Tortoise and Obama: Racing Against Time in the Middle East

By James Gundun

Nobody likes anti-climax, except for maybe Israel. After heightened speculation that President Obama was hammering out his own Middle East peace plan, the smoke cleared and left nothing behind. Apparently Obama has no new plan, only the desire to mediate negotiations between Israel and Palestine. But was it wise to flicker out after all the buildup? President Obama has very low odds of signing a two-state solution in two years, which apparently is the deadline he’s set.

Israel is more like the hare in this race, confident of winning and prone to lapses in judgement. Never believing the Palestinians will catch up, Israel has grown accustomed to acting unilaterally without fear of reprisal from America or the international   community. But while Israeli is in a rush to beat the demographic trends of Palestinians, President Obama is in an even greater rush to win Muslim popularity. Everyone knows how this fable ends.

Obama will encounter fierce resistance from the Palestinians if his intention is to mediate a two-state solution within a two year deadline. Without a new plan Obama is signaling he’s going to stick with Israel, the only actor celebrating the status quo. Of all the arenas he has stepped into, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is most immune to Obama’s oratory.

Beautifully crafted rhetoric won’t convince either side to compromise on core demands like Jerusalem or the rights of refugees. What he needed was a moderate plan and  courage. Now President Obama is resting his full weight on the Arab Peace Initiative.

But the stress may prove too much.

The Arab Peace Initiative isn’t aligned with Israel’s demands. It must be modified to succeed, but weakening the Palestinian side of the Initiative is bound to insult King Abdullah. Palestinians aren’t likely to settle for anything less than the Initiative outlines either, leading one to wonder what President Obama is hoping to sell. Palestinians aren’t buying Israel’s arguments and continue to lose faith in fair negotiations. Settlements are the tip of the iceberg, buying refugees off is insulting, and Israel wants all of Jerusalem.

The middle ground of this conflict is like hunting for Big Foot – it may not exist.

Especially confusing is why President Obama believes he can strike a deal based on the Arab Peace Initiative within two years when all evidence on the ground suggests a two-state solution is more than two years away. Obama can’t even obtain a settlement freeze in eight months, so how can he finalize two states in two years? Only one factor truly dictates a rushed approach: the Gaza blockade. Gazans don’t have the time that West Bankers have, but as Obama still refuses to open a dialogue with Hamas, Gaza doesn’t seem to be his motivation.

The realist reason for such haste is Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s recent unilateral proposal for a Palestinian state. If the cause was noble, in that Obama wants the diplomatic process to align with PA movements on the ground, then pushing for two years to synchronize with Fayyad’s plan is a good idea. But this theory isn’t plausible. Rather, Obama has heard an outpouring of Israeli acrimony after Fatah’s convention and is trying to fend off Fayyad’s momentum. He definitely put pressure on Israel, but then it passed to Obama. Now he’s feeling the heat.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spearheaded the assault, telling reporters, “Palestinian unilateral initiatives do not contribute to a positive dialogue between the parties, and if the unilateral initiative presented by Salaam Fayad is promoted, it will not go unanswered.”

Palestinians can only laugh in uneasiness believing that most unilateral initiatives come from Israel, yet apparently they remain the problem. The peace process isn’t’ moving anywhere at this rate. President Obama must reconsider his strategy, which is too dangerous to employ. He seems to relying on personal character to mediate negotiations, ignoring the fact that this conflict isn’t about him. Yes he is popular around the world, but definitely not in Israel and only marginally in Palestine.. Goodwill alone, even if he had Israeli favor, cannot alter the reality in Jerusalem. He’s going to need lots of time, so why set an impossible deadline?

It’s not easy coming up with alternative solutions in Israel and Palestine, but what can be helped is taking the foot off the gas. Obama and his team have been racing full speed for eight months and the peace process has barely moved. While he’s understandably eager to end the conflict and score Muslim popularity, he’ll only lose when he fails to meet his own criteria. Working with Fayyad may postpone his deadline – if progress is visible. Slow and steady is likely to win this race.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a marathon, not a sprint.

 – James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to Palestine Contact him at:

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