Obama on Middle East: Right Goals, Wrong Strategy

Friday, 03 Jun 2011 07:25 AM

By Alan Dershowitz

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Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back in Israel and President Barack Obama is back here, it is time to assess the effect their dueling speeches have had on the prospects for peace.

There is one factual conclusion on which the Israelis and the Palestinians completely agree: following President Obama’s recent speech — and repeated explanation of it — on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are further than ever from peace negotiations.

Obama has managed, in one fell swoop, to harden the positions of both sides and to create distrust of him by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

My criticism of the president is not directed at whether he is pro-Israel or anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian. In fact, I believe that his actions have not been motivated by any antagonism toward the Jewish state. He simply does not understand the dynamics of Middle East negotiation.

I am disappointed in him not because I support Israel (which I do), but because I support peace based on a two-state solution. I agree with President Obama about his “ends,” while disagreeing about his “means.”

Indeed there is little in the content of the president’s statements with which I disagree. Rather, it is with his negotiating strategy, his constant need to explain himself, and his utter tone-deafness to the music, as distinguished from the lyrics.

The president has asked the Israelis to agree to negotiate new borders based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps. But he did so without asking the Palestinians to agree to drop their demand that millions of so-called “refugees” — those who fled or left Israel during the 1947-49 Arab attacks against the Jewish state, and their descendents — be allowed to “return” to Israel.

New borders would be meaningless if this demographic bomb were to be dropped on Israel, turning it into yet another Arab state with a Palestinian majority. Everyone knows, as a matter of reality, that this is not going to happen, just as everyone knows that Israel will eventually give up most of the West Bank as it did the Gaza Strip. But it is critical to any successful negotiation that these two issues, borders and “the right to return,” be negotiated together.

The Israelis will never agree to generous borders for the Palestinians unless they are assured that their identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people will not be demographically undercut by “the right of return.” And the Palestinians will never give up their emotionally charged right of return unless that is an unambiguous prerequisite to achieving statehood with generous borders.

The Obama strategy, to demand generous borders from Israel first and leave the right of return to subsequent negotiations, is a prescription for stalemate.

The president also helped cement the status quo by expressing his agreement with Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, unless that terrorist group first renounces violence, accepts Israel and supports prior agreements.

The current position of the Israeli government is to invite the Palestinian authority to begin negotiations now, but to insist, as part of those negotiations and before any final agreement is reached, that Hamas either accept the president’s current conditions or be excluded from the government.

By appearing to go further than the Israeli government, by seeming to justify an Israeli refusal even to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until Hamas accepts those conditions or the Palestinian Authority rejects Hamas, the president has made it harder for the Netanyahu government to resist the demands of Israeli extremists who oppose all negotiations.

Netanyahu originally planned to come to Washington with a generous peace proposal to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. But Obama painted him into a corner and made him change his script by notifying him, as he was about to board his plane, that the president was going to call for Israel to return to its 1949-1967 lines, without also calling for the Palestinians to give up their right of return.

By thus pre-empting the prime minister, he forced him to become more defensive of Israel’s bargaining positions and less willing to offer specific, generous concessions. The result was a powerful speech in defense of Israel by Netanyahu, an overwhelmingly positive response from Congress, and a movement away from peace negotiations.

All in all, President Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to jumpstart the peace process have backfired, not so much because he favors one side over the other, but because of the ham-handedness of his negotiation strategy. A negotiator or mediator whose statements move the parties further away from the negotiating table than they were before he spoke deserves a failing grade in the science of negotiation.

There is now a widespread consensus that Obama should not have delivered the speech he gave, especially the part about the 1967 lines and land swaps. What the president should have done was to insist that both parties immediately agree to sit down and negotiate without any preconditions. It’s not too late. But it will take yet another “explanation” of what President Obama really meant in his ill-advised speech.

Professor Dershowitz’s most recent novel is "The Trials of Zion."

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