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Obama’s Irrelevant Bid for Mideast Peace

The status quo hands the president a Mideast defeat.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

January 9, 2011 - 12:00 am
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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not always a zero-sum game. Sometimes both sides win, and this is one of those times. It must be admitted that this is a somewhat counterintuitive idea, especially since most observers of the peace process seem to think that the breakdown in negotiations between the two parties is an unmitigated disaster for all involved.

In fact, it is a disaster only for the Obama administration, and both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas have the right to claim something like a victory.

The reason for this is a simple one: It is in the interests of both these leaders to preserve the status quo. Therefore the Obama administration’s insistence on renewing negotiations was a threat. That threat, for the moment, has been alleviated. Indeed, over the last several months, the entire negotiating process amounted to little more than pantomime, with both sides making the necessary gestures at progress while supplying the necessary obstacles to ensure that progress would not actually happen.

It is tempting to see this as a corrupt and debased way of dealing with a serious situation. Yet both sides have very good ideological and political reasons for adopting it. Netanyahu’s political reasons are clear.

In order to make concessions to the Palestinians, he would have to place his governing coalition — and, possibly, his entire political future — at risk. He would have to do so, moreover, to reach an agreement with an enemy he does not trust, which has already shown a willingness to abandon negotiations in favor of terrorist violence.

Netanyahu’s position is no better ideologically. While he has stated publicly that he would accept a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty, it is clear that the prime minister is unenthusiastic. For most of his political career, he has seen peace with the Palestinians — certainly with Fatah — as highly unlikely, if not impossible. The Palestinians’ refusal thus far to recognize Israel as a Jewish state can only harden that view. For Netanyahu, there is little point in destabilizing both his government and the current security situation by entering into serious negotiations.

Abbas has a less obvious — if in some ways more perilous — dilemma. His most dangerous enemy at present is not the Israelis (who, along with the United States, are propping him up with arms and money), but the Hamas regime in Gaza, which represents a serious popular threat to Fatah rule.

In order to reach an agreement with Israel, Abbas would have to make highly unpopular concessions on issues such as refugees and borders, likely destroying whatever remains of his legitimacy and opening the door to a Hamas takeover. Even if Abbas managed to survive, such a threat could expose the Palestinians to civil war. And to prevail in a showdown, Abbas would have to rely on American and Israeli aid, further solidifying his image as a puppet.

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