“Yes We Can” Meets “No We Won’t”

Obama’s attempts to broker Middle East peace are doomed to fail—for now.

George Mitchell and Israeli President Shimon Peres

Between them, President Shimon Peres of Israel and former Sen. George Mitchell share 162 years of experience in high-flying diplomacy. Peres was born Aug. 2, 1923; Special Envoy Mitchell—President Barack Obama’s peace-process handyman—was born exactly 10 years and 18 days later, on Aug. 20, 1933. Last Sunday evening, the two of them sat down together to talk about Washington’s Middle East peace initiative. So much experience—and so little opportunity to put it to proper use. “We must not let the month of September pass without a new beginning and starting negotiations,” Peres said. As if September had some special significance. Everyone involved had let August pass, July pass, and June and May and April pass without “a new beginning.” Why not September?

Last week, Peres met—secretly, because meetings don’t matter anymore unless they are secret—with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and told him pretty much the same thing. But the Palestinians seem unconvinced. They’ve made a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel conditional on a construction freeze in the settlements. That might be a problem, considering what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, just hours before his first meeting of the week with Mitchell. “I told the Americans that we will consider scaling down construction,” the prime minister confided. Scaling down is less than freezing. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants an excuse to avoid Netanyahu, he will not have to sweat over it. The excuse has been provided for him.

President Obama was planning a trilateral meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of next week’s U.N. General Assembly, and Mitchell worked overtime this week to make it happen. But, suddenly, even getting the parties to a meeting is a challenge. Not to mention the difficulty of getting other Arab countries to make some kind of gesture to show they will be supportive of the relaunched peace process: Obama’s request was rebuffed by the likeliest—and most important—candidate to make such a gesture, Saudi Arabia. It was rebuffed privately—and later also publicly. The Saudis will “refuse to engage Israel until it ends its illegal occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights as well as Shabaa Farms in Lebanon,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

So even if there is a meeting next week or in the following weeks—even if the parties grudgingly agree to “negotiate”—it is clear to everyone involved, except for the overeager Americans, that success is unlikely. Because while Obama is running as fast as he can, all the Middle Eastern players are convinced that they had better move slowly. When he said, “After me,” they all replied, “After you, and him, and him, too.”

Netanyahu has no desire to make political or strategic sacrifices before he sees some progress on the Iranian nuclear front. Abbas and the Palestinians—and some other Arab leaders—are still hoping that if they wait, Obama might be drawn into pressuring Israel a little more. Arab states are reluctant to move before the Palestinians do. The Syrians want to make sure that they bet on the right horse—and will not abandon their Iranian card while it is still valuable. In short, the Obama administration had hoped that by showing enthusiasm and dynamism it would ignite positive momentum. Instead, it had raised false expectations and now faces a credibility gap.

Even if there is a trilateral meeting in New York next week, it will be a meeting of the disappointed, the nonbelievers, and the very hard-to-please. Netanyahu was amazed and offended by “unprecedented” American pressure. Abbas was offended by America’s broken promise that it would make sure all Israeli construction in the West Bank, Jerusalem included, would be stopped. That is an old and familiar Middle East tactic: Be sure you always seem hurt and frustrated in the hope of getting more of that precious American prodding.

It’s been eight months since the Obama administration ducked all skeptical speculation to the contrary and decided to invest heavily in a peace process that didn’t present any feasible opening for breakthroughs. In that, it was following the cheerleading of the politically motivated and the uninformed and ignoring what real experts advised: “First, do not overreach for a full agreement right away, but launch an effective U.S. peacemaking role—active, yet patient and incremental.” This is also the exact opposite of what the New York Times counseled, yet again, earlier this week, when an editorial complained that too much time had been spent already “on confidence-building and incremental diplomacy.” In fact, incremental steps seem to be the only ones that can actually work.

Obama—and now that we know him better, it is less of a surprise—was reaching for the stars and reaped no more than a handful of air. “Yes we can” ran into “no we won’t.” Israel will not freeze settlements, Palestinians will not soften their demands, and Arabs will not lend a hand. And, by the way, Iran will not halt its nuclear program, Russia will not vote for stronger sanctions, Lebanon will not have a Hezbollah-free government, and Syria will not arrest terrorists crossing into Iraq. Not until they have better reasons to do what Obama wants them to do. Not until he shows them that he can also wait for them to make a move.