x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama has showed that US can't broker peace on its own

If there were a theme song to the US president Barack Obama's Middle East peace effort right now, it would be The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg".

If there were a theme song to the US president Barack Obama's Middle East peace effort right now, it would be The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". Even Washington hands sympathetic to the administration have expressed alarm at Mr Obama's willingness to offer major concessions to Israel in exchange for nothing more than a non-renewable, 60-day extension of a partial moratorium on settlement construction.

With the Palestinians insisting that direct talks cannot continue while Israel builds on occupied land, the administration hopes to induce the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the moratorium in exchange for a raft of security undertakings and new weapons systems, and, importantly, to give US backing to Israel's demand (opposed by the Palestinians) that Israeli troops be allowed to retain control of the Jordan Valley even after that territory becomes part of a Palestinian state.

Mr Obama's assumption appears to be that 60 days of talks will be enough for the two sides to agree on borders, leaving Israel free to continue building only in settlements it would keep when a two-state solution is implemented. That assumption is wishful thinking: Palestinian negotiators say the Israeli side has thus far shown no willingness to engage on substantial issues other than on their own security, and believe that the stand-off vindicates their belief that Mr Netanyahu has no intention of offering a credible deal. Indeed, as Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator at Camp David, suggested, the main purpose of the 60-day extension may be to take the standoff past the November midterm election - putting any pressure on Israel before that is out of the question for a vulnerable American president. The problem of course is that Mr Obama may not be much less politically vulnerable after the election. It's hard not to conclude that the Obama administration is making this up as it goes along.

The former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has described Mr Obama's approach as "playing strategic cards in exchange for tactical breathing room". Mr Netanyahu is laughing all the way to the bank where Israel deposits concessions from US presidents. Despite photo ops and chit-chat, Israel stopped negotiating seriously with the Palestinians when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in February of 2001. Since then, Israel's substantial negotiations over its relations with the Palestinians are conducted only with the United States. Mr Sharon's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, for example, was never negotiated or even coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. But it was extensively discussed with the Bush administration, which by way of quid pro quo gave discreet support for Mr Sharon expanding West Bank settlements - and expressed in writing US support for Israel keeping its major settlement blocs in the West Blank.

George W Bush may have argued that this would be the outcome of a negotiating process, but the then US president effectively made it the starting point, allowing the Israelis to start the discussion at that point rather than having to offer the Palestinians concessions in order to get there. Mr Netanyahu and his aides have made no secret of the fact that they believe Mr Abbas lacks the political authority to sell his own people any agreement that might be reached at the table. "Peace talks," in fact, is something of a misnomer for the current process, since Mr Abbas is not at war with the Israelis - nor does he bring any leverage to the table beyond his ability to walk away and create a legitimacy problem for an administration desperate to show progress on an issue defined as a US national security priority.

Such desperation has prompted Mr Obama to move the US position even closer to the Israelis' (and further undermine the already threadbare claim to being an honest broker) - now it's not only that the Israelis will keep the major settlement blocs in the West Bank, but will also effectively keep the Jordan Valley as its own security zone. But, of course, it's not only that the Israelis do their real negotiating with the Americans but the Palestinians believe that Mr Netanyahu has no intention of offering a credible two-state solution, and are reluctantly engaged in the current process, only to demonstrate that no progress is impossible without US pressure on Israel. But the administration is severely limited by Israel's powerful bipartisan influence in the US Congress, and the Obama administration has proved no more willing than its predecessor was to press Israel to take steps it's not willing to take.

Mr Netanyahu's success in pushing back Mr Obama's original settlement freeze last year underscores the reality that Israel retains an effective veto over US positions it rejects. Palestinian demands and bottom lines - not to mention international law, which deems as illegal any Israeli settlement on occupied territory - are routinely ignored by Washington. But the choices available to the Palestinians may not be limited to Mr Obama's effort that simply mimics the rituals of previous negotiations to sustain the illusion of progress in a process that died a decade ago, or the bloody and futile path of armed struggle. Palestinian civil society may well have already moved beyond both options, and be seeking new avenues through which to press for their rights. And for those seeking a negotiated political solution, the Obama administration debacle underlines a hard truth: the United States is incapable of resolving the conflict, alone, because domestic politics put it in Israel's corner rather than in the role of neutral referee. Washington, at best, can be the friend and ally that helps nudge Israel to take risks, but the process needs other mediators less beholden to one side.

Shutting the Israelis and Palestinians in a room with US diplomats has outlived any useful purpose; the two sides are clearly unable to agree on the parameters of a two-state solution, and the US is incapable of forcing Israel to go beyond where it's government will willingly tread. A political solution to the conflict now depends on the readiness of other mediators, less beholden to either side, to step into the arena - and also to create a downside for the Israelis to maintaining the status quo.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitian.com