Now that the initial euphoria behind President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace initiative is settling into the reality of the region’s intransigence, a different picture is beginning to emerge, and it is none too bright.
What darkens the horizon is the fear that if President Obama’s efforts — spearheaded by veteran negotiator George Mitchell — do not meet success, the backlash may be disastrous for the region, for US foreign policy and for the Obama presidency.
For once there is a president in the White House who is truly dedicated to the peace process because he understands the impact that peace in the Middle East has on US national security. As well, the president believes that solving the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian dispute will impact positively on addressing other grievances in the region. While settling the 61-year old dispute is not going to solve all the region’s problems, a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and the Arab world will go a long way in bringing stability to the troubled region.
However, even if Obama is set on seeing peace in the Middle East, principal actors in the region seem less convinced that peace can be achieved at this point.
There are two reasons Obama’s initiative may fail.
First is Israel’s intransigence to cede on issues such as the settlements. This issue may become even more of a stumbling block now that Israeli President Shimon Peres has called on the right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu to form a government. Netanyahu has allied himself to the far right wing Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu — Israel Our Homeland Party — whom some consider to hold fascist tendencies not unlike those shared by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, the late Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria or Belgium’s Vlaams Blok. Netanyahu is against returning any land captured by Israel and very much in favor of keeping and expanding the settlements. A flexibility on the part of “Bibi” will depend directly on how much pressure Washington applies.
Now add Lieberman’s desire to expel Arabs en-masse and his views of Palestinians, whom ironically, as says Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the New America Foundation, have been in this land far longer than Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova. The ultra-rightist Avigdor Lieberman, far more so than Netanyahu, wants to see the settlements expanded.
Yet there is still room for optimism. History has shown us that it has always been the most hard-line Israeli prime ministers who have moved ahead in the peace process with the Arabs. Menahem Begin, considered one of the most conservative of Israel’s prime ministers, signed the Camp David peace accords with Egypt and returned the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for recognition by Egypt and the establishment of diplomatic relations.
And Ariel Sharon, the architect of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as prime minister withdrew from the Gaza Strip.
The second reason why the future of the peace talks is in jeopardy is Arab inability to reach a consensus before coming to the negotiating table. Inter-Arab squabbling, between Syria on the one hand and Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other, does little to help the overall Arab cause.
Several high-ranking Arab diplomats in Washington have voiced their opinion that the differences between various Arab countries remain a cause of great concern.
Already Hamas, who has been at the forefront of the dispute with Israel in recent weeks, has been saying it might seek to form a new front independent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Many diplomats and observers agree that President Obama’s peace initiative may very well be the last chance to settle the Middle East dispute. Failure at this point will guarantee decades of more conflict and violence. And if the past helps us predict the future in any small way, we can reach the following conclusions: with each passing decade since conflict began in the Middle East, the level of violence has grown exponentially and the issues have become more complex.
To miss this opportunity for peace would be regrettable to say the least. However, history will judge today’s leaders, and so will their children, especially if they are condemned to fight yet another war.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political editor in Washington, DC.