Before his inauguration, US President Barack Obama promised that his administration would be engaged in the Middle East peace process from “day one”. Because he is venerated in Europe and the Arab world for being perceived as fundamentally different from previous President George W. Bush, but has also appointed people trusted by Israel to some key Middle East roles, many believe Obama is particularly well positioned to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Although successive US presidents have sought to resolve the conflict, the last two presidents are particularly noted for their attempts. As today there is no peace, it is easy to say their efforts failed because their approaches were faulty, and Obama should try something completely different.
But such thinking is naïve. Although there is no peace, not all previous policies were flawed. With that in mind, and with the backdrop of Israel’s recent military operations against Hamas, which policies should the Obama Administration continue, and which should be reassessed?
Above all, Obama should continue the international community’s attempts to isolate Hamas. Although there is a growing chorus calling on the US and others to engage with Hamas now, doing so would harm, not help, the prospects for peace.
Obama has said he is willing to talk with Hamas as soon as it renounces terrorism and recognises Israel’s right to exist, but not before. This is also EU and UN policy. Yasser Arafat had to meet the same conditions to win recognition.
Yet Hamas refuses to meet these minimal requirements of a peace partner.
Thus, engaging with an unreconstructed Hamas would create a dangerous precedent, whereby violence and intransigence lead to recognition and legitimacy. It would also undercut Obama’s - and the international community’s - future credibility when negotiating with other actors, like Iran.
Further, it would undermine those parties already committed to peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, plus Jordan, Egypt and, increasingly, the moderate Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia, are committed to resolving the conflict non-violently. If Obama negotiates with a Hamas still wedded to violence, it will discredit Abbas and embarrass America’s Middle East allies. At the same time, it will embolden US adversaries - particularly Hamas’ patron, Iran. This would harm the efforts of America’s Middle East allies in their growing struggle against Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, thus harming US interests as well
Obama seems ready to maintain the international community’s red lines. As new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified during her confirmation hearing, “You cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognises Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is the United States government’s position; that is the president-elect’s position.”
Obama should also avoid setting unrealistic expectations or focusing on high-profile summitry. The unfortunate reality is that a final status agreement cannot be implemented right now - the Palestinian parties that are willing to sign a peace agreement cannot implement it, and those parties who could, don’t want peace. One lesson Obama should learn from former President Bill Clinton’s Camp David efforts in 2000 and Bush’s 2008 Annapolis process is that publicly declaring lofty targets to be accomplished within short periods of time often constitutes a recipe for failure.
Obama should instead focus on low profile but pragmatic strategies that can gradually build trust and confidence between the parties. A good example is the US-run program to train a professional Palestinian security force. Since January 2008, this program has trained nearly 1,000 members of the Palestinian security forces. These forces have deployed effectively to Jenin, Nablus and Hebron, where they have significantly improved law and order. As a direct result, Israel removed numerous roadblocks and checkpoints in those areas, dramatically bettering Palestinians’ lives and leading to economic development.
In addition to these immediate benefits, an effective Palestinian security force is an absolute necessity for a stable Palestinian state. As a former US Middle East envoy, Obama’s National Security Adviser, General (ret.) Jim Jones, will be well aware of this program and its successes. Thus, the Obama Administration will likely continue, and hopefully expand, these efforts.