President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge that his administration would begin working for peace in the Middle East from its first day in office is one that he almost met. On January 21, a mere 24 hours after his inauguration, Obama placed phone calls from the Oval Office to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Jordanian King ‘Abdallah II. The next day, together with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he visited the State Department to announce the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as the new special envoy for the Middle East.

Virtually everyone who followed these proceedings emerged satisfied, not least because Obama seemed to understand what he was saying and spoke in coherent, complete sentences. For some, his willingness to throw American diplomacy at the Israeli-Palestinian crisis so early in his administration represented a breath of fresh air after eight years of “neglect” under former President George W. Bush. Others suggested Obama seems to have additionally learned from the mistakes of the 1990s, when Washington failed to put forth its own agenda for a permanent settlement until it was too late in the game. Still others, in Arab chanceries, were grateful simply that Obama acknowledged the suffering of Palestinians trapped under Israeli aerial assault and economic blockade.

Many also lauded the choice of Mitchell, whether on account of his prior diplomatic success in Northern Ireland or his previous experience in matters Israeli-Palestinian. But most of all, Obama was praised for signaling a clean break with the catastrophic legacy of his predecessor — one all too evident in the ruins of, most recently, Gaza. Such attitudes, however, represent a leap of faith unwarranted by the history of US policy toward Israel-Palestine and, more to the point, developments on the ground, still smoldering from Israeli bombardments of unprecedented intensity.


US media outlets were quick to pronounce Obama’s “big phone calls to the Middle East” “another marker of change” that the new president is, rather unfairly, expected to bring to every domain of American life. Yet the American political system is not one given to sudden and significant shifts in foreign policy, least of all on account of directives emanating from the Oval Office. Rather, foreign policy, and perhaps nowhere more so than toward the Middle East, is characterized by evolution, typically at a slow pace. Produced by a variety of competing interests encompassing the bureaucracy, business elites, the military, Congress and various lobbies, policy tends to change only when consensus is achieved on a new direction, with the role of the president generally limited to formalizing rather than catalyzing the process. Bush’s notorious aphorism, “I’m the decider,” represented ambition, not reality.

Thus the idea of regime change in Iraq had its roots in the administration of Bush père, and became US policy under President Bill Clinton, long before being pursued by Bush fils. Similarly, Obama’s much-touted withdrawal from Iraq, like his pledge to talk to Iran, continues rather than changes policies introduced during the final years of the second Bush administration. Though one would not know it from the hyperventilation on the American right, even the Bush administration mused once or twice about shutting down the law-free zone at Guantánamo Bay. Where dramatic shifts in US policy do occur, these are, as a rule, responses to momentous events in the region rather than momentous decisions in Washington.

The same pattern holds true for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Witness the readout of Obama’s phone calls delivered by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: The president told his fellow heads of state and leaders of government that he is committed to “establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza.” The first clause of Obama’s promise nodded to the legitimacy of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, as Bush had emphatically done, by affirming the war aim for which Israel settled before calling off the attacks on January 18, as well as the agreement Israel reached with ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her last day on the job. The second clause also indicated continuity with the Bush administration’s orientation, for the PA to which Obama referred is that part of it located in the West Bank, ruled by the expired presidency of Mahmoud Abbas and dominated by his Fatah party, to the exclusion of the lame-duck government in the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas, which also has a majority in the PA legislature. This apparent continuation of the policy of freezing out Hamas is dubious not only because it seeks to annul the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections, and give Washington the right to determine who represents the Palestinians, but also on practical grounds. As Nathan Brown observes in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “If the assistance [for Gaza humanitarian needs and reconstruction] is to go through regular PA channels, those answer to Hamas. Even if rebuilding and assistance is the task not of the PA but of international actors, those can only operate with the permission and cooperation of the Gaza PA.”

Obama devoted a goodly portion of his January 22 remarks in Foggy Bottom to explaining his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, concluding with the announcement that Mitchell would be dispatched to the region “as soon as possible to help the parties ensure that the ceasefire that has been achieved is made durable and sustainable.” Mitchell, indeed, departed on January 26. Carter-era National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, appearing on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show," hailed the “sense of urgency” conveyed by Obama’s commentary. Yet nothing therein would have been out of place in the transcript of Bush’s final press conference, whether concerning Israel, the Palestinians, Arab states, the US role or the diplomatic agenda. Even at the rhetorical level, a bromide like, “we are confronted by extraordinary, complex and interconnected global challenges: the war on terror, sectarian division and the spread of deadly technology. We did not ask for the burden that history has asked us to bear, but Americans will bear it,” could just as easily have emanated from Obama’s predecessor. The same is true of the president’s statement: “Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.” The source of Israeli fears is named, but the perpetuator of Palestinian despair is not. In fact, though Obama went on to call for opening the Gazan border crossings, he first hinted, as the Bush team had done, that the Palestinians are partly to blame for their closure. Israelis cannot abide the rocket fire, he said, and “neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.”

Back to 2001

As with Obama’s speech, the media and the Washington peace process industry met Mitchell’s investiture as special envoy with loud hosannas. “At Last, an Honest Broker,” Israel Policy Forum director of policy analysis M. J. Rosenberg headlined his regular Friday column. The editorialists at USA Today concurred: “His appointment signals a US return toward the role of honest broker.” Brzezinski approved of the ex-senator as a person “trusted” by both Israel and its Arab neighbors, a take-charge personality who is “not just there to preside over needless, endless dialogues.” And because Mitchell is of (part) Lebanese heritage, the New York Times added, his appointment signals that Washington is “also sensitive to the Palestinians’ many legitimate grievances.”

Much was made in the op-eds praising Mitchell of his earlier foray into Middle East shuttle diplomacy. In October 2000, President Clinton tapped Mitchell to head a “committee of fact-finding” to look into the conditions that had produced the Palestinian uprising that erupted in late September of that year. The resulting Mitchell report, issued on May 21, 2001, was cheered for its “balance” and “pragmatism” both at the time and in the recent retrospectives, its crucial merit being that it was “accepted by both sides.”

Jackson Diehl penned a more sober remembrance in the January 23 Washington Post, noting the “conservatism” of the Mitchell appointment “at a point when long-time veterans of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy are calling for a radical rethinking of US strategy.” Instead, the columnist concluded Mitchell might “have the effect of returning US policy to about where it was in October 2001.” As Diehl recalled, the Mitchell report recommended a series of “confidence-building measures” to move the parties, incrementally, back onto the path of comprehensive negotiations. First, the PA, then controlled by Yasser Arafat, was to exert “100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations,” a formulation that was then understood to include attacks on soldiers or settlers in the Occupied Territories. After this effort had succeeded, the report continued, Israel should “consider” such confidence-building measures of its own as lessening the burdens of occupation upon the Palestinians and halting the construction of settlements on lands taken in 1967. This plodding, phased approach was destined to fail, and not only because it was too “engaged” for the Bush administration, as Diehl suggests.

The peace process industry, in whose ranks Diehl includes former and soon-to-be current State Department official Dennis Ross, insists that confidence-building measures might have worked, as Diehl writes, “if only American diplomacy were energetic enough.” It is certainly true that the Bush administration, eager to leave Israel free rein in the Occupied Territories, did not work to bring the Mitchell report’s recommendations to fruition and instead threw its weight behind ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of “constructive destruction” toward the PA. But the Mitchell report was the direct forebear of Bush’s 2003 “road map” to peace, which featured the same phased approach beginning with the cessation of Palestinian violence, as adjudicated by Israel and the United States. The “road map,” in turn, gave way to the Annapolis process that commenced in November 2007. All of these initiatives, needless to say, failed completely.

The Mitchell report shared the structural flaw of all US interventions on the Israeli-Palestinian front subsequent to the collapse of talks at Camp David in July 2000. Whether through a stoppage of Palestinian resistance, constitutional and security reform, or institution building, it placed the onus for progress toward peace and Palestinian statehood upon the occupied people, and deferred the duties of the occupying power until later. And it spoke not at all of the foremost of those obligations, the duty to end the occupation.

Those who believe that the Obama administration brings good tidings for Middle East peace therefore have essentially only two arguments in their favor: that Obama is committed to improving US relations with the Muslim world and understands this cannot be done without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the transformational impact of Israel’s Gaza war suggests he cannot put the conflict on the back burner — as many suspect he would have liked to do for at least the better part of his first term — in order to first deal with the global financial meltdown, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which America is directly involved, and more direct threats to US interests emerging from Iran and Pakistan.

Planned Obsolescence

Yet there is no going back to 2001. If there is a significant difference between Obama’s approach, as telegraphed to date, and Bush’s, it is that much of what Obama said has been made obsolete by Israel’s Gaza campaign: Mahmoud Abbas, the 2002 Arab peace initiative and the peace process are in the past tense; Arab normalization with Israel is being reversed; and today Fatah needs Hamas in order to survive more than the Palestinian Islamists need the Ramallah PA to bring emergency supplies into the Gaza Strip. While Mitchell may be able to move forward by leaving Ramallah off his itinerary, he cannot succeed without at least the tacit cooperation of Hamas.

Indeed, Israel’s onslaught in the Gaza Strip solidified emerging trends in the Middle East that are unlikely to be reversed in the near future, least of all by business as usual. Among these trends is the eclipse of Saudi-Egyptian leadership of Arab diplomacy. Undermined by the refusal of either Israel or the US to engage with the Arab peace initiative, and severely damaged by Cairo and Riyadh’s support for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war, that claim to leadership has been fatally discredited by Saudi and Egyptian sins of omission and commission during the Gaza conflict. Weaker and smaller rivals and adversaries such as Syria and Qatar now shamelessly flout the will of Cairo and Riyadh, with the consequence that regional actors like Turkey and Iran are playing an increasingly important role in setting the Arab agenda.

Interestingly, the coup de grace to the Arab peace initiative may well have been delivered by Obama at the State Department on January 22. In an environment where even the Saudis had recently suggested the initiative could be suspended, and with Arab public opinion clamoring for it to be shredded, Obama went no further than calling it a plan “that contains constructive elements that could help advance” peace efforts, before demanding that Arab states immediately, unilaterally and completely fulfill their end of the bargain — normalization.

Within the Palestinian arena, the Obama administration appears similarly poised to plant the kiss of death upon the brow of Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, emboldened in the aftermath of the Gaza war, and determined to exact a high price from its rivals in Ramallah for their collusion with Israel during the past 18 months, is insisting that Fatah renounce the Annapolis process, terminate security cooperation with Israel and release Islamist detainees from PA prisons as conditions for national reconciliation. Increasingly, this agenda is getting a sympathetic hearing among key Fatah power centers. Yet it is one that Abbas not only rejects but also cannot accommodate without effectively renouncing everything he represents. Given his propensity for sheer political folly, the last thing he needs is a joint platform with Mitchell from which to attack Hamas and denounce Palestinian resistance, volunteer his government as the conduit for assistance to the Gaza Strip, pledge fealty to a peace process in partnership with Israel under US auspices and publicly call for secret negotiations to work out a political agreement.  

Fatah as well as the PLO are in a state of meltdown, and every day Abbas remains at the helm serves to only prolong the agony and increase the likelihood the patient will not recover. What both organizations desperately need is an agreement with Hamas, rather than a new round of talks about talks with Washington that are predicated on the illusion of reconfiguring the Palestinian political system to Abbas’ advantage.

In the meantime, Hamas is preoccupied with its relations with Israel. As the January 27 incidents show, the existing ceasefire is highly volatile for the simple reason that it consists of two unilateral initiatives rather than an agreement, with no similar measures regarding key issues like the blockade, smuggling routes and a prisoner exchange. No less importantly, the war has increased rather than lessened Hamas’ determination to lift the blockade. Israel’s position, that reconstruction assistance will only flow into Gaza after Hamas agrees to an indefinite suspension of hostilities and the tunnels under Rafah are put out of commission, is rejected by the Islamists as an Israeli attempt to extract in Cairo what it failed to achieve in Gaza and a recipe for permanent occupation. If Israel continues to reject an agreement that essentially reflects the conditions of the Egyptian-mediated 2008 ceasefire, and particularly if Egypt and the Europeans continue to withhold assistance until Israel expresses satisfaction with Hamas’ positions, a second round of fighting remains a distinct possibility. How Mitchell intends to produce a durable ceasefire, with the limited toolbox in his possession, remains something of a mystery. Insisting he will neither visit Gaza nor engage with Hamas — at a time when Israel is all but ignoring Abbas and focusing on Egyptian-mediated talks with the Islamists — he has once again produced a situation where US diplomacy is hamstrung by being more pro-Israel than Israel itself.

The Real Test

Yet the larger question is whether, even under the best of circumstances, Obama can achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. In other words, assuming for the sake of argument that Washington leapfrogs the processes and “road maps” to implement rather than negotiate a two-state settlement; gives the Palestinians the space required to resolve their differences rather than deepening them in the hope its favored clients emerge triumphant; ceases making demands of the Arab world that give peace and negotiations a bad name; and is able to stare down Israel and domestic pressures and stay the course, can it succeed?

On the available evidence, it is almost certainly too late to implement a viable two-state settlement. Israeli settlement expansion appears to have proceeded too far, for far too long, to be able to be reversed by an Israeli government that can remain legitimate, even if genuine US pressure is bought to bear. The real test for Washington will therefore be not how often Mitchell shuttles to and around the region, but how rapidly it acts to freeze Israeli settlement expansion in all its forms and reverse Israeli impunity in the Occupied Territories. If the issue of settlements, the elephant in the room left unmentioned by the speakers at the State Department on January 22, has still not been seriously addressed by the time Mitchell returns from his first trip (and in 2001, recall, he only said Israel should “consider” a freeze if the Palestinians effectively disarm), it will be time to write the two-state paradigm’s definitive obituary.

The problem is that the death notice will not be accompanied by a birth announcement for a binational state. With the vast majority of Israelis committed to retaining a Jewish state, and the vast majority of Palestinians in response demanding that their ethnicity be privileged in their own entity, a South African-type transformation on the Mediterranean is at best many years away. The more likely scenario, for the coming years, is a descent into increasingly existential, and regionalized, conflict.

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani, Chris Toensing "The Continuity of Obama’s Change," Middle East Report Online, January 27, 2009.

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