000 Israelis who will continue to live in settlements. The state thus created will resemble a patchwork of little city-state cantons that will not look or feel to the Palestinians like a real state.
While the weak Palestinian Authority may accept an arrangement of this sort, the vast majority of Palestinians will eventually wake up to understanding that this U.S. -negotiated deal is little more than an agreement by Palestinians to police themselves while Israel retains its settlements and its military dominance of Gaza and the West Bank.
Eventually, the Islamic fundamentalist movement will reappear and gain new strength, and resume the struggle, while Israelis and Americans cry foul because they gave the Palestinians a state.
The only viable alternative is for Obama to call for an international conference of the European Unon, Israel and the Arab States, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and, yes, Iran and India as well, and allow that international conference to impose a solution that provides security and justice to both sides. Only an imposed settlement has the slightest chance of being just to Palestinians - the precondition for a lasting peace, and a secure Israel.
Hard as it might be to push the Obama administration in this direction, it will be less difficult than getting Secretary of State Clinton to use American power to directly force Israel to be responsive to the minimum needs for peace and justice for the Palestinian people.