Commentary: No heckuva jobs for anyone in Middle East peace crisis

The Miami HeraldSeptember 21, 2011 

No matter what side of the conflict you favor, the drama surrounding a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations is a saddening spectacle. Even the most passionate supporters of the idea recognize that the U.N. vote will not bring about a Palestinian state, nor will it bring an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The chain of events that brought us to this moment required a series of uninspired, really, failed performances by the three principal players, the leaders of the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Heck of a job, guys!

Today, the three stand in most uncomfortable positions, with little control over what comes next. America has lost much of its ability to influence events throughout the region. Despite continuing efforts and entreaties, Washington’s word carries much less weight than it once did. The Palestinian Authority has almost accidentally built high expectations with practically no ability to deliver results. Lurking in the wings is its rival, the radical Hamas, governing more 1.5 million Palestinians, hoping the disappointment will help it pursue its ultimate goal of making the entire territory, including Israel, part of a rebuilt Islamic caliphate. And Israel, ever more isolated, is watching decades of painstakingly built relationships, the diplomatic armor of peace, crumble to pieces.

The surreal dimension of this exercise, the part that makes you rub your eyes to make sure it’s really happening, is that there is not much of a debate about whether a Palestinian state should exist. Israeli governments and most Israelis have for decades supported its creation. Palestinians don’t reciprocate. They don’t accept the existence of a Jewish state. But a Jewish state already exists. The question is how to establish one for Palestinians and how to put an end — forever — to the hostilities between the two sides. A vote at the U.N. is nothing but evidence that the real work to make this happen is failing.

I have written about the worldwide confluence of mediocre leadership. It’s hard to find a single leader today who is doing a truly creative, inspired, and successful job. This is one region where the leadership deficit is letting the walls collapse.

President Obama started out gushing with enthusiasm and optimism. He also arrived filled with unrealistic expectations about his power of persuasion. He would make the Arabs like America. And make Israelis obey it. Neither of those happened. He started by asking both sides to make conciliatory gestures. But Arab responded to his request to symbolically allow Israeli passenger planes to overfly their territory, with a quick “No way.” Ignoring the slight, Obama continued pressuring Israel.

In a preview of his well-intentioned but ineffective negotiating style, he made concessions without getting anything in return, leaning on its ally, Israel, without obtaining anything from Arabs. Israelis responded by recoiling, feeling they could no longer trust America. Washington lost influence in Israel without gaining any among Arabs.

If both sides had taken the requested steps, or been pressured simultaneously, it could have paid off. But Obama ignored the Arab slights and continued demanding Israel freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. Israel didn’t like it, but eventually agreed to a 10-month partial moratorium. Suddenly, it was not enough. By the time Obama realized he had accidentally created a new obstacle, it was too late. Abbas, shaking off responsibility for his refusal to negotiate, told Newsweek “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze.” The Palestinian Authority leader would not sit down with Israelis unless they did what Obama said: no construction, not in the West Bank and not in East Jerusalem. He had never asked that before. And he was afraid to back down. Both sides were.

It’s too late to wonder what might have happened if this incident had been avoided. The gulf separating the two seems wider than it has in years.

Over the years, Palestinian leaders (including Abbas) have rejected offer after offer for statehood from previous Israeli governments. The current one is less likely to make far-reaching concessions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — not unlike Obama — is proud of his rhetorical prowess. But he has little to show in the way of diplomatic creativity or achievements; rather the opposite.

The PA’s Abbas has not shown a great deal of courage, either. Like other Arab leaders, he fears his people. Iran-backed Hamas, governing almost half of Palestinians, has derided Abbas’ U.N. statehood move. If negotiations restart, it would be with only a portion of the Palestinian side — a huge problem.

And Washington, still the most powerful player on Earth, is struggling to be more than an observer in a fast-changing Middle East.

It’s a sad moment and a dangerous one. Perhaps the hidden, talented peace-makers can now make their appearance.

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