Almost live Panel Blogging:
I’m sitting (or at least was, when I started this post) in a rather interesting panel that’s running at AU right now: The Obama Administration and the Palestinian / Israeli Conflict. It’s a pretty intense, thoughtful, and insightful discussion, featuring Aaron Miller, Yoram Peri, Amjad Atallah, and moderated by our own Boaz Atzili. On the schedule but not able to make it today was Joshua Muravchick.
Aaron Miller has quite a lot on his mind and is very talkative and is quite passionate about his points. Its clear that he has a lot that he wants to say—not just here, but in his recent writings, his book, and his other recent commentary. Its the I worked at this for 24 years and got nowhere because you crazy people can’t get over your inane mythology and appreciate the world as it is, not how you want it to be (he didn’t actually say the crazy people part, but he did drop the realism line at one point in his remarks).
Two-plus points, reacting to what I heard.
1. Both Atallah and Miller prefaced their remarks: “Speaking as an American…” Aside from the obvious use of this rhetorical device to preface remarks about the status of the negotiations, the frame also allows them to raise a very critical issue that has been absent from the recent dialogue of US involvement in the Middle East Peace Process. Both noted that the US has very vital National Interests at stake in resolving this conflict. The Obama administration has some major items on its plate: withdraw from Iraq, deal with Iran, the war in Afghanistan and the situation in Pakistan, and terrorist networks who might seek to attack the US directly. The Israeli / Palestinian conflict is connect to all of these and as it degrades, it further complicates the US’s ability to resolve its most vital interests in the region. Resolving the Israeli – Palestinian issue, beyond any Israeli or Palestinian interests, beyond any alliance with Israel, is important to the US achieving key goals on its own. Atallah recalled the way the US dealt with Bosnia—for a while, it was a horrible problem but one where the deep, ancient hatred and longstanding conflict rendered it impossible for the US to do anything. Then, at a certain point, the Clinton Administration decided that resolving the conflict was in the US interest, and they got involved and pushed a resolution (not that the Balkans is the Middle East, his point being that when the US decides its in its interest to act, it can and will take action).
The new “reality”* of the situation might now be an American National Interest in ending the conflict—not solving it to the liking of any one side, but ending it so that it is no longer a problem to the US advancing its other key interests in the region. At this point, the US decides what it needs, and what its worth, in terms of willingness to invest / pay, to get these needs, and makes it happen. Now this is not to capitulate to the inane Walt argument that Israel is somehow dragging down the US in the region (interestingly, Miller referenced the Walt / Mearshiemer book, trashed it, and then called for a more realistic understanding of the US – Israeli relationship, both by the general public and by American Jews that moves beyond some sort of mythology of fear.)
The difference here is that the subtle change of role for the US that they suggest—no longer protector of any one side, no longer “honest broker” but rather concerned great power able to see a workable solution that is good for the US and apply appropriate pressure to both sides to get there.
2. Its very interesting to hear the different analyses of what the barriers are to peace. On the one hand, Miller says the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians is large, while Atallah and Peri say that these gaps are less substantive and more process-oriented. The one thing that is clear from this (and, honestly, any discussion you ever listen to by anyone with any familiarity with the issue) is that the basic issues are still the same basic issues, the general terms of an agreement have a straight genealogy from the Roadmap to the Mitchell Plan, to Camp David, to Oslo, to Madrid, to Camp David. Its essentially the same plan, the same issues. So where’s the problem? Miller says that nothing will happen until there is a unified Palestinian political order, one organization controlling violence over its territory. Now, that’s a state (cue Weber), and as Atallah points out, they aren’t a state yet. Peri says the problem is a lack of trust and leadership on both sides. Miller also faults poor leadership. Peri notes the interesting dynamic in Israeli public opinion: he references surveys that show the Israeli public as more supportive of trading land for peace and closing settlements, but also shifting to the right politically, with Likud expected to win the upcoming elections. No trust in the leadership to actually deliver these long term goals.
Other interesting tidbits:
Atzili noted a new word making its way around Israeli slang: Condoleezation, to work long and hard and accomplish nothing.
There was general consensus that the idea that the Bush Administration was in any way good for this region or this conflict, or any of the parties, is mythology. To say you support a 2 state solution and then do nothing about it is no help to the Palestinians. To say you support Israel and then disengage from the peace process is no help to the Israelis. No one had much nice to say about the Bush Administration. Muravchik might have altered that dynamic, but he was apparently sick or something.
There was also general consensus that a peace deal with Syria was perhaps more likely than anything else. Its doable, its easy—no existential issues, it has support from the Israeli military (Peri reported), and it would actually help a bit with the other tracks.
Atallah noted that Arab leaders now feel they can engage the US again. The Bush Administration, with Iraq, Abu Gharib, Gitmo, and the like, was impossible to talk to. Obama offers a fresh chance. This holds out the promise that the Obama administration could engage and bring about the regional support necessary for an Israeli – Palestinian process.
Overall, a very interesting panel. There was audio and video taken, I’m told there might be a podcast, and if there is, I’ll try to link to it.
*MEPP commentators always like to talk about “realities” the changing realities, the new realities, the realities on the ground. Sorta makes you wonder how “real” they are, and if they are so real, how they keep changing all the time.