Tripartite Threats: Obama’s Obstacles in the Middle East

By James Gundun

With expectations building to unrealistic proportions, American, Israeli, and Palestinians officials have started downplaying the looming tripartite summit on the UN sidelines. All sides insist the meeting isn’t a resumption of negotiations, though America seems eager to press the possibility.

While one official said, ‘These three leaders are going to sit down in the same room and continue to narrow the gaps,’ the Israeli press questioned President Obama’s motives and called the assembly a ‘tea or coffee’ meeting.

Though Israelis and Palestinians will likely stay frozen in brinkmanship, a propensity for disinformation and diplomatic posturing makes for a dangerous gauntlet. Obama must stay level headed and understand the limitations of his presence, unless he has some trick up his sleeve. Since a settlement freeze is unlikely from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have the breathing room to cave, the three men will likely exit the room as they went in.

The situation is frozen, in part, by a trio of threats Obama is unlikely to mention but must ultimately confront if he wants to sign a two-state solution.

Netanyahu, to his credit, is an open book. His personal opposition to a settlement freeze, refugee return, and division of Jerusalem are well chronicled. One of his officials told Ynet News, ‘The prime minister is ready to launch negotiations without preconditions, in order to promote peace with the Palestinians. He doesn’t want the Palestinians to be citizens of Israel or under its rule.’ But Netanyahu and his political base aren’t the only opposition to concessions – Israel may have the most anti-Obama public in the world.

A string of Jerusalem Post polls showing a 4% approval rating probably isn’t an accurate portrait, but they deliver the point. Only 12% of Israelis believe Obama is supportive of Israel, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and only 35% believe Israel would benefit from American intervention. 54% oppose the Arab Peace Initiative, the basis of Obama’s plan, and 52% oppose making concessions to implement it. Aside from real disagreement with his policies, the Israeli public believes that Obama is exploiting them to gain popularity with Muslims.

As such, Obama must be every bit as aware and sympathetic to Israelis as Palestinians and not tilt the pressure to either side. Obama’s challenge isn’t envious. He must  convince Israelis and Palestinians to compromise without looking like he’s favoring one side. A trip to Jerusalem and a speech to all faiths could prove beneficial. The need for Palestinian support goes without saying, but he needs to befriend the Israeli people if he wants to soften their leaders’ positions.

Unfortunately another threat will win him few friends in Israel. Hamas, a glaring hole in Obama’s meeting, cracks a little more each time Obama rejects its diplomatic outreach. The rockets have relatively stopped and though captured soldier Gilad Shalit has yet to see daylight, Hamas hasn’t quit on negotiations. Ignoring Hamas leadership seems especially dangerous given how entrenched the movement is. Obama can’t expect such nice words to last long.

Hamas Prime Minister Ishmail Haniyeh instantly condemned America’s blackballing as ‘no different that other administrations.’ He warned, ‘No one has the right to give up on Jerusalem or the (Palestinian) refugees. Not the PLO and no any other factor can sign an agreement hurting the Palestinian people’s principles and rights. Any agreement reached will not be respected by our people.’

But while Haniyeh means what he says, the door will likely remain open until Obama fully shuts it. Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal is seeking a dialogue, insisting, ‘We’re not courting anyone, but we are dealing with matters with openness and realism… As long as there’s a new language, we welcome it. But we want to see not only a change of language, but also a change of policies on the ground. We have said that we are prepared to cooperate with the US or any other international party that would enable the Palestinians to get rid of occupation.’

Obama can’t hope for any more of an opportunity. Hamas isn’t going to lay down its arms until the process starts moving, but rejecting Hamas outright will sabotage a two-state solution. First, simply holding control of Gaza will stall a Palestinian state and any violence will cripple negotiations. Second, Hamas and Fatah have tentatively agreed to elections in 2010. While Hamas is losing popularity, its support is enough to retain political power. In its most recent survey, the PCPSR found that Abbas leads Haniyeh 52% to 38%, not nearly enough marginalize Hamas.

Like with Hezbollah in Lebanon, America must deal with Hamas to deal with Palestine. Hamas may take on unique significance because the greatest threat of all to President Obama’s hope of a two-state solution is the blockade of Gaza. Simply put, there can be no Palestine while the blockade exists.

But bringing it down requires aligning contradictions. Israel must feel confident of its security which means engaging Hamas to neutralize the threat. Obama must advance negotiations but the blockade hinders them. The White House condemned the UN’s investigation into the Gaza war, but this is especially foolish given that Obama advocates empowering the UN and is hosting his meeting on its sidelines. Though he must improve relations in Israel, Obama must face reality in Gaza, but prosecuting Israeli and Hamas officials will destroy his support. So goes life in the Middle East.

Israelis, Hamas, and the Gaza blockade aren’t on the menu Tuesday, but their presence weighs heavily on Obama. 

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

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