August 11, 2009

Devil Talk

President Obama and his officials believe a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is on the horizon, even if that means counting positives and ignoring negatives. His redrawn, soon to be released road map has a date with the brick wall of reality. In fact a two-state solution is probably a decade away, or more. Obama could use a devil’s advocate before he moves ahead with his strategy.

Avigdor Lieberman is happy to oblige. The Israeli Foreign Minister recently told a delegation of 29 US lawmakers that Fatah’s General Assembly, “has buried any chance of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians in the next few years.”

Lieberman’s comments encountered immediate criticism from the very lawmakers he just met. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, who spoke with Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, said, “I think that kind of pessimism, while perhaps realistic, is not helpful to moving the ball forward.” But since Hoyer admitted Lieberman’s realism, those who have no ball to move forward are free to explore reality.

A two-state solution is doomed until further notice.

Nothing diminished Obama’s impact like the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu to Israeli prime minister. The two leaders aren’t friends no matter what they say; Netanyahu loathes Rahm Emanual and David Axelrod, Obama’s senior advisers. Netanyahu’s policies, anathema to Palestinians, distort Obama’s vision while his very presence has altered the timeline. Obama likely dreams of the parallel dimension where Tzipi Livni, the Knesset opposition leader, became prime minister instead.

Livni has her flaws, eager to monger when war begins and as tough as Lieberman on Iran; she’s also Israel’s loudest advocate for a two-state solution and would have made Obama’s task a lot easier.

For one thing Livni would’ve chosen a different foreign minister. Lieberman is a public enemy in Palestine, an ultra-national Zionist who openly detests a two-state solution. When he told US lawmakers, “The Palestinians' radical and uncompromising positions on Jerusalem, the right of return and the settlement blocs create an unbridgeable gap between us and them,” most Palestinians would assume Lieberman is talking about Netanyahu and himself.

But Lieberman has a valid point against Fatah, whose convention was such an unorganized disaster that many Arab dailies are musing about its demise. Fatah did no favors for America and Israel, its major financiers, by releasing an exhaustive list of preconditions for negotiations. PA president and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas opened the conference with ambiguous references to “resistance” in the face of Israeli occupation. Fatah later issued a provocative statement demanding not just East Jerusalem but all of Jerusalem, and the release of Israeli-held political prisoners.

Now Israeli officials believe Fatah is Hamas lite.

Though denigrating Hamas beforehand, Abbas praised his “brothers” and encouraged them to reconcile with Fatah. Arab newspapers, on top of the Saudi King, routinely plead for the two factions to unite and jumped on Abbas to renew dialogue. Fatah is currently playing off Hamas for Western dollars, giving it no incentive to reconcile, but it should realize a united front could squeeze even more out of Israel. The West would have nowhere to run if the Palestinians monopolized their representation.

President Obama would break major ground by opening diplomatic relations with Hamas. Seven months of middling between Israel and the PA have yielded nothing more than a political brawl. Obama may not see the negotiating table for another year or two, and if final status issues do manage to be resolved, an isolated Hamas could spoil the implementation. Political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah provides a higher chance to uphold political agreements - Arabs certainly believe so.

But this pragmatic remedy is taboo, ensuring the conflict will never end.

Part of why Hamas has been isolated from Fatah, aside from its militancy, is the exact power that could turn a two-state solution into reality. King Abdullah revealed such in his letter when he predicted the power of a unified Palestine would prove unstoppable in diplomatic negotiations. Hamas and Fatah’s split weakens the Palestinian’s bargaining position, allowing Israel to dictate the negotiations. A united front would overwhelm Israel, therefore they’re kept apart. Were Obama to do the right thing and bring Hamas into the process, Israel would disown him.

With so many obstacles in front of him, President Obama may be wise to wait out the turbulence. War could flair at any moment, making patience risky, but he’s unlikely to meet success until Netanyahu and Lieberman are gone, until he can reunite Fatah and Hamas, or diffuse Iran’s nuclear program.

For now he’s stuck in the same pit that befell every former American president.

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