President Barack Obama boasts that he’s a good poker player. On Middle East policy, he seems to be betting all his chips on a high-stakes gamble. It’s not clear yet, though, whether the gamble is working or what the ultimate outcome will be.

Months ago, the president and his advisors decided to stake the prospects for Middle East peace — and the U.S. reputation — on a non-negotiable demand that the Israelis halt all settlement expansion. There were to be no exceptions, no loopholes. But now it seems the demand was really quite negotiable — which seems to show that the world’s only superpower was only bluffing.

That could give credence to the charges that Israel really pulls the strings in Washington. The administration’s vague, evasive explanations only add to the perception of uncertainty and weakness.

But diplomacy is all about the difference between perception and reality. Part of a diplomat’s job is to bluff, to create public images that mask what’s happening behind the scenes, where the real action is. Another part is to create images that help the diplomat manipulate the secret negotiations, while the real truth remains hidden until it’s time to announce that the deal has been cut.

That’s what the Israelis and Palestinians did back in 1993. While the Palestinian Liberation Organization publicly declared ongoing enmity with Israel and Israel still had a law forbidding its citizens from talking to the PLO, the two sides were holding secret talks in Oslo. When they stunned the world with a public agreement, no one complained about the deception. In diplomacy, it’s the end result that counts, not the illusions along the way.

Then there’s another cardinal rule of diplomacy: Always start by demanding what you really want, but then expect to make compromises. So, despite the administration’s insistence on a total building freeze, the State Department has officials saying to reporters: “The settlements aren’t the be-all, end-all” of American policy efforts. Israeli announcement of new West Bank construction “doesn’t mean we’re going to stop working toward setting the conditions for negotiations.”

Indeed, The Los Angeles Times reports, “U.S. officials said privately that they never had expected to win a total settlement freeze and noted that Mitchell had avoided stating this as an objective” — though that may be an after-the-fact excuse for an administration that seriously expected to win a total freeze but couldn’t get it and decided to back down.

Eventually a tough negotiator may issue a take-it-or-leave-it deal. But that comes only at the end of the process. Along the way, everyone at the table knows that the other parties are asking for more than they can reasonably hope to achieve. If the diplomacy is skillful, everyone will be able to claim some kind of victory, and the compromises will soon be forgotten. Judging the administration’s Middle East strategy by these traditional rules of diplomacy, the charges that the president is caving in to Israel are premature. It’s far too soon to say who is really stronger than whom.

Jewish Peace Groups Optimistic

The largest Jewish peace groups are giving the administration high marks so far. Their Washington staffers won’t predict exactly what Obama might propose, or when. But Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now (APN), sees political wisdom in the unpredictability: “Obama is smart to not lay out specific parameters, since any ‘Obama parameters’ would then just become the focus of the debate.” She said she hopes that whatever strategy he puts forth will be “well choreographed,” with Israeli and Palestinian buy-in secured in advance for a negotiating process in which the United States will be active.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow directing Middle East peace initiatives at the Century Foundation and the New America Foundation, agrees that the United States “will shepherd the talks,” though he hopes that the shepherding will be aggressive enough to bring success. A strong hand is needed, some say, because the Israelis and Palestinians have shown that they are incapable of forging a peace on their own.

Can the administration provide that strong hand if it is already backing down on its no-settlement-expansion demand? Deepa Domansky is Washington Liaison for Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a group that has launched a “We’ve got your back, Mr. President” campaign to build Jewish support for Obama’s Middle East policy. She says: “While a complete settlement freeze would be optimal in laying groundwork for renewed negotiations, practically speaking though, the United States does not have to have perfect decisions about settlements before negotiations.” In fact Obama might be leaving the issue unresolved to give the United States some “political capital” that it can use in negotiations down the road.

For APN’s Friedman, the administration’s insistent focus on settlements has the potential to be a “game-changer,” giving new life to the prospects for final status negotiations. “We’d prefer to see Israel stop all settlement activity, permanently, but we can’t let getting a ‘perfect’ settlement freeze be the central issue,” she says, if that might block overall progress toward an agreement that could end the conflict and definitively resolve the settlement issue.

The test of success, she says, is not whether there is a 100% stop in activity, but “whether the freeze that Israel agrees to undertake is serious enough to catalyze the kind of political process and negotiations that can once and for all resolve all the final status issues — including settlements, at which point the whole issue of a freeze is no longer relevant.” Levy agrees that once the border issue is resolved, the settlement problem will be laid to rest too.

Keeping the Voters Happy

To reach that point, U.S. policymakers can’t ask either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to commit political suicide. They have to offer both leaders some way to please their voters, because both face the same political problems.

As recent research shows, most Israeli and Palestinian voters want to inflict symbolic defeats on the other side. What Israel wants to win above all, according to its leaders, is recognition of its right to exist (as a Jewish state, they sometimes add). What Palestinians want to win, beyond the end of occupation, is Israeli admission of the wrongs done since 1948. But those concessions will be hard for Netanyahu and Abu Mazen to make. Both have to deal with hardline voters who refuse to accept any symbolic defeats. Those hardliners are a minority of the electorate on both sides, but they carry enough weight to bring down the government if they get really angry.

And if it looks like the other side is winning too many symbolic victories, centrist voters will turn against their government too, insuring political disaster for the leaders. So the Obama administration has to find ways to let both sides inflict some symbolic defeats on the other, helping both leaders make credible claims of strength.

The Palestinians can never claim to be tougher than the Americans. They’ve got to win their victories against Israel. Netanyahu’s public embrace of a two-state solution, and his private decisions to approve no new settlements for five months and to cut back Israeli arrests of West Bank Palestinians, are a good start for Abu Mazen. Now he can tell his voters, “If the United States has forced Netanyahu to make such compromises already, we can expect that they’ll force him to make more compromises as negotiations proceed.” And when settlement expansions are announced, Abu Mazen can publicly proclaim his strong opposition. The strategy may already be working; some polls show support for Fatah growing while pro-Hamas sentiment weakens.

The Israelis, on the other hand, can create the impression of being tougher than the Americans by refusing to accept a total settlement freeze. Like so much else in diplomacy, this may be a matter of image obscuring reality. In what The New York Times’ Isabel Kirshner calls “the strange and arduous choreography of Middle East peacemaking,” the recent announcement of new construction permits “was not seen as likely to derail movements toward renewing stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.”
Israel will apparently agree, for the first time, to a temporary freeze. And, as Ha’aretz headlined, the ballyhooed “‘New’ settlement projects aren’t really new.” Most were re-approvals of projects already initiated. The Israelis may well intend to use these projects as bargaining chips in future talks; construction can be cancelled at any moment. For now, though, seeing the United States back off from its demand for a total settlement freeze has made plenty of Israeli Jewish voters happy, especially the right-wingers.

And that has made Bibi Netanyahu happy. Had he accepted Obama’s dictate, right-wing wrath would likely have brought down his government. And (as an Israeli analyst noted) if there were “no Israeli government, the peace process [would] be set back even further.” Now, Bibi can say that “if the United States has made such compromises already, we can expect that they’ll make more compromises as negotiations proceed.” He’s already won broad (if grudging) right-wing acceptance of his strategy.

In effect, U.S. compromises substitute for Palestinian compromises. Many Israeli voters, especially on the right, may not care much who they inflict their symbolic defeats on — the Palestinians or the Americans — as long as they’ve got some tough opponent they can beat.

The trick here is to find the right balance: to limit Israel’s public victories so that the Palestinians don’t feel like losers, and vice versa. But there are many ways to fall off this high-wire. And that’s the greatest risk for Obama and his administration. They could make an all-out push for Middle East peace, put their prestige on the line, and end up with nothing to show for it but an image of embarrassed impotence.

Battle on the Home Front

That isn’t likely to happen if the administration is free to put all the pressure it wants on both sides. When Bosnian leaders were caught in a seemingly intractable conflict, the United States brought them to Dayton and forced them to keep talking until they reached an agreement. Nothing is likely to stop Washington from putting similar pressure on the Palestinians, who have no supporters in the United States strong enough to restrain the administration.

The Israelis are a different story. Not only do they have well-entrenched allies in Washington, they now offer a rich opportunity to the conservative-dominated Republican party, which wants to inflict symbolic defeats on the president every chance it can get.

The right is accustomed to controlling the issue effortlessly, with the help of the once-powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Though U.S. presidents have always been able to impose their will on a recalcitrant Israel, they’ve rarely done so, because the political price at home has been too high.

But now we are in a new political world. Obama signaled the change when he invited J Street and APN to his White House meeting with leaders of major Jewish organizations. Obama owes groups like these a political debt, because the pro-Israel, pro-peace community is now beginning to provide a counter-balance to AIPAC and other right-wing groups, who have traditionally defined what it means to be “pro-Israel.” That gives Obama more room to make whatever policy choice he wants — a luxury previous presidents have not enjoyed.

What’s more, it’s not a strictly partisan issue. Though most candidates favored by J Street are Democrats, the lobby has also endorsed Republican House members like Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Geoff Davis (R-KY).

Some of the old-line Jewish organizations are “nervously looking about,” Domansky says, trying to grasp this new situation of a U.S. president making serious demands on Israel as well as its neighbors. And they still have a loud media megaphone. But she is confident that Obama has more Jewish backing than “some of these louder voices would suggest,” pointing to polls showing that the 78% of Jews who voted for Obama still give him strong support. And as Friedman notes, it will be hard for the right-wingers to disagree with Obama “if Netanyahu is already agreeing with him” on the need for peace talks.

Still, getting the talks going is just the beginning. They are likely to drag on at least into 2011. According to Israeli pundit Aluf Benn, Netanyahu has agreed to bend to Obama’s wishes (despite all the public kicking and screaming) in return for Obama’s promise to do “Iran first…The Palestinians will have to wait their turn and pass the time in empty talks until Iran is restrained.”

Then there is Hamas, the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. Levy and Friedman agree that there is no way to secure a lasting peace “without at least serious participation of Hamas” (as Levy puts it), though the form of Hamas participation is negotiable. If no Fatah-Hamas unity agreement is forged, Hamas might be seated at the table as a separate party or as part of some Arab delegation. Although “Israel’s right to exist is not subject to negotiation,” Friedman adds, “recognition of this right ought not be a precondition for talks” — yet another diplomatic knot that will have to be disentangled.

Toward 2011

We can expect more compromises on all sides, including from the United States, before the process is done. With so little domestic political clout supporting the Palestinian side, Obama will feel most pressure to let the Israelis have their way and win more symbolic victories.

But Israel and Palestine will not achieve a lasting peace unless the United States forces them to keep their sights set on the goal of peace, not just scoring symbolic points. Will the administration have enough political freedom at home to exert that force over the many months, probably years, of negotiation? That’s the great unknown.

It will not be decided in Jerusalem or Ramallah but in Washington, where decision-makers always have their fingers up, checking the political winds blowing from all 50 states. If the breeze from the peace movement — especially the Jewish peace movement — keeps on growing as it has in the past year or two, Obama will have the freedom he needs to keep the pressure on both parties at the table.

That’s ultimately the gamble the president is taking. The outcome is not up to him. It’s up to the peace movement — all of us who recognize that peace and a truly independent Palestinian state are just as important for Israel and the United States as for Palestine — to turn the breeze we’ve already created into a gale strong enough to be felt constantly in the Oval Office and in the Middle East.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog.

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