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National Security / ANALYSIS

Three Leaders and the Third Rail of Foreign Affairs

Obama, center, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, 2010, at the White House.(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of James Kitfield
September 23, 2011

There are reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains among the most enduring in international affairs, and many of them were on display this week as world leaders gathered at the United Nations to contemplate a vote on Palestinian statehood. The three key players arrived in New York already boxed in by their personal histories of distrust, and by powerful domestic constituencies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who built a political career opposing Palestinian statehood, got another preview of just how lonely that opposition will prove for Israel. Having refused offers by Israel in the past that are more generous than he could ever get today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instead pushed for a Pyrrhic victory at the United Nations that could set back the actual cause of statehood for years. And after spending much of his first term and considerable political capital pushing for a breakthrough in the peace process, a much weakened President Obama arrived in New York with little to show for it other than jeers from political rivals that he is intent on “throwing Israel under the bus.”

In diplomatic circles it is fashionable to argue that to defuse the current crises in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these three leaders need to get back to a negotiating table. Almost no one talks about just how little of substance they would actually have to say to one another at this point.


“There is nothing the United States can plausibly do or say to produce talks that have even a reasonable chance of ending the conflict at this time, and indeed the most dangerous outcome would be a clever U.S. formula that restarts talks that are doomed to implode and dash expectations once again,” said Aaron David Miller, a former longtime Middle East negotiator and scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “If you are Barack Obama and you care at all about being reelected, this issue is also not worth sacrificing any more political capital on, period. It can only hurt the president over the next 14 months, and it can hurt him badly.”

That point was driven home by Texas governor and Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry, who stood blocks away from the United Nations and accused Obama of “appeasement” of Israel’s security, despite the fact that Israeli officials themselves have said that Obama has been a stalwart defender of the Jewish state. With polls showing a softening of support for Obama among Jewish voters in key swing states, a full-page advertisement ran in The New York Times this week claiming falsely that Obama had pressured Israel to “apologize to terrorists.” The convergence suggests that the hawkish, Israel-first coalition between Christian evangelicals and neoconservatives that drove U.S. policy for much of George W. Bush’s tenure remains a powerful force in the Republican Party.

The advertisement was paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose board consists of longtime Christian conservative Gary Bauer, and William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard who was an intellectual soul mate with many of the prominent neoconservatives in the Bush 43 administration. Both groups have long opposed any U.S. pressure to halt Israel’s settlement expansion, considered illegitimate under decades of U.S. policy and illegal according to international law.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in New York knowing that his quixotic quest for statehood at the United Nations invites painful retaliation by both Israel and the U.S. Congress, and risks a split with a sympathetic White House and the possible collapse of his own administration. Yet having staked his career and reputation on rejecting violence and negotiating a two-state solution, Abbas has lost patience with a peace process that has allowed the settler population in the occupied territories to nearly triple, and which has dragged on for nearly two decades with no political horizon yet in sight. European diplomats who have spoken with Abbas say that he feels humiliated, unable to walk the streets of the West Bank any longer for fear of the opprobrium of his fellow Palestinians. Abbas’ growing sense of despair that talks will ever end in Palestinian statehood is shared by many Palestinians.

“There’s a very, very slim chance that a two-state solution is still possible, but that window is probably only going to be open months and not years, because Israel is in a mad race to destroy the foundation of a Palestinian state with its settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it’s building of a security wall,” Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told National Journal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built his career championing settlements and opposing Palestinian statehood (which he once called an “incendiary bomb in the international fabric”), and he now sits comfortably atop a coalition that has reaped the benefits of a marked rightward shift in the Israeli body politic. As a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded, the growing demographic weight of Orthodox, nationalist religious, and Russian-speaking communities inside Israel is dramatically reshaping Israeli politics in a direction more supportive of Netanyahu’s hardline policies. “Israel’s Jewish population is more nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish on foreign policy and security affairs than that of even a generation ago,” wrote report author Haim Malka. “It would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders.”

While comfortable domestically, however, Netanyahu leads an Israel that is isolated regionally and internationally in a way not seen since before the original 1978 Camp David Accords. Once-close ally Turkey has recently expelled the Israeli ambassador for Israel’s unwillingness to issue an apology for the killing of eight Turkish citizens involved in the Gaza flotilla confrontation last year, and Israel has pulled its ambassadors from Jordan as a precautionary measure, and from Egypt after an angry mob recently sacked the embassy compound in Cairo. Saudi Arabia, which previously offered Israel recognition from the entire Arab League in exchange for a peace agreement, is now a chief supporter of Abbas’ independent statehood gambit at the U.N.

“Netanyahu and Abbas look at each other and see mirror images of mistrust, each convinced in his heart that the other does not really want a peace agreement,” said Michael Herzog, a retired general in the Israeli Defense Forces and an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Intellectually and analytically, Netanyahu understands the need to break the impasse, but given his ideological background and political constituency, it’s very hard for him to move forward, and the Palestinians are not making it any easier. At the same time Israel is confronting crises on too many fronts right now, and we need bold leadership just to avoid worst-case scenarios. Staying reactionary or standing pat on the status quo is not going to make things better for Israel. Quite the opposite.”

There’s another old diplomatic saw that the basic contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are well known to all sides, and it just needs an alignment of enlightened leaders with courage and political will to see peace over the goal line. It’s probably even true. Yet Obama has seen his Middle East peacemaking founder on the same shoals that sunk the efforts of his two predecessors in the White House, and that broke the perseverance even of a tested peacemaker like George Mitchell. Netanyahu knows the Palestinians have rejected offers from his two predecessors that neither he, nor his coalition, could countenance. Abbas feels the hot breath of Hamas extremists on his neck at all times, ready to pounce at any sign of weakness or capitulation. Everyone carries the memory and cautionary legacy of the peacemakers before their time, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Yitzak Rabin.

There’s a reason this conflict is considered the third rail in foreign affairs. 

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