Don't fall for the direct-talk hype: The 'peace process' is still going nowhere

If you think today's announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume "direct talks" is a significant breakthrough, you haven't been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing. 

Why do I say this? Three reasons. 

1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.

2. There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian "state" consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a "two-state solution," and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn't let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.

3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We're clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas' arm to the breaking point (which is why he's agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?

So don't fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the "peace process." George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive "talks" will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.

The one item in all this that does give me pause is the accompanying statement by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU and the U.N.), which appears at first glance to have some modest teeth in it. Among other things, it calls explicitly for "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors." It also says these talks can be completed within one year. Sounds promising, but the Quartet has issued similar proclamations before (notably the 2003 "Roadmap"), and these efforts led precisely nowhere. So maybe there's a ray of hope in there somewhere, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans here in the United States will continue to make pious statements about their commitment to a two-state solution, even as it fades further and further into the realm of impossibility. Barring a miracle, we will eventually have to recognize that "two-states for two peoples" has become a pipe-dream. At that point, U.S. leaders will face a very awkward choice: they can support a democratic Israel where Jews and Arabs have equal political rights (i.e., a one-state democracy similar to the United States, where discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is taboo), or they can support an apartheid state whose basic institutions are fundamentally at odds with core American values.  

Equally important, an apartheid Israel will face growing international censure, and as both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned, such an outcome would place Israel's own long-term future in doubt. If that happens, all those staunch "friends of Israel" who have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades can explain to their grandchildren how they let that happen.

As for the Obama administration itself, I have only one comment. If you think I'm being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong. If you do, I'll be the first to admit it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

The flood in Pakistan and U.S. strategy

One of the themes I have harped about on this blog has been the issue of opportunity costs.   When a great power gets itself over-committed in a lot of costly and time-consuming commitments (and when it mismanages its economy in various ways), then it won't have the surplus it needs when an unexpected challenge (or an unforeseen opportunity) arises. 

Case in point: the current floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks.  The situation is by all accounts horrific, and could have significant long-term consequences for millions of people.  It is precisely the sort of event that calls for a vigorous and generous U.S. response.

As everyone knows, the United States is widely despised among broad swathes of Pakistani society.  Some of this hostility is unmerited, but some of it is a direct result of misguided U.S. policies going back many decades.  As the U.S. experience with Indonesia following the 2004 Asian tsunami demonstrated, however, a prompt and generous relief effort could have a marked positive effects on Pakistani attitudes.  Such a shift could undermine support for extremist groups and make it easier for the Pakistani government to crack down on them later on.  It is also the right thing to do, and the U.S. military is actually pretty good at organizing such efforts.

The United States has so far pledged some $76 million dollars in relief aid, and has sent 19 helicopters to help ferry relief supplies.  That's all well and good, but notice that the U.S. government sent nearly $1 billion in aid in response to the tsunami, and we are currently spending roughly $100 billion annually trying to defeat the Taliban.  More to the point, bear in mind that the United States currently has some over 200 helicopters deployed in Afghanistan (and most reports suggest that we could actually use a lot more).  

So imagine what we might be able to do to help stranded Pakistanis if we weren't bogged down in a costly and seemingly open-ended counterinsurgency war, and didn't have all those military assets (and money) already tied up there?   It's entirely possible that we could do more to help suffering individuals, and more to advance our own interests in the region, if some of these military assets weren't already committed.   

Of course, Obama didn't know that there would be catastrophic flooding in Pakistan when he decided to escalate and prolong the Afghan campaign.  But that's just the point: when national leaders make or escalate a particular strategic commitment, they are not just determining what the country is going to do, they are also determining other things that that they won't be able to do (or at least won't be able to do as well).  

Thus, another good argument for a more restrained grand strategy is that it might free up the resources that would allow us do some real good in the world, whenever unfortunate surprises occur.   As they always will.