As President Obama prepares for his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, he can choose from two books, both just out, to read on the plane ride over. Each is produced by veteran presidential advisors on the Middle East. But each offers a starkly different perspective.
One book, a product of five scholars and former administration officials and six years of research, documents the failure of U.S. peacemaking and scolds all recent administrations for lack of focus in bringing Israel and its Palestinian adversaries closer to resolving their long conflict. The other, by one of former President George W. Bush’s top Middle East advisers, warns precisely against doing too much and overemphasizing the conflict’s importance.
With speculation rife over the possibility that Obama may invest political capital once again in the stymied Middle East peace process, which book resonates more with him could matter a lot.
The White House itself has gone to great lengths to make clear that Obama will not present a new peace initiative during his visit, which will begin on March 20. Indeed, many observers consider the prospects of getting the sides to restart negotiations less likely than ever. But Middle East watchers are debating whether staying on the sidelines is a valid option for this administration, and if not, just how much involvement is too much.
“If we’re serious about being real friends of Israel, it means we have to be serious about peace,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt and co-author of “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011.” ”It is time to give this our best shot.”
But Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s deputy national security adviser in charge of the Middle East, said he does not know of anyone who thinks there’s a chance for a peace agreement in the near future. Abrams, whose book “Tested by Zion” details the Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East, argued against the notion that time is running out. “The window is always closing. How long have we been hearing this? Twenty years?” he asked rhetorically. The two-state solution to the conflict is not about to become impossible, he said, “because there is no better idea.”
Kurtzer’s “The Peace Puzzle,” which opposes Abrams’ lack of urgency, is the result of a research project sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace that tries to draw lessons from more than two decades of American peacemaking attempts in the region. It paints a gloomy picture of missed opportunities and lack of sustained U.S. efforts, which led to what the authors describe as a decline in American diplomatic power.
Decrying the lack of persistence and focus, the book’s authors state that they are “left to ponder whether that kind of American leadership and diplomatic wisdom can be recaptured.”
Abrams, who has produced a memoir of his years on Bush’s national security team, offers a different account, one that is more skeptical about America’s need or ability to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top priority.
The USIP’s research group consisted of Kurtzer, who served in Middle East-related positions from the Reagan administration through the administration of George W. Bush; William Quandt, a former Middle East adviser for Presidents Nixon and Carter; Scott Lasensky, a researcher currently with the Obama administration, and scholars Steven Spiegel of the University of California, Los Angeles and Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland, College Park.
In the analysis by these scholars and policymakers, efforts to broker peace by Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama left much to be desired. George W. Bush’s administration is described as having been “at war with itself” over policy as differences surfaced between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor Condoleezza Rice on one hand, and the neo-conservative voices within the administration, including Abrams, on the other. Bush’s efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are described in the book as “a saga of missed opportunities and inadequate preconceptions that left the prospect for peace far weaker when Bush left office.”
Abrams calls this claim “ludicrous.” In an interview with the Forward, he argued that Bush’s tenure brought important advances to the nation’s Middle East policy. He cited in particular Bush’s identification of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as an obstacle to peace; Bush’s later introduction of the concept of reforming the Palestinian Authority, and his clear statement of support for Palestinian statehood. “It is very convenient for people who don’t like Bush to say he was simply not interested in the peace process,” Abrams said in an interview.
The USIP research group does note some of the achievements reached during the Bush years, and criticizes Obama for not following up on them. Obama, they say, did not try to build on the Annapolis process, an attempt to restart talks based on a November 2007 international conference hosted by Bush. He instead chose a new approach that put an Israeli freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank front and center.
Abrams, a staunch critic of Obama, believes that fixing the settlement freeze issue should be the president’s main task in his upcoming visit to Jerusalem. According to Abrams, it was Obama’s demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze Jewish settlement activity that caused the Palestinians to insist on this point before agreeing to resume negotiations. Beyond the issue of settlements, Abrams argues that Obama should “convey to the Israelis that he really understands emotionally and intellectually how Israelis feel,” though he added that even if successful, Obama will only convince part of the Israeli public.
Members of the USIP group, though not discussing the president’s upcoming trip in their book, call for Obama to take steps that will reassert America’s role in leading Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.
William Quandt suggested that based on the group’s research, it is important for the president to make sure he is pursuing Middle East peace because he believes it is a crucial U.S. national security interest. “If our attitude is that we cannot want peace more than the parties, it will not work,” he said. Another lesson Quandt put forth was the need to act quickly instead of waiting for the last months in office, when presidential political power wanes.
According to Kurtzer, while the United States cannot impose an agreement, it can use its diplomatic strength and make clear to both sides that the president is putting his weight behind the issue. “The parties have a way of knowing when America is not serious,” he said. The research found that special envoys, for example, were rarely useful in pushing the sides closer. Progress has come only in cases in which the president and secretary of state showed they care personally, he said. The appointment of John Kerry to run the State Department and his reported interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict could move the U.S. closer to taking the kind of role authors of the USIP report discussed.
The researchers did not agree among themselves regarding the usefulness of “daylight” between Israeli and American positions. Critics of Obama point to his own admission early on in his first term about the need to create some daylight between Washington and Jerusalem in order to maintain an evenhanded appearance and to be able to pressure both sides. For Abrams, Bush’s “no daylight” policy was not only an important show of support to the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the time, it also allowed the administration some leverage on Israel when needed.
One point agreed on by all is that Obama will face greater political obstacles on the domestic front than his predecessors did if he pushes for a peace process that will require pressure on Israel. Republican criticism has grown fiercer and Congress has become less willing to accommodate disagreements with Israel. The research group’s book wonders “whether congressional and public support for Israel has limited administration options and thus changed the very nature of the American role in the peace process.”
“The Republican Party,” said Spiegel, “switched membership and leadership” since the days of George H. W. Bush and now holds the view that “Israel can do no wrong,” a view that he sees as “not helping Israel.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.