The strangest thing about the newest round of talks between Israel and the Palestinians is that neither side wants them. In fact, there is only one party to these negotiations that does want them, and that is the United States or, more precisely, the Obama administration.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently sitting on a relatively comfortable status quo. Both the Israeli and Palestinian economies are doing well, violence is at a minimum, Fatah is cornered politically between Israel and Hamas, and the rightwing members of his coalition who are opposed to any territorial concessions on principle are relatively happy. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is not in nearly as sanguine a position, but he is not doing particularly badly either. He has maintained his office despite his unpopularity, prevented Hamas from taking power in the West Bank, and led the Palestinians into a growth economy that is finally reversing some of the damage done by the second intifada.
Neither man, in short, has the slightest interest in upsetting the apple cart.
In fact, only one man does. With the American economy still sluggish, his administration distracted by what it considers to be peripheral issues like the Park51 mosque, his poll numbers collapsing, and with no substantial foreign policy achievements whatsoever to boast of, Barack Obama is put simply, desperate for a win.
This is particularly true in regard to the Middle East. Despite campaigning on a pledge to bring revolutionary change to the region by reversing his predecessor’s ostensibly disastrous policies, Obama’s record on the Middle East thus far is not only inferior to that of George W. Bush, but inferior to that of nearly every other president in recent memory. If he cannot achieve something here by the midterm elections, his presidency, at least in terms of this region, is probably doomed to complete failure. Hence, one imagines, the sudden push to bring the two sides to the bargaining table; as well as the not coincidental use of Hillary Clinton to do it. The president appears to have accepted, at least temporarily, his complete lack of credibility among the parties involved.
Unfortunately, this latest push by Obama, like his previous attempts at tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict, is likely to achieve precisely the opposite of the president’s intentions. Its most likely short-term outcome is the destabilization of a workable status quo and a possible resurgence in violence. Two deadly shootings on the roads of the West Bank over the past week may be warning signs that this has already begun. Ironically, Obama has sold his position on the Middle East on the grounds that “the status quo is unsustainable,” as his vice-president put it; but as a result of his policies, mostly driven by electoral considerations irrelevant to the Middle East, it is Obama himself who has rendered the situation unsustainable. A status quo may not seem like much to a man with messianic pretensions, but in the Middle East it is usually hard won and nothing to be trifled with.
The alternatives, one fears to say, are usually much worse, as this particular chief executive appears determined to learn for himself.