President Barack Obama's pledge to "aggressively seek peace in the Middle East" was taken from the tool box of George Mitchell's peace process. Make no mistake, Mitchell is a good man, who managed to advance the peace process in Ireland. The new American president should not be suspected of not intending to move aggressively ahead in promoting peace. There is even an expectation and longing for him to do so.
However, it is precisely former senator Mitchell's experience in the Israeli-Palestinian arena that should spur particular alertness. Mitchell, who in 2001 wrote a report on the outbreak of the second intifada that included a number of practical and wise proposals for a solution, told Aaron Miller, the adviser to six American secretaries of state, that "the administration expected that the recommendations included in the report would implement themselves" because there was no one in the administration to push for them.
In the Israeli administration, by contrast, there were those who torpedoed these recommendations, as well as the recommendations of George Tenet and the road map, which appeared later. The secret of the plan's failure and the success of the Israeli manipulation lies in three words: "Confidence-building measures." This was the trip-wire on which the whole initiative got tangled.
Every anti-Israel item in the Palestinian media, every incitement, real or imagined, every shooting, intentional or not, became the ultimate test of those "confidence-building measures." Each side was preoccupied to the point of madness with collecting proof of one side's tearing down the other's confidence. The Israeli goal was to block the move from confidence-building measures to renewal of negotiations, and the Palestinians' goal was to prove that Israel was not meeting Mitchell's conditions. Each side waged a war of proofs to the American administration. The diplomatic negotiations were forgotten and the Mitchell report was filed away in an archive.
Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mitchell's representatives might, in about three weeks, encounter a new Israeli administration that will be "happy" to once again adopt the old Mitchell plan together with the landmine of confidence-building measures. When a trick works, one takes out a patent on it. The Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni will then pull out the faded road map and begin again to list the series of conditions the Palestinians must meet to be worthy of the title "partner." That is usually the way Israel acts when the Americans come to "give us a whirl" and advance the peace process.
"We certainly want peace and welcome any American initiative, but here is a list of our 14 or 24 objections," Israel usually says. Let's start discussing them first and later we'll see how we move ahead. After all, we do have to make it through four American years.
The Obama administration cannot work magic. It cannot make peace where one of the partners prefers settlements and the other does not really rule. But what it can do is place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into its Middle Eastern context; one in which the United States will not be only a mediator-adivser, who comes to put a few ideas on the table and leave a phone number for those interested, but a power with a vested interest, for whom the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is part of its national security alignment.
Such an understanding might lead the administration to talk directly to Syria, begin a serious dialogue with Iran, ensure that a united Palestinian government in which Hamas will be a partner is not unacceptable to it, and decide that the Saudi peace initiative is not just one component of a diplomatic initiative, but its most important component. Most important, it could lead the administration to clarify that confidence-building measures will no longer be a condition for peace agreements, but rather their outcome.
The peace agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, did not require early shows of faith before they were signed. This is a context in which Israel does not determine the basic conditions but joins them. This is the innovation Obama can propose if he really intends to chalk up an achievement in the region, and not just look on at plans that implement themselves.
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