Posted on: October 8, 2010 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 14

OK, I have officially had it, and am throwing in the towel.

Followers of my work are aware that, for the past 20-plus months, I have been either hopeful or trying to maintain hope in the Obama Administration’s efforts toward a two-state solution. No doubt, it has been getting progressively tougher, and many colleagues who were once with me in this endeavor have jumped ship long since.

Make room on the lifeboat, because I’m jumping in.

A few events this week produced the final straws. First came word of the generous package the United States was offering Israel in order to extend a largely meaningless “moratorium” on settlement construction. Actually, “generous” is a misleading term, which vastly understates the case.

The US offered to unconditionally surrender one of its key tools – its veto in the UN Security Council – by guaranteeing it would not refrain from vetoing any resolution for one year; to support an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley after a peace deal is arranged; and a number of other items that are high on Israel’s agenda.

This is akin to paying ten thousand dollars for a pack of bubble gum. Stale bubble gum.

Every piece in the proposed package is one that Israel wants very much. That Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet accepted the package indicates two things. One is that Bibi can easily live with the direct talks breaking down. And the second is that he expects to get all or most of this package without having to pay even this meager price for it, albeit perhaps further down the road.

Bibi is probably right on both counts.

The purported offer to Israel was publicized by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for near East Policy (WINEP). This was no surprise, as it emerged that package was brokered by Makovsky close colleague, Dennis Ross.

Ross’ renewed position in the middle of American efforts around the Israel-Palestine conflict is nothing less than disastrous. Aaron David Miller, a thirty-year veteran of Middle East diplomacy, characterizes Ross as “Israel’s lawyer,” and even the kindest view of Ross must admit that his credibility among the Palestinians would have to improve considerably to reach zero. Ross is said to have engineered this package, and that should be all anyone needs to know about where the Obama Administration is going to be heading with Ross in so central a position.


Dennis Ross


Indeed, Ross seems to have opened an alternative channel for the Netanyahu government, one which will effectively bypass George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton and the State Department generally.

And if that all wasn’t bad enough, National Security Advisor James Jones resigned from his position yesterday. Jones, widely viewed as one of the most even-handed figures in the American government on this issue (which is why he was not well liked in Jerusalem) was replaced by his deputy, Thomas Donilon. Donilon, a close associate of Vice President Joe Biden, a long-time Democratic operator and a former lobbyist and Vice President for Fannie Mae, is closer to and better-liked by the AIPAC crowd than Jones was.

Jones’ departure was no surprise – when he took the job, no one, including him, expected him to keep it for more than two years. But replacing him with Donilon only further distances the Obama Administration from even the appearance, let alone the reality, of being able to mediate honestly between Israel and the Palestinians.

Combine it with Ross’ central role, Congress’ increased interference and Obama’s own drift away from even the hint of any action to seriously resolve this issue, and any hope one could have had in this administration is gone.

Some said I was clinging to my rose-colored glasses on Obama for months. Maybe so, maybe not, but if I was, they’re now on the trash heap.

That doesn’t mean we in the United States can afford to lighten up on DC activism; quite the opposite, in fact.

I have little doubt that Obama, and numerous other figures in the US government outside the halls of Congress, would truly like to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I’ve spoken to enough people in the State Department and other Federal offices to be convinced of it. But the politics will keep preventing American action until we change those politics. AIPAC is a lobby, and it can be countered by one equally clever, resourceful and well-financed.

Such a counter is being built, and that work has serious momentum for the first time ever. The effort must be redoubled. But that needs to happen without the illusion that the Obama Administration is going to make the needed changes. It’s not. It can’t.

And that may well mean we need to reorient the goals and vision. If, as many have said (myself included) that this latest round is the last chance for a two-state solution; or, if, as others have said, that window has already closed, we need to move forward with different strategies.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to resign if Israel keeps building its settlements. He’s threatened this so many times, of course, that the cry of wolf hardly even registers any more.


PA President Mahmoud Abbas


He won’t do it because if he does, he permanently loses all relevance. But if he was thinking of what was best for the Palestinians, he would indeed resign, fold up the joke that the Palestinian Authority has become and force Israel to take full responsibility for the West Bank again.

This would allow a new Palestinian polity to evolve, something which is desperately needed. The Palestinians need a leadership that is not a “partner” with Israel, yet also recognizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of the violent and religious approach of Hamas.

The Palestinians desperately need a new leadership that is not softened by privilege the way the Fatah old guard is. They need one which is pragmatic, and understands that pragmatism in terms that recognize Israel as the occupying power and the United States as the country that has a “special relationship” with that occupying power. They need to be visionary enough to realize that they have to work with the US and Israel, but also strong enough to bear in mind that they, as the Palestinian leadership, cannot agree to put Israeli or American interests ahead of their own. That’s where Fatah has failed.

Their pragmatism must also recognize that the Palestinians are never going to win their independence by force of arms, and that they need to build up sympathy not only for their people’s suffering but also for their own political agenda. Those are the places where Hamas failed.

If such a leadership coalesces, perhaps from the seeds of the current popular movement against the Security Barrier, a completely new dynamic would emerge. The response to such a new dynamic in Europe, the Arab world, the US and, perhaps most importantly, in Israel could well lead to the evolution of new, creative solutions that deal with the current realities on the ground, realities which include the Israeli consensus for a state of Jewish character, the Palestinian need for independence and a viable political entity, and the need to deal with the millions of Palestinian refugees.

For domestic American purposes, however, we cannot continue to pretend that the solution is going to come from our lands. Our task, at least for the moment, is much simpler, albeit no less difficult. We need to change the politics around this issue. Security for Israel can continue to be at the center of American policy, but it cannot remain there alone. Freedom for the Palestinians, the realization of their most basic human and civil rights, must occupy a place of equal importance.

We need to press the point that Palestinians are due their rights even if the conflict remains unresolved. Palestinians and Israelis must come to be seen as equally human, equally deserving of their opportunities at a better life, and this recognition must be practical, not just empty words.

In one sense, then, the failure of the Obama Administration’s efforts opens an opportunity. If we acknowledge that these talks cannot succeed, and the eventual solution, because of the massive expansion of settlements and ongoing split in the Palestinian polity, is going to necessarily be different from the one we have previously envisioned, then we have the time to change the political landscape here.

And, happily, that effort comes about by arguing, incrementally, consistently and continuously, for the rights of all people, Jewish, Arab and anyone else, living in the “Holy Land.” We can work to make things a little better in the short term, and that effort, if undertaken properly and with good strategy, can also be building a new political reality in the long term.

Our work in America is to support the forces in Israel fighting against the trends toward ultra-nationalism and Jewish exclusivism in the country which betray the democratic principles enunciated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (this, of course, particularly applies to American Jews); to work to promote Palestinian unity and the emergence of a leadership which, unlike Fatah and Hamas, truly has the support of a distinct majority of Palestinians; and to create here at home an atmosphere that reflects the desirers of most Americans to treat both Palestinians and Israelis with an even hand.

14 People reacted on this

  1. “Those are the places where Hamas failed.”
    Hamas won an election. They were attacked. They tried to form a government that included non-aligned officials, those people were threatened with assassination by Israel. Hamas has held ceasefires more reliably than Israel. Hamas has offered a 10 year truce; peace with Israel along the pre ’67 bordners. The list goes on.
    Hamas are your pragmatists.
    Deal with it.

  2. Mitchell,

    I don’t disagree with your analysis, but I would love to hear more about how you feel we can help bring about this “new political reality.”

    You write:

    Such a counter is being built, and that work has serious momentum for the first time ever. The effort must be redoubled. But that needs to happen without the illusion that the Obama Administration is going to make the needed changes. It’s not. It can’t.

    I assume you are referring to J St. here. The problem is that J. St’s. mission in grounded in the “we’ve got Obama’s back approach.” If we must now accept that Obama cannot and will not do what is needed to ensure an effective peace process, how will this new political approach be implemented? J. St. will never “give up on Obama,” as you do here.

    So where does this realistically leave us?

    1. Hi, Brant,
      Good to hear from you, and you ask an important question. I’m not going to answer it right now, though, because you’ve cleverly foreshadowed my next article. Keep eyes on this space, and you’ll have your response. End of shameless self-promoting ad.

  3. I don’t know why you are feeling “let-down” by Obama. ALL PRESIDENTS OF THE U.S. FOLLOW THE SAME POLICIES TOWARDS THE ARAB/ISRAELI CONFLICT. Sure, Obama made a lot of noise with his demands for a settlement freeze which ended up blowing up in his face and simply upping the Palestinian demands.
    The US policy is this: nagging Israel to agree to pull back to the pre-67 lines in return for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But, there is NO CHANCE the Arab side will every agree to this. They will never agree to end the conflict with Israel because to do that is treason to the Arab/Muslim umma (people). A Jewish state and the values it embodies, particularly those of people like Shimon Peres and Dr Bernard Avishai which emphasize a secular, consumerist, materialist state is anathama to the conservative, Islamically-based populations of the surrounding countries.
    So there you have it. You are just going to have to get used to the idea that this is one international conflict that has no solution. Israel will continue growing, developing and pulling further ahead of its Arab/Muslim neighbors. Peace will eventually come when the other side finally realizes that it can’t overcome Israel and that their population is suffering from the diversion of resources to their fruitless struggle against Israel. But this will take a lot of time to come about.

  4. I find your views about a reformed Palestinian leadership to be totally unrealistic. You state that the Palestinians “need” an honest leadership. The Palestinians “need” to get rid of the “corrupt FATAH” people. The Palestinians “need ” a leadership that is not dependent on the US, but also opposed violence.
    Where, pray tell, is all this going to come from? Why should the Palestinians push out their current leaders simply because YOU want them to carrry out the policies YOU want. Maybe they don’t want the things you think are good for them? (i.e. the famous “2 state solution with a Palestinian state side by side with Israel living in mutual friendship and prosperty, etc, etc, etc).

    The “corrupt FATAH” people are completely dependent on US and EU handouts in order to meet the PA’s operating budget. Any alternative PA government is going to need this money and that means they are going to have to jump to somebody’s tune. HAMAS gets their funds from Iran. Is that better? These “corrupt FATAH” people hand out large amounts of money to people all over the Palestinian territories. Those close to the trough are not going to want to push out those who are their patrons and put in someone one who may not favor them the same way. So how are you going to organize a movement that is going to remove them when they can be either bought of or intimidated by the armed FATAH groups who like things just the way they are.
    Your wish-list sounds very nice but far removed from reality.

  5. mitchell,

    yaacov lozowick has a very good piece today. congrats! you are the focus!

    i second his post by asking: what are you really trying to say? this sounds well and good, but i tend to think my farts do also. they dont mean much though. i know that. your piece is more worrying because people actually take your platitudes seriously and then we have many people out there repeating this stuff instead of just one or two.

  6. Mitchell,
    I don’t understand why you are so disappointed in Obama–the situation is objectively not ripe for resolving the conflict. On the Israeli side you have what Yossi Alpher terms a “toxic combination” everytime the Palestinian question interacts with the Israeli party system. Settlements are only a symptom of this. On the Pal side you have a similar situation with a deeply-divided and corrupt Fatah and an Islamist Hamas. Abbas won’t be able to make the concessions necessary to compensate Israel for giving up control of the West Bank and Gaza, because he fears that it will undermine him in his contest with Hamas. Washington can do very little about Pal politics because it lacks the leverage and understanding, and with Israeli politics it lacks the will to force serious electoral reform. Until there is serious electoral reform the conflict will continue and the U.S. will go through the motions of pushing a peace process on parties not interested in one. If you don’t believe me look at what happened when France tried to negotiate a solution to the Algerian conflict under the 4th republic or what type of coaltion system the Republic of Ireland had in place when it negotiated an end to its constitutional territorial claim on Northern Ireland as part of the N. Ireland peace process.

  7. Tom,
    The issue is not whether or not Obama was going to resolve the conflict. No one, certainly not anyone who has made this their field of study and worked on it professionally for years, seriously believed that was going to happen in his one or two years time frame.

    Rather, it was about Obama changing the US role, which has been terribly destructive, in this conflict to one that more closely matched US foreign policy interests and, not incidentally, the views of most Jews and most Americans on how the US should behave — i.e., even-handedly.

    The offer that was made clearly dashes those hopes.

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