The Middle East Crisis That Just Won't Go Away

Barack Obama may think that Israel and Palestine alone can end their decades of conflict, but the Arab Spring has changed the contours of any potential negotiations.

It is often said by people in the Middle East, especially Israelis and Palestinians, that "in the end, we always come back to the Arab-Israeli conflict." That is exactly what happened on Thursday, May 19, when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a major policy speech at the State Department, introducing new principles for negotiations based on 1967 borders, and this past weekend, when at least 10 unarmed protesters were killed by Israeli fire on a day the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "Catastrophe." The Arab-Israeli conflict is once again front and center.

But if the broad brush strokes of this story are by now painfully familiar, the context and the particulars of this week may point to a different kind of flare-up while the United States seeks to restart peace talks. There is, of course, the Arab Spring: The Palestinians see the new narrative of the Arab revolts for greater freedoms, justice, and equality joining their own decades-old search for the same, and for a state of their own. For Israelis, Sunday, May 15, was the day when the Arab awakening washed up on their own still provisional borders, reminding them yet again of how vulnerable they are and how isolated they have become.

Coordinated protests on Israel's 1949 armistice lines with Syria and Lebanon -- as well as in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, and Jordan -- have alarmed many Israelis and raised concerns that Israel lacks the practical means to counter mass demonstrations in the future. In fact, only a heavy security presence near the Egyptian and Jordanian borders with Israel prevented protesters from besieging these areas as well. Israelis are realizing the tangible effects of a rapidly changing region in which old certainties are dying and fears of a return to conflict are revived.

Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, used the tools of today's revolutions -- the Internet in general and Facebook in particular -- to organize protests and assert their right to return to their homes in what is now Israel. An estimated 600,000 Palestinians are on Facebook in the West Bank and Gaza alone, and nearly one-third of them are thought to be politically influenced by social media. When Fatah and Hamas finally signed a reconciliation agreement two weeks ago in Cairo, they were responding in part to a campaign for Palestinian unity organized by Internet activists that had managed to mobilize thousands in both the West Bank and Gaza. Emboldened by these developments, activists are organizing more mass protests and marches to pressure Israel, the international community, and their own leadership as the Palestinian-imposed deadline for statehood approaches in September.

What made this year's Nakba Day all the more remarkable, though, were the events along the Syrian-Israeli de facto border. Thirty-eight years of near-total calm along the nearly 50-mile frontier were shattered as dozens of Palestinian protesters trampled their way through the security fence into the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. The event marked a failure for Israeli intelligence and the military and showed the impotence of the 1,250-member United Nations observer force established to monitor the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement. It also showed that Bashar al-Assad's Baathist regime is ready to export instability if necessary, especially to Israel; given the degree of restrictions on movement in the area, it is inconceivable that the protesters could have reached the security fence without the acquiescence and participation of the Syrian authorities and security forces.

With the situation in Syria likely to worsen in the weeks ahead, was the breach a power play from a regime determined to reinforce the point that only it can ensure stability? Or was this a means of diverting attention from Syria's own crackdown and bolstering Assad's credentials as a resistance regime against Israel? In fact, it was likely both. The move may have backfired, however, leading Israel's military to conclude that Assad and his regime cannot be relied upon to deliver calm along their sensitive border. With May 15's events, the assertion that only with Assad comes stability and after him there is chaos has already been turned on its head. This is the moment for the international community to send a clear signal that it will not tolerate being blackmailed by the Assad regime, especially when the region's stability and security are at stake.

Obama's speech on Thursday proved that American and Israeli leaders can put off talking about these issues, but not for long. The president's mention of the 1967 borders as a basis for talks with the Palestinians provoked a sharp response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even before he got on the plane to Washington, where he is due to meet with Obama May 20 and speak to a joint session of Congress on May 24. Netanyahu rejected Israel's withdrawal to such "indefensible" borders. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn opined in his recent editorial, Netanyahu's aim is to bolster Israel's defenses against the third intifada -- not present major concessions.

By offering ideas on future security arrangements for a demilitarized Palestinian state as well as borders, Obama has finally laid out parameters on two of the four main issues (the others being Jerusalem and refugees) of the conflict. He also stressed the importance of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state that borders Egypt and Jordan, but rejected the idea that Palestinians could establish a state through a vote at the United Nations in September.

The problem is that these ideas have come two years too late. The parties aren't speaking to one another, and their last attempt to do so only showed how far apart they are. There are also serious doubts as to whether the U.S. president has the political will and political strategy to push both Israelis and Palestinians as he campaigns for reelection. At best, Obama has pressed another reset button in order to start talks. He has not explained a clear way forward other than a vague call for the United States, the Middle East quartet, and Arab states "to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse." Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, feel freed by the Palestinian unity deal and will likely pursue their efforts for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations if serious negotiations do not start soon -- despite Obama's explicit rejection of this move.

This year's changes in the Middle East and North Africa have had a profound impact on the prospects for peace in the region. The people of the Arab world are no longer willing to play by the old rules, in which peacemaking is determined by Israel's security concerns and the United States' electoral calendar. There is a growing impatience to ensure justice for the Palestinians and a state of their own. Serious moves are required, therefore, to establish two states, Israel and Palestine, this year. The situation requires a new international effort similar to the Madrid conference that followed the first Gulf War in 1991. Back then, it was U.S. leadership that brought new impetus to achieve peace between Arabs and Israelis. This time, clear parameters on borders and security arrangements, as presented by Obama on Thursday, as well as the other core issues, could provide the basis and impetus for a final-status deal.

Failing that, the relevance of both Israeli concerns and American efforts will continue to recede as the Palestinians seize the initiative in an environment dictated by Arab popular will. It promises to be a long, hot summer in the Middle East.



Much Ado About Nothing

Obama's Mideast speech achieved none of its goals.

President Obama had three significant challenges for his "major address" on the Middle East:

  1. Explain his administration's seemingly contradictory responses to uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria
  2. Support the forces of democratic change in the region; and
  3. Describe how to manage the conflict between our interests and our values in a region where they are often in conflict.

His speech today achieved none of those.

The president laid claim to "a new chapter in American diplomacy," which he described as "shifting our foreign policy after a decade of war." But the vision he now endorses for the universality of American values has actually been the basis for our foreign policy in the Middle East for several administrations, most stridently that of his immediate predecessor -- it was President Obama's policies that had sought to tone down the emphasis our values in order to work more constructively with the repressive governments of Iran and Syria, as well as the repressive governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

He said of democracy's advance that "change will not be denied." But isn't it being denied in Bahrain, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran? The president said yes, but didn't explain why our policies are different toward those governments. Instead, he continued to promote the sophistry that there is no conflict between our values and our interests. Can anyone tell what our policy toward Saudi Arabia will be as the result of the president's speech? I doubt it.

Obama said our values must be a top priority and supported by all the tools of our power. Yet he was long on pedantry and short of concrete proposals. The policies he outlined fell far short of the standard he himself set. The whole of government approach he advocated sums up to: asking the World Bank to come up with a G-8 proposal for assistance to Tunisia and Egypt, relieving $1 billion in debt for Egypt and another billion in loans, vague promises of enterprise funds and facilitation of trade and incentives for reform and penalizing corruption -- all without any specificity as to how we might achieve that. Debt relief is a good thing, and so is credit from the Export-Import Bank. But is this really all we have on offer for a top priority supported by all the tools of our power? His national security team should have provided him a much better developed program of policies in advance of a major speech. 

Scheduling the speech on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's arrival further increased the degree of difficulty for the president, given the administration's inability to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. But President Obama argued that current circumstances make peace more urgent than ever, then proceeded to propose nothing new.  He stood boldly for a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. How is this news?

What will Middle Easterners think of the president's speech? Jon Alterman from CSIS put it best: "There's not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks." President Obama's speech today did nothing to change that. 

The president's message seems to be that we will speak out on core principles while doing little to promote them. This is likely to incur to American foreign policy all of the detriments of acrimony from governments whose assistance we need and charges of hypocrisy from those working for change, without accruing the benefits of actually fostering change.

The Bush administration is rightly criticized for being long on vision and deficient in day-to-day management for advancing that vision. The Obama administration has taken two and a half years to more or less endorse that vision while demonstrating an equal deficiency in in the conduct of its policies.