Three Temptations on the Road to Mideast Peace

If President Obama is serious about securing an Arab-Israeli settlement, he must ignore the many distractions in his path and focus his efforts on rebuilding the United States' position in the region.

After 19 months, President Barack Obama has finally convened Arab-Israeli peace talks and set a one-year timeline for securing a final peace deal. If he is serious about this goal, he will need to establish a regional environment conducive to peace -- a step that requires rebuilding American strength in the region.  

Historically, the United States has made its most significant progress in Middle East peacemaking when it operated from a pre-eminent position in the region. That's what convinced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to chuck the Soviets and turn to Washington to engineer his peace with Israel in the 1970s; it is also what convinced Arabs and Israelis to start the modern era of peacemaking at the Madrid peace conference, following the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait. 

But this iteration of peace talks, which will resume on Sept. 14 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, begins with many in the Middle East questioning American strength, not deferring to it. This change has potentially negative implications for our ability to help Arabs and Israelis forge peace.

Consider the contrast between the two presidents who pivoted from war-fighting in the Persian Gulf to peacemaking in the Levant. Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush built upon victory over Iraq in an internationally sanctioned war to organize the first all-Arab peace conference with Israel in Madrid. Yet even with the wind at his sails from a clear military success, Madrid produced no peace agreements and left little lasting imprint on the region's politics.

In contrast, Obama turned to Arab-Israeli peacemaking 36 hours after declaring the "end of combat operations in Iraq" -- a somewhat less glorious achievement than the first Gulf War. The decision to depart Iraq without even an Iraqi government in place may have been politically necessary in the U.S. domestic context, but it projects the air of retreat and irresolution throughout the region. If clear victory in the Kuwait war only gave the United States enough oomph to get the parties to the table, then what are the chances that the uncertain outcome in the Iraq war will empower us to help them cross the finish line?

The fact is that Obama has entered the fray of Arab-Israeli diplomacy with a weak hand, but it is not necessarily a losing one. If he handles the current negotiations more wisely than his first year and a half of Mideast diplomacy and rebuilds a sense of U.S. strength by dealing resolutely with the approaching crisis point over Iran's nuclear program, he can reverse this dynamic. To do so, however, he will need to resist three alluring temptations.

First, the president will need to keep his eye on the strategic prize -- a new Israeli-Palestinian agreement to replace the moribund Oslo Accords -- and not let irritants detour him from this path.

One such irritant could occur before the end of September, when Israeli domestic politics may compel its government to replace the current moratorium on West Bank settlement construction with something less categorical. In a meeting with Western diplomats on Sept. 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that, though the freeze will not be extended, construction will continue at a much-reduced pace. The actual number of new homes likely to be built over the next 12 months will probably be tiny, but the decision to start building again will be powerfully symbolic, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

If this moment comes, the president needs to resist the temptation -- to which he and his advisors succumbed on multiple occasions in their earlier forays into Mideast diplomacy -- to inflate the significance of settlement construction, to chastise Israeli action as an insurmountable obstacle to peace, and, by their actions, to deny the Palestinians any room for flexibility on the issue. When U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declared that "not one more brick" for construction of Israeli settlements would be acceptable, it forced Palestinians to accept no less and pushed Israelis into a corner. The result was no peace talks, no diplomacy, and no progress toward peace. As satisfying as this course may be to some in the administration, if the president reverts to this behavior, the result will be to abort the current peace initiative.

A far wiser strategy is to focus on the potential to make headway on the fundamental issues under discussion -- like the eventual borders and sovereign powers of a Palestinian state -- and to insulate the negotiations from a possible shift in Israeli settlement policy. This includes engaging with Palestinians now to ensure that talks proceed even under a strained environment. After all, if talks eventually produce a breakthrough, no one will remember the episode, and if talks eventually fail, there will be ample opportunity for the administration to rethink its policy. To its credit, the Obama administration has reportedly begun to adopt this more strategic approach, including warning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinians would bear a heavy cost by withdrawing from negotiations in the event the moratorium is not extended.

Obama's second test is to find the right balance between injecting urgency into the diplomacy while disabusing both parties of the commonly held belief that he wants a deal more than they do. This is likely to come to a head after the U.S. midterm elections in November, when domestic politics diminishes as a perceived factor in the administration's Middle East policy. That is when Palestinian negotiators can be expected to challenge Obama's mettle via the eminently predictable -- and, from a Palestinian perspective, perfectly reasonable -- gambit of hardening their bargaining positions in talks with Israel.

Their goal will be to entice Washington to put its own proposals on the table rather than risk diplomatic collapse and political failure. By doing so, however, Obama would transform the diplomacy into a U.S.-Israeli negotiation, relieving the Palestinians of having to engage in the business of bargaining.

Just as with a change in Israeli settlement policy, this Palestinian brinkmanship will also provide the president with temptations he needs to resist. There may come a time when U.S. proposals could play a helpful role in bridging critical gaps, but that moment will only come after the two sides have already gone a long way toward achieving a breakthrough.

Timing is everything. Israelis have always viewed peacemaking as a transformative, not just a transactional, process. The very act of participating with Arab parties in a good-faith negotiations process, in which they see Arab negotiators jettison some longstanding positions for the sake of an agreement, is a powerful lubricant for Israel's own territorial concessions. If a U.S. president intervenes prematurely to relieve the Palestinians of the duty to engage fully in the vital act of negotiation, then it suggests the Palestinians are not ready for the compromises a real agreement would demand. Israel would likely prefer to risk a face-off with its U.S. patron rather than cede irretrievable assets to an uncertain partner. In other words, if Washington succumbs to the Palestinian gambit and intervenes too early to save the talks, chances are likely it will kill them.

If Obama handles these two tests properly, he will begin to earn appreciation among Israelis and respect among Arabs -- qualities that are in short supply among both groups. But the real test of whether the president can make progress toward clinching a deal is whether he uses the next year to bring clarity to the regional challenge that poses the most serious consequences for Middle East security and the overall U.S. position in the region: Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

To his credit, the president seems to have abandoned the loopy thesis that Arab-Israeli peace is a prerequisite for resolving the Iranian nuclear problem. But dropping a bad idea is not a strategy. Defining a strategy begins with internalizing the fact that Iran's shadow already looms large over the Middle East and that, with a nuclear umbrella, it will loom larger still. It means recognizing that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are less likely to take proverbial "risks for peace" when an ascendant Iran is able to withstand U.S.-led sanctions and persist with its nuclear weapons program. And it means accepting the reality that the growth of Iran's influence in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip means that it is less likely that Arabs and Israelis are both able to live with a nuclear-armed Iran and live at peace with each other.

If the president is truly committed to a historic peace, he will need to recognize that stopping Iran's nuclear march is an American interest and doing so is an American responsibility. That means resisting the temptation to let Israel address this problem on its own or, even worse, compelling Israel to accept U.S. strategic guarantees and acquiesce to a nuclear-armed Iran. Both of these outcomes involve shirking U.S. commitments to prevent Iran's nuclear progress and would damage broader U.S. interests, including the ability to broker Arab-Israeli peace. They would also likely convince Israel that it is better off keeping whatever tangible assets it currently has -- such as territory -- rather than rely on the intangibles of American guarantees. The Arab parties, meanwhile, would only grow to believe that the United States only knows how to make commitments, not to fulfill them.

In recent months, the president's Iran policy has certainly moved in the right direction. He deserves applause for pushing through sets of mutually reinforcing sanctions regimes, which seem to have had some impact inside Tehran.

But few experts believe that sanctions, as creatively designed as they may be, will bite hard enough to compel Iran to suspend its march toward a military nuclear capability. That leaves U.S. military power as the last repository of credibility for the claim, stated frequently by the president and his advisors, that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Time and again, senior U.S. officials have said that the military option is "on the table." Nevertheless, the president has had great difficulty convincing his listeners -- at home, abroad, and, most importantly, in Iran -- that he is serious about a strategy of prevention.

This is partially the result of the way U.S. troops left Iraq, with a political vacuum in their wake. It is also the result of ambivalent statements by senior U.S. officials, suggesting that military action against Iran's nuclear weapons program may be as destabilizing as an Iranian bomb itself. And some of it is the result of the administration's reluctance to take forceful measures now, before Iran gets the bomb, to stop what U.S. generals say are Iran's current efforts to kill Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taken together, the outcome is that American strength in the Middle East -- which is only potent if it is perceived as such -- has been sorely damaged, with negative repercussions for U.S. interests around the region, including the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. Dispatching more troops to fight in faraway Afghanistan, as important as that may be, does not remedy this problem. Only clarity on the Iranian nuclear issue can do that. With all its messy implications, U.S. action to prevent Iran's march toward a nuclear weapons capability would buoy America's friends and undermine its adversaries from Morocco through the Persian Gulf. It alone would create a regional environment conducive to historic progress in Arab-Israeli peace.

Over the next 12 months, the president has a window of opportunity to be a real change-agent in the Middle East. If he shows strategic vision in differentiating between irritants and real obstacles to progress, if he withstands the pressures to intervene prematurely at the first sign of impasse, and if he fulfills America's traditional responsibility to reduce the risks of peacemaking by projecting strength and resolution on the Iran nuclear challenge, then maybe -- just maybe -- an elusive Arab-Israeli peace can be achieved on his watch.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Cops, Robbers … and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Why the Egyptian government's propaganda version of CSI revealed more about its own paranoia than about its enemies.

A well-dressed, clean-shaven man sits at a table in a posh restaurant. Accompanying him is an attractive young woman whose attention he seems to hold with ease. He explains his deep regret that he never pursued their relationship more deeply: His budding career as a security officer had left him little time for worldly pleasures.

Meanwhile, across town, a violent clash between rival student gangs ends with a young man's body lying dead on the pavement. It looks like a new CSI spin-off -- except the action is taking place on the hot streets of Cairo. And these scenes aren't from another American cop drama. They're from the first episode of Egypt's controversial Ramadan series, "Al Gamaah" ("The Group").

"Al Gamaah," which purports to be a sort of Egyptian version of "24" or "The Wire," is actually a government-funded series of morality tales about the country's banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The series can be summed up easily: A noble and courageous Egyptian security officer launches an investigation into the Brotherhood's past, and digs up some startling skeletons, as members of the illegal organization skulk around like Bond villains. The pilot episode ran on Arab satellite networks on the first night of Ramadan, and episodes continued nightly for the duration of the Islamic holy month (the Middle Eastern equivalent of American sweeps week). The public response has varied from admiration to total outrage.

Entertaining at times, the show was little more than heavy-handed propaganda. But it had some unintended ironies. In giving the Muslim Brotherhood a primetime treatment, the Egyptian government only made it obvious that its own affairs aren't quite ready for the spotlight.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, making it the oldest existing Islamic movement organization in the Arab world. Despite the more militant splinter groups that have emerged in recent years, the Brotherhood itself has a long tradition of renouncing violence and calling for democracy, the rule of law, and an end to the national state of emergency that has been in place in Egypt since 1981. It operates the largest network of social services in Egypt and participates in elections (though its candidates must run as independents), winning 88 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. It was also the organization that incubated future leaders of al Qaeda such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.

For years, the Egyptian regime has tried to limit the Brotherhood's impact, most recently by rewriting the laws on eligibility requirements so the group couldn't contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. "Al Gama'ah" is the latest salvo in a war that has now lasted for decades.

The show's advocates argue that it offers a true appraisal of the Muslim Brotherhood. They defend its creator, the well-known and frequently controversial secularist TV and film writer* Wahid Hamid, claiming that he's an independent voice with no allegiances to the government. The Brotherhood's leaders, however, are up in arms. "Al Gamaah," they say, is a deliberate attempt by the regime of Hosni Mubarak to smear the group's reputation. And indeed, when Muslim Brotherhood leaders revealed that the regime had paid 25 million Egyptian pounds for the production of the series, a government official coolly responded that the figure was "only" 22 million.

The show's hyperbole was especially revealing. For example, "Al Gama'ah" depicts members of the Brotherhood as paranoid to a farcical extreme. Their reliance on coded messages, secret meeting locations, and decoy cars is meant to make them seem suspicious. But it also serves as a reminder that Egypt's political environment leaves opposition groups no other options. Any party, regardless of its intentions, would have to resort to secrecy in order to organize politically.

Similarly, the surveillance power of the state security agency, depicted as near-omniscient, is intended to demonstrate that no organized group, no matter how subversive or secretive, can evade the watchful eye of the regime. The show makes a clear distinction between those who warrant suspicion and deserve no right to privacy, on the one hand, and the majority of law-abiding citizens on the other. The wealth of information retrieved from strategically placed wiretaps appears to justify selective government intrusion into the homes and businesses of suspected Brotherhood members. But apparently the producers didn't realize that viewers might instead just be frightened or outraged by the government's trampling of personal freedom.

Then there's the outlandish portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders, who are reminiscent of 1980s Chuck Norris villains. They are angry, unpredictable, and prone to violent outbursts. Ominous music follows them wherever they go. Their piety is about as superficial as their shiny suits or German cars. They eat lamb at their parties in a country where people are often hungry and where meat is a luxury.

In sharp contrast, the state security agent is a caricature of another sort: a sterling-souled hero. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to undo the bad reputation earned by the intelligence service over the last six decades. Since the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's revolutionary leader, the mabahith has been a dreaded force. Innocents have routinely been swept away by "dawn visitors" from the intelligence service, and stories of torture and corruption are commonplace. The star agent in "Al Gamaah," however, would make even the most goody-two-shoes superhero roll his eyes. He is a model son and neighbor, courteous to those he interrogates, and devoted to lofty ideals, such as truth, justice, and love of country. The Mubarak regime could not ask for a more honorable representative -- which is perhaps how audiences know it's fictional.

The show takes even more troubling liberties with Egyptian history. In a subplot made up of flashback scenes depicting the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood, its founder, Hasan al-Banna, is shown as a political opportunist. He incites his followers to violence, accepts bribes, and even cooperates covertly with the British occupation.

While he is certainly not beyond reproach, Banna tends to be respected even among fierce critics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, "Al Gamaah"'s haphazard treatment of the period does truth no favors. In one particularly glaring misrepresentation, the show attributes to Banna the development of takfir, the controversial practice of excommunicating other Muslims. In fact, takfir, which is condemned by many mainstream Islamic scholars as a justification for violence, only emerged among Muslim Brotherhood fringe groups 20 years after the leader's death. Banna's surviving family members have filed a lawsuit against the government requesting that the program be pulled from TV networks. The suit claims that Banna's family was   never consulted in the development and production of the series and that the negative portrayal has totally distorted the truth.

Despite the overwhelmingly cynical slant of "Al Gamaah," the show does, on occasion, pose provocative questions. In one scene, a shop owner and Muslim Brotherhood elder tells a deli server to place Danish cheeses back on display now that the controversy over the Prophet cartoons has died down, suggesting that the Brotherhood is more concerned with outward appearances than it would like to admit. Two useful critiques of the Brotherhood also emerge. The show points out the generational gap between the group's leadership and the majority of its young followers, who are often unable to get anything done within the party because of its rigid hierarchy. The show also highlights the Brotherhood's lack of a coherent political program, a vulnerability that sprouts up during every election cycle. When an anguished father confronts a son who has been arrested for joining the Brotherhood, he cries out, "What do they offer that the rest of us Muslims don't have?" In the episode, the son remains silent. In real life, a frequent criticism of the Brotherhood is that they lack specific policy proposals.

The government's hope, clearly, is that "Al Gamaah" will make young Egyptians think twice about joining the opposition. But the tactic may instead prove costly to the regime. Any public discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood may just lend it more visibility and credibility. Web searches for "Hasan al-Banna" spiked dramatically in the month of August, when the show began. Young Egyptians are reportedly flocking to buy Banna's writings, while independent newspapers are publishing fresh reports on the historic investigation into his assassination. There are even rumors now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in the planning stages of its own rival TV series. If and when that show airs, it will surely be as slanted an account as Wahid Hamid's "Al Gamaah," although the villains and heroes are likely to have swapped sides.

Somewhere in between the competing narratives, there's probably some truth to be found. But as "Al Gamaah"'s star character Agent Ashraf says, "There is a difference between opinion and truth. When I find the truth, I'll tell you my opinion."


*This sentence originally referred to Wahid Hamid as a director, not a writer. It has been corrected to fix that editorial error.