Obama’s opportunity

The Israel-Palestine problem has never been better understood, reports Donald Macintyre, but finding

Back in 2000, before what became the Camp David negotiations, Danny Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer who knows more than most about what Jerusalem as a shared capital might look like after a two-state deal with the Palestinians, was summoned by the Clinton team to the city’s King David Hotel. “We’re about to begin final-status negotiations on Jerusalem, Danny,” one of the president’s aides explained, “and we don’t know much about the subject. Can you help?”

Seidemann is a frequent visitor to Washington, DC. He recalled this meeting recently for the first time to some western diplomats in Israel in order to underline his argument that the Obama White House, in its understanding of the most difficult peacemaking issues of the Middle East, is far ahead of where Bill Clinton’s was in 2000. “What was quantum physics then,” he explained, “is high-school trigonometry now.”

But the story does more than reinforce the old cliché that, even as it becomes steadily more elusive, “everyone knows” the contours of an acceptable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also a reminder that several in the new US administration – including Barack Obama’s heavyweight envoy George Mitchell and his national security adviser, James Jones, both of whom have put in huge amounts of time here since Camp David – know those contours especially well. If grasp and knowledge were all it took, Obama would be in a much stronger position than most of his predecessors to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the cruel irony of the times is that a US presidency taking office with more capacity – and probably more will – to make progress in the Middle East than any other since Jimmy Carter’s also faces a uniquely unpropitious set of circumstances. Israel is about to have, in Binyamin Netanyahu, a prime minister who has never committed himself to the existence of a Palestinian state. The writ of the weakened Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, runs only in the West Bank. And the Israeli military offensive in Gaza early this year cost as many as 1,400 Palestinian lives – a very large proportion of them civilian – but left Hamas as firmly in control of the territory as ever.

US policy is still evolving against this background. The first choice is what to do about Hamas. Encouraging a Fatah-/Hamas-backed unity government, as most Palestinians and some European states (notably Britain) want, might help to avoid a political stalemate halting desperately needed postwar reconstruction in Gaza. (Mitchell suggested last month that the US was interested in the idea of a unity government.) But Israel is hostile and others – among them Tony Blair, as envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East (the US, Russia, the EU and the UN), and, to judge by her remarks in the region this month, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton – are sceptical. At the very least they would require Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to be in overall control. And while the independent Fayyad’s ability and integrity certainly fit him for the job, jealousy in Fatah, and suspicion in Hamas, may stop that happening.

But that still leaves the question of how determinedly Obama will pursue a lasting solution to the conflict. The minimalist option would be to “park” the Palestinian issue and concentrate instead on Syria. At best, Obama could coax Netanyahu to agree to a Golan Heights-for-peace deal. However, this was something Netanyahu promised before the election that he would not do. His doctrine of an “economic peace” with the Palestinians would then be put to the test. As Netanyahu keeps dropping the name of Tony Blair as a potential ally in this, Blair would be assigned to persuade him to lift restrictions that are still damaging the West Bank economy. The Americans would then intervene directly if and when Netanyahu tried to press on with the planned expansion of Jewish settlements, particularly in Arab East Jerusalem. Any such expansion would end any remaining chance of a two-state settlement.

It is Blair’s view that a future Palestinian state must be built from the “bottom up”. But this still leaves a huge question mark over Gaza, among many other sticking points. In theory, Netanyahu remains committed to further military means to remove Hamas. Could he be persuaded to pursue the vastly more realistic – and less bloody – course of reversing an economic siege that has destroyed the lives of ordinary Gazans while leaving Hamas intact?

The ambitious option would be for Washington to see a Netanyahu government as a mind-concentrating opportunity. The American-Jewish scholar Henry Siegman has argued, persuasively, that it is easier for a US president to confront a right-wing nationalist Israeli government than one which pays lip-service to the idea of a two-state solution. Any right-wing government will reject US policy and will be less popular even with the self-styled pro-Israel lobby in America.

Siegman argues that Washington should lay out clear parameters for a deal and apply sanctions to whichever side obstructs the agreement. Netanyahu probably would not fall into line. But the parameters would still be in place whenever his government fell – as it did in 1999, partly because of Tel Aviv’s deep rift with Washington.

Either way, something has become clear since the abject failure of the process started with such fanfare at the Annapolis summit in November 2007. In its own interests, in Israel’s and in those of the Palestinians, the United States can no longer expect the parties to reach a solution by themselves.