Administration officials say they haven’t made any decisions — yet — but the buzz about an “Obama Plan” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is getting deafening.
Fanning the talk are administration leakers apparently eager to use the threat of a sweeping U.S. plan to pressure the Netanyahu government to move more aggressively on the peace front — and their counterparts in Israel, whose warnings of an “imposed” peace plan they insist would jeopardize Israel’s security are meant to stiffen resistance to the rumored policy shift in Washington.
Administration officials, while denying any policy shift is imminent, have been sending up flurries of trial balloons — starting with leaks to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who revealed details of a March 24 meeting between President Barack Obama and a group of former and current national security advisers. Clues also included Sunday’s comments by National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, who told reporters that there has been “no decision” on the issue of a U.S. plan — hardly a repudiation of the rumors swirling around the capital.
“The basic idea is out there,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. “If the Arab states get behind compromises they didn’t get behind in 2000, there might be some value to the idea. But while you can bridge over a river, you can’t bridge over an ocean; if the differences between the two sides haven’t narrowed significantly, it’s unlikely any U.S. proposals can work.”
Others argue that even hints of a U.S. plan will raise Palestinian expectations that Washington will do the heavy lifting for them, leading to more intransigence and a greater resistance to the kinds of actions — such as curbing Palestinian incitement — that might boost Israeli confidence in negotiations.
On the other side, analysts argue that a detailed U.S. plan that goes beyond simple bridging proposals is the only way to break the dangerous logjam created by negotiating partners locked into rigid positions by domestic politics as well as ideology.
“It’s long overdue,” said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Programs at the Institute of World Affairs. “An American plan that reflects what the parties themselves have already negotiated — which is almost everything — and add some American ideas and a timeline is the only way remaining to fulfill the dream of a democratic Jewish Israel.”
A U.S. plan is necessary because both sides are “scared and traumatized” into paralysis, she added.
But a plan based on the tacit agreements reached by earlier Israeli governments may not work for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the very least presides over a fragile right-of-center coalition unlikely to survive acceptance of an American plan based on earlier negotiations and at the most no longer regards those understandings as valid.
While the Obama administration has leaked only hints, most experts believe any U.S. proposal will be built on a foundation of the understandings that came close to producing an agreement at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001 and Annapolis in 2008, with nearly all West Bank land going back to the Palestinians but Israel retaining most settlement blocs; a face-saving agreement on refugees that excludes a Palestinian right of return to Israel; and a creative solution on Jerusalem that uses east Jerusalem neighborhoods incorporated into the city after 1967 to create a Palestinian capital.
So if such a proposal would include only elements the two sides have agreed on, why are the Israeli government and pro-Israel leaders here so opposed?
“You have to look at both the psychology and the substance; each element is important,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “On the psychology level, the announcement of such a plan at this particular moment could easily be read as a further attempt to accentuate the gap between Israel and the U.S. That would be problematic, especially in Israel.”
Harris said the Palestinians would “see the American proposal as the starting point for escalating demands,” while Israel would “presumably view the American plan as the endpoint. We saw that played out with the settlement issue last year, when suddenly the Palestinians adopted the American position as a precondition for starting talks, which they hadn’t been before.”
The deepening distrust of Obama’s intentions among the Israeli public, Harris said, also means political support for any new U.S. plan would be minimal.
“If I were a political choreographer, my first step would be to restore the traditional sense of trust between Washington and Jerusalem,” he said.
And Hamas’ continued rule over Gaza remains an indigestible mouthful for administration policymakers, he said.
But Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at the Century Foundation, said an American plan may be the only realistic alternative to an increasingly dangerous stalemate.
“All we have now is a two-state solution looking less and less likely, with ever greater damage to Israel’s international standing and to its democracy,” he said. “I can’t understand how people who claim to be concerned about Israel’s future continue to position themselves as supporting the status quo.”
A U.S. plan, he said, will work only if it is the first step in a comprehensive, sustained U.S.-led effort.
“We need to reassert the clear principles we claim to support but don’t act on, and then move forward assertively to implement them,” he said. “Just going back to stalemated negotiations isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, isn’t making any promises, but it is likely to support the kind of U.S. proposal likely to come out of the Obama administration, said the group’s policy director, Hadar Susskind.
“It depends on the details, of course,” he said. “But in general we do support the idea the U.S. should lay out the plan.”
Critics will call it an “imposed” plan as a way of mobilizing resistance here and in Israel, he said, but in reality “when you strip away what the right says, this isn’t about imposing anything; it’s about laying out guidelines and laying out the U.S. national interests in a way that will help Israel and the Palestinians end the conflict.”
Driving the opposition, Susskind said, are those who oppose any Israeli retreat from the West Bank or compromise on Jerusalem, and who in the past were able to hide behind negotiations that seemed to go around in circles.
“If your goal is simply to continue to stall, you don’t want to see a serious U.S. plan,” he said.
The opposition will be all the louder, he said, because of partisan politics, with Republicans using claims of an “imposed” settlement to frighten Jewish voters.
J Street’s likely support for a U.S. plan, if it is tabled, will add to fury of a pro-Israel establishment that rejects the group’s pro-Israel credentials, but the group’s backers say support would keep it in line with mainstream Jewish opinion.
The unveiling of a U.S. peace plan opposed by the Netanyahu government and pro-Israel leaders here could have political consequences in this country. But Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said a Jewish backlash would be minimal if Obama “offers his own proposal that follows the guidelines of previous understandings reached by the parties themselves.”
Indeed, the 2010 American Jewish Committee Survey of Jewish Public Opinion, with data collected in part during the recent U.S.-Israel diplomatic dustup, suggests no precipitous decline in the president’s approval rating among Jewish voters and relatively stable views about his handling of U.S.-Israel relations.
The reaction is almost certain to be different in Israel, where detailed U.S. proposals are almost always seen as “imposed” plans, he said. And it will be all the more intense because of factions that reject any territorial consequence, and regarded negotiations as a way of avoiding coming to that day of reckoning.
The Washington Institute’s Makovsky said that for all the recent leaks and trial balloons, a comprehensive U.S. plan is unlikely soon.
“There is a lot of gaming out there right now,” he said, “but I don’t think the administration will put out anything tomorrow.”
Still, the flurry of leaks and sensational headlines has “done some damage; it encourages the Palestinians to put their feet up on the table and say, ‘let the Americans do it for us,’” he said.
Makovsky, echoing much of the pro-Israel leadership here, said “the time is not right for an American plan. But you’d be foolish to think the administration will never try it. The more the stalemate continues, the more this idea will have allure to those who have been skeptical that direct negotiations between the current leaders will produce success.”
Makovsky believes the administration will move cautiously because it cannot afford failure.
“If they haven’t lined everybody up and this doesn’t work, the president has shot his final bullet, and we have nowhere left to go,” he said.
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